Gaza play highlights difficulties for artists under siege

Gaza actors Inas al-Saqha and Ali Abu Yassin in the play Film Cinema. (Emad Badwan)

“Don’t people in Gaza love to see films like people anywhere?” aspiring filmmaker Hossam Abdel Latif asks. His wife, the more practical Souad, retorts, “Someone who can’t afford to eat is going to go to the cinema?”

The question of the arts in times of siege and occupation is one of the main themes in Gaza’s newest theatre production, Film Cinema, which opened on 4 August in Gaza City. A stage buried in film negatives, and adorned with a lone plump teddy bear, sets the scene of the three-person play.

“I’m Hossam Abdel Latif, and I want to make a film,” the would-be film director repeatedly begins, facing his running video camera, only to be repeatedly interrupted.

“Tomatoes, get your tomatoes! Ten shekels, come on and get them!” calls the tomato vendor on the street from offstage, the sound breaking into Hossam’s apartment-studio. Undeterred, Hossam begins filming anew until Souad rushes into the room: “Tomatoes, we must buy tomatoes. They’re just 10 shekels.” Souad’s interruptions continue: on the messy state of the apartment, her desire to have a baby, her loneliness.

The plot is simple — a filmmaker and the challenges he faces — but is embroiled with all that is life in occupied Palestine, making an amusing, and at times soberingly real, hour of theatre. Film Cinema recalls the last Israeli massacre in Gaza — but without reference to a specific time, it could be any of Israel’s military invasions of Gaza — and addresses the dreams and pressures Palestinians experience under the oppressive siege of Gaza. At the same time, the play shares the universal realities of marital spats and individual desires.

Souad, whose name ironically means “a happy woman,” anything but. She longs for a child of her own, misses her family who live outside of Palestine and desires more adoration and attention from a preoccupied husband.

Hossam has left his work to follow his dream. His pursuit continues to be interrupted by his wife’s lamentations, and the challenges of life in Gaza; nowhere is there tranquility, repose. It’s a constant struggle to find the quiet to think, plan, breathe or make a film.

But like the main character of Film Cinema, actors and artists in Gaza persist despite it all, including the destruction of one of Gaza’s finer theaters during last winter’s attacks. Film Cinema is the second theatre event this summer in Gaza, and more are in the making.

Theater-goers also seek relief in the arts or a semblance of “normality” in Gaza. The packed audience and its enthusiastic participation demonstrate how thirsty Palestinians in Gaza are for the arts, for a cathartic outlet.

While dealing with the serious themes facing Palestinians in Gaza, the play is on the whole a mischievous poke at life in the Strip, and many of the issues are equally applicable to life under the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Souad has left her family in exile to live in Palestine with her husband, Hossam. She and Hossam both downplay the severity of the siege to her relatives outside. “War, what war?” asks Hossam to Souad’s mother, sending cheeky kisses over the phone like any wary son-in-law a safe distance away from his mother-in-law’s embrace or scorn might do.

Much comic relief comes with the third character, Hammad, a colleague and friend from whom Hossam has borrowed the video camera to make his film. During the war, he rushes out to film while Hossam and Souad struggle to survive, ears glued to the radio for the latest news, trying to cook food over the old kerosene stoves and living without power, gas, water, or any safe place to go.

The play also addresses questions that many in Gaza are facing now: to leave Gaza, work outside, escape the oppression of life under siege and war.

“Man, go outside of Gaza and work,” says Hammad to Hossam. But Hossam asserts, “I’m not like you, I can’t leave my country. I like this country, despite all the problems.”

Directed by Hussein al-Asmar, the play stars veteran actor Ali Abu Yassin, who shed his own director’s suit to play Hossam Abdel Latif; Inas al-Saqha, who plays the role of distressed Souad; and Akram Ahbeyd, playing a manic Hammad.

Eva Bartlett is a Canadian human rights advocate and freelancer who arrived in Gaza in November 2008 on the third Free Gaza Movement boat. She has been volunteering with the International Solidarity Movement and documenting Israel’s ongoing attacks on Palestinians in Gaza. During Israel’s recent assault on Gaza, she and other ISM volunteers accompanied ambulances and documenting the Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip.