In Gaza, women filmmakers find strength behind the camera

Young women learning to become filmmakers at the Women’s Affairs Center in Gaza City.

“My career has always been a challenge for me — simply ‘to be or not to be’ — especially under such very difficult circumstances,” says Etimad Wshah. Wshah lives in the Jabaliya refugee camp, in the northern Gaza Strip, and is one of a small number of women filmmakers in Gaza. Since 1994 she has trained other women filmmakers at the Palestinian Women’s Affairs Center in Gaza City.

“In 1998 I was the first woman director to train both men and women and carry a camera in the streets of Gaza,” she explains. Wshah was trained by Canadian filmmaker Christine Necier, Arab filmmaker Imtiaz Diab and the Reuters news agency. Recalling a six-month stint studying filmmaking in Geneva, she states that “It was an interesting experience for me and it was rather a challenge for a girl from a refugee camp.”

Wshah has directed a series of films depicting various issues affecting women, including the topic of rape. Among the almost 50 women filmmakers she has helped train, eight were recently selected for an upcoming film festival in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“During the last Israeli war on Gaza I was impressed by the experiences of Gaza women during the war, so I was determined to produce films, portraying their situations. I directed four separate films called ‘War stories,’” she explains. Wshah adds that “A woman in the Zaitoun neighborhood in eastern Gaza city, who lost her husband, her children and her house was one of the most miserable situations I put a spotlight on.”

A woman trainee practices filming at the center.

Wshah admits that women’s creativity can face some challenges: “One of the most notable obstacles I have faced is the fact of being a woman in a conservative society. Shooting at night, for example, has been so difficult for us.” She adds that “the ongoing Israeli blockade of Gaza makes it difficult to obtain essential equipment.” Wshah’s dream is to become an internationally-known Palestinian female director, so that she can create more at an international level beyond Gaza’s borders.

Nour al-Halabi trained with Wshah from 2005 to 2006 before producing her own short documentaries. Al-Halabi echoes some of the difficulties her mentor spoke about including the difficulty of filming at night and the disapproval from some quarters about women being directors. But, she says, Gaza’s filmmakers are persistent: “Though we are few and we face many difficulties including financing and movement throughout the Gaza Strip, if we have an idea, we keep searching for professional screenwriters or cameramen, who are rare in Gaza.”

Currently Wshah is training is training eight filmmakers with the assistance of a colleague. One of the trainees, Nelli al-Masri explained that “I am here to learn how to be a director, despite all the circumstances and obstacles. Lighting a candle is much better than cursing darkness.”

All images by the Women’s Affairs Center.

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.