Directed by Alberto Arce and Mohammed Rjuailah, To Shoot an Elephant is a documentary film that offers an eyewitness account from the Gaza Strip during Israel’s assault last winter. During the attacks, when the Israeli military banned foreign journalists from entering the Strip, Arce managed to stay inside Gaza and filmed how medical teams and hospitals were targeted by Israeli forces while performing their duties. One day after receiving the Anna Lindh Journalist Award for conflict reporting for his articles on Gaza published by the Spanish daily newspaper El Mundo, Arce won the Best Director prize at the Dei Popoli Film Festival in Florence on 7 November 2009. The Electronic Intifada contributor Adri Nieuwhof met with Arce and interviewed him about the motivation behind his film.
Adri Nieuwhof: Can you tell us who you are and why you wanted to make the film?
Alberto Arce: I am a 33-year-old journalist from Spain. I am inspired by the support we received from internationals to our struggle in 1936. [In July 1936 Spanish generals launched a military campaign to overthrow the young, democratically-elected Republican government.] George Orwell participated in the International Republican Brigades and at the same time reported our war. I try to follow Orwell’s example. I followed the events in Palestine for five years and became aware of the media blackout in Gaza. I wanted to report on the collective punishment of the people in Gaza and decided to join the boat of the Free Gaza Movement [which set sail for Gaza] at the end December 2008. I wanted to break down the wall of censorship.
AN: Is To Shoot an Elephant your first film?
AA: No, it is my fifth film. I directed three films on Palestine and one on Iraq. All movies are filmed from the perspective of what civilians, local and international, can do during a war. We, civilians, have to do anything that is possible to stop a war. Collective punishment of the people in Gaza is not allowed under international law. I cannot accept that Israel does not allow journalists into the Gaza Strip. My film is also about defending the right to freedom of speech. I wanted to show the facts.
AN: How did Palestinians in Gaza react to your camera?
AA: The situation in Gaza is getting worse by the day. You cannot imagine the level of suffering. The civilians welcomed me and appreciated that I was there. There were two reporters from Al-Jazeera and seven other foreigners [documenting the attacks] in Gaza during the heavy military attacks. You know, the civilians on the ambulances are the real heroes. They were risking their lives every day to save civilians. One of them was shot [in front of the camera] by an Israeli sniper [while 16 emergency medical workers were killed while on duty].
AN: How do you feel about winning the Best Director prize in Florence?
AA: I am proud to have received the prize for the film I directed together with Mohammad. I trust it will help to reach a wide audience. After winning the prize people asked me if I was happy about it. But I will not ever feel happy about the film. [The] characters of the film are the civilians in Gaza. They are still trapped. During the military attacks I was one of them. The situation in Gaza needs to be changed, and it will only happen with international pressure to enforce respect for international law.
AN: How did the public respond to your film?
AA: A few people had to leave the cinema before the movie ended. I feel sad that they could not face the facts. People died in Gaza and I cannot wake the dead. The hundreds of children who died during Operation Cast Lead were human beings. It is not about statistics. The audience at the world premier in Florence remained silent after watching the film. I found that impressive. The film is cruel. It makes you feel you are part of this reality.
AN: Looking back on your stay in Gaza, what was the most difficult or moving moment?
AA: The worst was the first day. After the heavy bombing that day, our group of seven internationals got the offer to leave to save our lives. It took us three minutes to decide that we wanted to stay. At that moment I became a Palestinian, and I was no longer an international. That meant that we were also subjected to the bombing, to the random violence. You realize you are alive by chance. I did not want to be a dead hero, I want to be a living professional journalist and filmmaker. I cannot describe what it is like to spend a night under heavy bombing, to find out the next day that your neighbors died that night. Or what it feels like to be shot at, and the person in front of you dies, and not you. This violence is what Palestinians have experienced for 60 years. What would my life have looked like if I, as a five-year-old, saw my two schoolmates burned by white phosphorous?
AN: In which cities will the movie be shown?
AA: On our website www.toshootanelephant.com you can find the information. The film will also play a role in the sessions of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine. I would like to invite solidarity groups and activists to participate in a global free screening of the film on 18 January 2010, one year after the so-called “cease-fire” in Gaza. This global screening is organized to remind us that the situation in Gaza has not changed. On the contrary, it is getting worse. If you want to join in the global screening, you can contact me via the website.
Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland.