In July 2010, approximately 7,500 children gathered on a beach at Seifa in northern Gaza to fly kites. They were aiming to beat their own record for simultaneous kite-flying, set the previous year at more than 3,000.
The loose narrative of the new documentary Flying Paper is the preparations of a few of those children for the record-breaking attempt. Abeer, a 16-year-old aspiring journalist from Jabaliya refugee camp, follows the story, while brother and sister Musa and Widad (egged on by their grandfather) compete to build bigger, better and more beautiful kites.
“Kites are like genes, passed down and nothing changes,” says grandfather Musa, reflecting the generations of experience poured into the incredibly accomplished way in which all the children seem to be able to throw a functioning kite together in minutes.
Shot in part by a children’s project and following the activities of these kids, this could easily have become another whimsical movie about an art project involving Palestinian children.
Some of these — such as It’s Not a Gun or Michael Franti’s I Know I’m Not Alone — are well-meaning but ultimately frustrating because they focus on art and “peace,” without sufficiently interrogating the political context.
More deeply problematic, however, are films such as Dancing in Jaffa, which depicts a project to bring Palestinian and Jewish children together in ballroom dancing classes, but expresses its narrative in terms of “transcending geographic and cultural boundaries” and “dealing with hatred,” without acknowledging or addressing the fundamental injustices which bring about such divisions.
Such initiatives may provide Palestinian youngsters with space to dream and heighten their confidence — but how does that help them if the occupation continues to be the defining context in which they must continue their lives?
For sure, such films increase awareness of Palestine, and humanize Palestinians to an international audience. But how many films about art and children do middle-class, film-festival-going Western audiences have to see before they realize that Palestinians are, in fact, human beings? And how many more must they watch after that to take some kind of action?
Fortunately, Flying Paper rises above these tendencies.
Yes, it features the engaging presence of innumerable small children as they bicker, giggle, compete, create and, in one memorable sequence, undertake a hair-raising climb up walls and drainpipes to disentangle an errant kite. We see girls and boys demonstrating their dexterity with their kites, and chart solemn, handsome young Musa’s project to build a huge kite, strong enough to carry a video camera up to film the record-breaking attempt from the sky.
But the focus on a specific small number of these kids allows the expected mentions of the ever-present Israeli military to rise above their usual function as a commentary on the blighted innocence of Palestinian youth.
Because we hear repeatedly from Widad, Musa and their companions, we encounter more detail. We know which little girl claims to have been more or less frightened during the raids and shelling, or what the sounds of bombs and shells sound like to a particular child.
And because we get to know these children, it is all the more disturbing to hear one announce that “they used to take my grandpa and uncles away.”
In addition, Flying Paper doesn’t idealize the Palestinian society it portrays. The children may talk about solidarity and nationhood, but Abeer — credited as a co-producer on the film along with Anne Paq of the political photography collective ActiveStills — acknowledges her fear that social restrictions may stop her from becoming a journalist.
And faced with a kite bearing the names of dreams such as freedom and dignity, one little girl says that of all her rights, she values equality most, because of the difference that some people try to enforce between boys and girls.
Flying Paper is blessedly free from the clichéd orientalist soundtracks of some productions, and the documentary feel is neatly tempered by animated sequences. These start off disarmingly naive, but soon darken in tone. In one, the kite whose progress we have followed so far gets entangled in a barbed-wire fence. In another, it is homed in on by an Israeli drone, and caught up in its computerized crosshairs.
Some of these sequences, though, do seem to wander in odd directions. In one — which accompanies interviews with a fisherman from the Gaza seaport, who pleads with the Israeli navy to stop destroying his livelihood — the Israeli vessels are replaced with a giant, dragon-like sea monster which bites and lunges at the kite.
Is this a reference to legends such as Perseus and Andromeda, or Jonah, which locate sea-monsters off this very same coast? Or is it an attempt to translate the terrors of the military ships lurking just offshore into childhood terms?
It would be predictable for the climax of this film to be the record attempt on the beach in northern Gaza, and we are indeed treated to some wonderful footage of this unique event, with thousands of multicolored kites fluttering in the sea breeze.
But it doesn’t end there. Instead, the film carries on following Musa and Widad, returning a full year down the line to Widad, now wearing the ornate headscarf of a young woman, and Musa, also teetering on the border between boy and man, talking about responsibility and work. Along with exams they have to contribute time to the house or the family farm.
A year ago, their world could be taken up by kites; now, they are rapidly approaching adulthood. And in Gaza, as we see in their already too-old faces, adulthood is a very serious business indeed.
Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.