On 3 January, 10 years ago, the ground invasion stage of Israel’s 2008-2009 assault on Gaza began.
As with much else during what is known as Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli army exploited its massive military advantage to the full. Palestinians in Gaza paid a devastating price.
More than 1,400 people were killed in Gaza during the attack. The vast majority, some 1,200, were civilians.
Among them, few suffered more than the Samouni family.
Twenty-three members of the extended family were killed in two separate incidents on 4 January and 5 January 2009. Twenty-one of those perished in a missile strike on a house they had been ordered into by Israeli soldiers on the ground. The UN subsequently deemed the slaughter of the Samounis to be war crimes, but Israel – which denies the accusation – has never been held accountable.
The Samouni story is the subject of an Italian documentary by filmmaker Stefano Savona. Samouni Road won international recognition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where it garnered the L’Œil d’or prize for best documentary.
For Palestinians it has special resonance. For those of us from Gaza who lived through those dark days, it’s personal.
“It’s a very deep and special documentary,” said Rola Mattar, 25, a student from Gaza currently living in Paris with whom I watched the movie in the French capital recently. “I loved it.”
Rola barely stopped crying during the two hours the movie lasted. In spite of time and distance, memories of war are haunting. As we watched and cried, the sounds and images of war – the bombs and sirens, the pictures and footage of the dead and wounded – came back to us both, reviving the state of fear and anxiety we had both experienced.
We were both only in our teens then, but the memories are vivid. It was perhaps for that reason while watching Samouni Road, the really shocking thing for us to realize was that our traumatic experiences pale in significance compared to those of others in Gaza, like the Samounis.
“We think that we lived the war. No, we didn’t,” Rola concluded after the film. “We were scared of the sounds and the news. But those people were inside the bombings. They were the direct victims of airstrikes and bombs. I feel privileged how I lived in Gaza, and this is a bad feeling.”
The film’s sequence of events follows the narrative told by survivors of the Samouni family.
The key scene is the first. Here, Amal Samouni, a young girl who was injured and lost her father and brother during the attack, tells the director, in response to a question about what happened, that she doesn’t know how to tell a story.
Effective, harrowing and innovative
I believe Savona started the film with this particular phrase to remind the audience that the story of the Samounis is similar to so many others where people don’t know how to tell their own stories. It is the mission, the filmmaker seems to be suggesting, of filmmakers and journalists to tell these stories, to help people to find their voice.
This is a journey that an audience can also share, and is one of the reasons the film has such impact and immediacy.
The documentary includes videos and interviews with survivors of the Samouni family, some shot in 2009 just after the end of the war, others were filmed a year later. The film also makes extensive and innovative use of animation to show family life before, during and after the attack.
Hisham Abu Shahla, who was responsible for translation and editing dialogue, said the animation was necessary to include all those who died as well as to illustrate the extent of the destruction in Zeitoun, an area east of Gaza City, where the Samounis lived.
“We used animation to give life to people and places that were no longer there,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “It would have been impossible to make a film where the main characters and locations existed only in the memories of the speakers.”
Now pursuing a doctorate in political science, Abu Shahla moved to France from Gaza in 2009. Having lived through the war, he said, helped him in his translation, even if the work proved a harrowing undertaking.
“It took me a year to translate the film. Although I benefited from my background as a Palestinian from Gaza, working on the film was a deeply moving experience that helped me understand what those people went through.”
Innovative and touching, Samouni Road has reached beyond the usual crowd of exiled Palestinians and Arabs and solidarity activists. When I went to see it, I was pleased to note that most of the audience members were not only French, but from different age groups.
Jean-Claude Puech, 52, is a school teacher. He liked the mix of interviews and animation, he told The Electronic Intifada.
“I’m used to coming to this cinema to watch non-commercial films. I decided to watch this film after reading about its prize at Cannes,” he said. “It isn’t an ordinary film. The mix of interviews and animation is very meaningful and clear. The director conveyed his messages without the need to show any blood or dead bodies. This is rare and special.”
Adrien Pouyaud, 20, meanwhile, said he thought the movie represented a side of Gaza that is not commonly seen. A university journalism student, Pouyaud said mainstream media seldom portray such aspects of daily life in Gaza.
I was also impressed with the film. It avoids rendering Palestinians solely as victims and brings Gaza to life through interviews and the use of animation in a manner rarely seen.
The simple words of ordinary people from Gaza are also extremely powerful. What better way to talk to international audiences than to do so directly?
Mousa Tawfiq is a journalist formerly based in Gaza, now living in Paris.