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Irish filmmakers show a new side to Gaza: 'We wanted to buck the stereotype, give them a voice'

Two Irish filmmakers travelled to Gaza to make a documentary about life there.
Aug 10th 2019, 11:01 AM 29,409 28

THINK OF THE Gaza Strip and you undoubtedly think of conflict: images of bombed apartment buildings and the tragic deaths of young people will spring to your mind.

But behind the conflict, almost 2 million people are living their daily lives on the small strip of land bordering the Mediterranean sea. Now an Irish documentary, called Gaza, aims to look at the lives of ordinary people in the area, showing the human face of a conflict where they fear people are too often being dehumanised. 

The filmmakers, Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell, met while Keane was researching a project on photographers working in conflict zones. He was put in touch with McConnell, who had previously undertaken a photographic study of surfers in Gaza. The two men discovered they shared similar feelings about the need for an end to the blockade on the strip; they also discovered that they had both grown up on the Irish border, in Ballyshannon and Enniskillen respectively. 

Source: Continuum Films/YouTube

Their documentary project began in 2014, coming to an end in 2018. It saw them spending extended spells of time in Gaza, including during the conflict in 2014. They wanted to, says Keane, “buck the stereotype” and show Gaza from the perspective of the ordinary people. 

Gaza is just 41 kilometres long and up to 12 kilometres wide. Bordering Egypt and Israel, its air and maritime space are controlled by Israel and entry to the area is tightly controlled. Gaza has been ruled, since 2007, by Hamas, the group which has fought several wars with Israel. An Israeli disengagement from Gaza took place 2005, which saw the Israeli army removing itself from the territory. Gaza is subject to blockades, which Israel says is to prevent Hamas from rearming itself and attacking Israel. Electricity and water shortages are part of everyday life there.

‘Horrendous situation’

Keane and McConnell wanted their documentary to be “the quintessential Gaza film”, featuring a “broad tapestry of the incredible people who actually inhabit this land”.

“[We wanted to] give them a voice because we very much felt that they were voiceless,” Keane tells TheJournal.ie of the Gazan people. “There was a concerted effort to dehumanise them at every turn and to create this notion that Gaza was just this terrorist pool. And the reality is so, so different to me – that goes on in a very small way,  a very small amount of people are involved in that. The rest of the people are just like me and you, trying to eke out a living and raise their families under the most horrendous situation.”

Given that the pair both grew up on the Irish border, did their experiences influence their filmmaking? “I think when you grow up with a conflict, you become acutely aware of how you’re represented,” says McConnell. “And especially in somewhere like Northern Ireland, where this conflict was so widely publicised over the years. But the reality of living in the conflict zone is that we all do the same, it’s just normal, everyday life, you know, and that’s never represented properly. So, exactly the same thing in Gaza. It’s totally misunderstood.”

And that’s at the heart of what this film is about, is trying to address that. And so we do that to try to immerse the viewer in everyday life, in the day to day, what may seem mundane to local people is actually quite fascinating.

Keane says people in Gaza “love Ireland because they feel that Ireland is one of the few countries that show support for the Palestinian cause”. 

Gaza 18 (Ahmed 2015) Source: Andrew McConnell

What is Gaza like, beyond the conflict? People there are “very friendly and open”, and even more so to foreigners, says McConnell. They faced few problems finding people willing to let them into their lives to be filmed.

On the first trip, he met Ahmed, a small boy who wants to grow up to become a fisherman. His father has three wives, and Ahmed has over 10 siblings. The house gets so crowded that he says he and his brothers often go and sleep on the beach.

In contrast to his story, in the film we also meet Karma, a highly educated 14-year-old whose mother works for the UN. While her family have a comfortable existence, it too is blighted by conflict.

The documentary doesn’t shy away from showing scenes of violence – it spends time with young men as they methodically throw rocks at Israeli tanks parked across the wire border from them.

But when they throw rocks, they are often met with bullets in return, and so we meet a Red Cross worker who spends much of his time ferrying young men to hospital for treatment. Some of these men lose limbs.

The film shows how nuanced this is. Why, some might ask, would these young men continue to throw rocks at armed soldiers, knowing what kind of response they would get? Still others might ask – why would these young men, living in a blockaded country, not throw rocks? The stark options available to young people – particularly young men – are explored here. 

Gaza 09 (War 2014) Source: Andrew McConnell

Sensationalism

It was no easy job to edit a film with so many characters – Keane likens it to being handed “a million piece jigsaw puzzle, with no picture on the box”.

And it is not a film that sets out to tell “both sides”. It sets out to tell one side: the side of the Gazan people. And a compelling and complex story it is. 

“Things aren’t black and white there,” says McConnell. He says the issue of the rock throwing, for example, is “addressed really well, because we have really articulate characters who speak eloquently of why exactly someone would decide to do that”.

The documentary underwent many different iterations. “It’s like, how do we tell this in a way that isn’t sensationalism to being overly biased, although we did tell it just from the point of view of the Gazan people, unashamedly, so we don’t make any apologies for that whatsoever,” says Keane. 

The two men underline how they want the documentary to keep Gaza “in front of people’s minds, and it can’t be allowed just to fall away and be forgotten”.

But they want, too, for it to be discussed how the conflict will be addressed, and what the political will is to change things.

Keane says the most difficult part of the film was not filming in a conflict zone. It was raising the funding – he maintains that “an awful lot of people didn’t want this film to be made”, which contributed to the length of time it took to complete. 

It could have very easily become a war film, but instead they only used eight minutes of footage from the 2014 conflict. “That wasn’t the point of the film, the point of that was to show at any given moment, in Gaza, this is what these people might have to deal with and do deal with on a regular basis, and it was just such a horrendous time,” says Keane.

“And Andrew risked his life in there trying to capture that, but it was a balancing act, you know, a complete balancing act of how to how to subtly find your way through this.”

What perhaps underlines more than anything the men’s commitment to getting to see what real life is like in Gaza is that they completely fell in love with the place. They both are itching to return there. 

Says Keane: “If you said to me in the morning: ‘Yeah, take three weeks off, take a month off, where would you like to go, you can go anywhere you want to go’, I’d say bring me into Gaza.”

Gaza is out in selected Irish cinemas from now for a week.

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Aoife Barry

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