Gaza Stripped: What Normal Life Looks Like in the Least Normal Place on Earth

Visually stunning and deeply harrowing, a documentary by Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell tells the stories of the people of Gaza

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Karma Khaial, a 19-year-old law student who dreamt of becoming a professional cellist. From the "Gaza" documentary.
Karma Khaial, a 19-year-old law student who dreamt of becoming a professional cellist. From the "Gaza" documentary.Credit: ANDREW MCCONNELL
Simon Spungin
Simon Spungin
Simon Spungin
Simon Spungin

The great tragedy of the Gaza Strip is that, while it is never far from the headlines, it is rarely in our thoughts.

The often baffling and always contentious complexity of the situation in the tiny coastal enclave discourage us from spending too much time contemplating the fate of the two million or so Palestinians who live there.

And while we focus on the geopolitical realities, the violent intra-Palestinian struggles, the rocket attacks and the retaliatory strikes from Israel, we tend to forget (or, rather, we make a conscious effort to sublimate) the people of Gaza.

In their award-winning documentary – called simply “Gaza” – Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell attempt to remind us of one simple fact: Those Gazans are people. Their stated goal was to show what “normal life” looks like in one of the least normal places on earth. For the most part, they succeed.

At the heart of the documentary, which premiered at the prestigious Sundance Festival, are the people of Gaza. It is their voices and their stories that stay with us, long after the scenes of destruction have faded to black. Rather than get themselves lost (or into trouble) by exploring the causes of the Gaza crisis, and rather than waste everyone’s time by apportioning blame or suggesting solutions, Keane and McConnell have decided to give the people of Gaza a rare platform for, it turns out, their highly eloquent voices.

Their documentary tells the story of the people of the Strip through first-person accounts from a wide variety of Gazans.

From the "Gaza" documentary.Credit: ANDREW MCCONNELL

Among the characters we meet are Ahmed Abu Alqoraan, a 14-year-old who lives in the Deir al-Balah refugee camp with his 36 siblings and half-siblings; Karma Khaial, a 19-year-old law student who dreamt of becoming a professional cellist and who is desperately looking for a scholarship that will allow her to leave Gaza.

We meet a gregarious taxi driver who spent almost two years in debtors’ jail and we are introduced to some of his passengers – a theater director, a hip-hop artist wounded by Israeli sniper fire and a lifeguard who seems most interested in grooming his perfect beard.

All the contributors are far more eloquent than we have any right to expect. Ahmed’s heartbreaking comments about living by the sea and dying by the sea – “Some days,” he says, “we only have salt to eat” – seem to encapsulate the very soul of the people of Gaza.

From the "Gaza" documentary.Credit: ANDREW MCCONNELL

Similarly, we cannot help but be moved by the once prosperous textile factory owner, now reduced to working on two sewing machines, whose workday is cut short by chronic power outages. Despite their undeniable victimhood, the narrators maintain their dignity, their hope and their humanity – and Keane and McConnell provide them with a generous platform.

“Gaza” is most captivating when it adheres to this format: stunning shots of both the beauty and the destruction of Gaza. The characters are not shown speaking to the camera; rather, their narrative is played over the mesmerizing footage. McConnell, an award-winning photojournalist, provides several shots that are simply stunning. The use of slow motion, dramatic music and silence add to the poignancy of the narratives, but avoid the pitfalls of mawkishness and emotional manipulation.

From the “Gaza” documentary.Credit: Andrew McConnell

Sins of omission

Inevitably, however, “Gaza” is flawed. The creators’ stated goal was to tell the story of the people of Gaza, rather than that of the land and the conflict. However, within two minutes, they have undermined that aim with sloppy commentary. In the opening chyrons, the filmmakers claim that “Hamas came to power in free elections and have governed the Strip since 2007” and that “Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza, completely sealing its borders.” In truth, Hamas did win the Palestinian election of 2005, but only came to power in Gaza after a violent confrontation with Fatah. Similarly – and at the risk of splitting hairs – there is an Israeli- (and Egyptian-) imposed blockade on Gaza, but some goods are allowed to enter the Strip.

Perhaps the greatest sin that “Gaza” commits, however, is one of omission – and it may be deliberate. Although the promotional material for the film says that “Hamas is one of the villains of [this] story,” the Islamic movement responsible for so much of the Gazans’ suffering is barely a bit player. The regime’s oppressive policies are mentioned only in passing and, while the narrators do not waste much time in apportioning blame for their situation in general, there are very few signs of dissent against the ruling power.

One gets the sense that the filmmakers sacrificed some of their compelling storytelling for the sake of archival footage of the ravages of war. We have seen more than enough footage of mass demonstrations close to the border fence on news broadcasts. By now, we now what utter devastation Israel wreaked on Gaza in the 2014 war. We don’t need Keane and McConnell’s otherwise nuanced documentary to ram that home.

Gaza boys. Living and dying by the sea. Credit: Andrew McConnell

By including such footage, they ran the risk of negating everything else that the film has to offer. Indeed, the Israel-right-or-wrong brigade could cite the clumsy inaccuracies mentioned above as another reason to consign “Gaza” to the trashcan marked “pro-Palestinian propaganda.”

Despite its flaws, “Gaza” is a worthy and worthwhile film. Keane and McConnell have created a visually impressive and moving documentary which, for the most part, elegantly sidesteps the pitfalls inherent in documenting a subject that evokes such visceral and immediate responses. The decision to steer clear of politics, while not always achieved in full, allows the filmmakers to focus on the characters and their narratives, which are more than enough to make satisfying, if harrowing, viewing.

“Gaza” is currently on general release in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The producers are negotiating screenings of the documentary in Israel later this year.

From the "Gaza" documentary.Credit: ANDREW MCCONNELL

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