Monday, June 14, 2010

Voices from the Rubble of Gaza’s Cinematic Potential

Today I stumbled upon the skeletal ruins of a Gaza City movie theatre (pictured on right), which was destroyed almost a decade ago during the second intifada. As I took a picture, a donkey cart puttered past and a middle-aged woman who was sharing my taxi voiced her opinion that cinemas were “haram,” or forbidden under Islam. For me, this incident was a solemn reminder both that the Gazan economy had been booming in the years following the 1993 Oslo accords, and that Gazan society was once far more liberal and moderate in interpreting its Islamic religious values.

For example, westerners are often surprised to learn that the proliferation of the Islamic headscarf in Gaza is a relatively new occurrence. One of Gaza’s rare uncovered women, Dr. Mona ElFarra, who works as deputy director of the Red Crescent Society, told me in an interview last month about her recent experience at a workshop in a southern Gaza village. She recalled, “The young children and school girls gathered around me. I felt as if I was an alien spaceship. The kids were saying, ‘Are you sure she’s a woman? Why is her hair short? Look and see!’ When I was a kid, we didn’t have issues like this. The majority of women in Gaza didn’t wear hijab [the Islamic headscarf]. Now, the children find us strange.”

However, it’s still not strange to find Gazan women in positions of leadership, particularly in schools and NGOs. After my sad encounter with the abandoned movie theatre this morning, I enjoyed an inspiring lunch with Nagham Mohanna, a 24-year-old filmmaker (pictured on right) who holds her own in a field dominated by men. Two weeks ago, Nagham was among three Gazans who participated by video conference in a West Bank film pitching event. Each candidate prepared a trailer of his or her proposed film, then answered questions from the dozens of western media network representatives in the audience. Nagham’s proposed film, “Romance in Gaza,” received rave reviews, and she’s currently in discussions with networks interested in funding her project. (Click here to view her trailer, which is the second video from the left.)

Nagham has directed two other short films and was previously among thousands of Gazans accepted to educational programs abroad, only to have their dreams dashed when Israeli and Egyptian border closures and security restrictions prevented them from leaving. As a result of her “Romance in Gaza” proposal, Nagham has earned a scholarship to attend a one-week filmmaking workshop next month at a university in Greece. Egypt has opened the border for travelers with “special” circumstances in the wake of the flotilla tragedy, and Nagham is hopeful that, this time, the travel will be for real.

Since her only experience outside of Gaza was a two-week family trip to Egypt in 2003, Nagham has worked hard to allay her parents' fears about her capacity to travel independently. Her parents support her career ambitions, and Nagham is bubbling with nervous anticipation about her upcoming adventure in Greece. “I want to learn about the culture outside of Gaza—how they think and how they live their lives,” she told me. “I don’t believe you can understand our cultural differences just from movies and the television programs.”

Another filmmaker at the pitching event, 25-year-old Mohamad Abusidu (pictured on right), has also been invited to attend the filmmaking workshop in Greece. However, his excitement is bittersweet, as Mohamad cannot visit his own sister, brother and father in the West Bank. Despite appealing for help from both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, Mohamad and his mother are forbidden from living in the West Bank due to Israel’s draconian residency policies. The family’s separation, which is a common story in Gaza, is the subject of Mohamad’s proposed film, “Waiting for You.” (Click here to view his trailer, which is the first video on the left.)

Both Nagham and Mohamad will talk by phone this week with American filmmaker Ose Oyamendan, who is planning a feature length documentary called “Salaam Shalom: Voices from the Rubble” about residents of Sderot and Gaza who are working for peace. In Israel, Mr. Oyamendan will find a thriving, creative cinema industry, a worldly, well-traveled populace, and many movie theatres. In Gaza, he will find an opportunity-craving subculture of cinematic entrepreneurs, an isolated, imprisoned populace, and the dilapidated remains of four, once-thriving cinemas whose resurrection seems beholden to the political situation.


  1. Nagham also participated in "Sleepless in Gaza and Jerusalem" show. Best wishes for all of you.