Two compelling films about the Palestinian struggle were featured at the Toronto Hot Docs Film Festival this year. The award-winning Gaza is a visually stunning documentary enhanced with a heart-rending musical score, and one of the most emotionally powerful representations of the hardships of a people living in an area that is only 7 miles wide and 25 miles long while occupied by 2 million people. Filmmakers Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell embedded themselves in this small ‘country’ totally occupied and constantly bombarded by Israel, and revealed the amazing resiliency of the local people determined to lead normal lives despite the harshest conditions.
Nowhere in the world is there such an open-air prison, blocked from the outside in every way possible – through land, sea and air. One young man, Bakr, who came from a family of fishermen, is forbidden, like every other Gazan, to fish beyond the 3-mile zone set by Israel. There’s few fish in that zone and many families are suffering. So Bakr used an illegal fish hook in the legal zone and he was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison. The toll on the family was documented compassionately, explaining how just the absence of one person ripples through the entire community.
The film is all-inclusive covering people from all walks of life. A family of educated women includes a very sensitive 20-year-old woman, Karma, who lives to play the cello. She relates, “people from the outside countries – they can’t see other than the fact that we live in constant wars. They only give us sympathy, and it bothers me so much. They only see the side they want to see… they should look deeper.” Her concern for her homeland and the suffering her people have to endure is poignantly presented in scenes of her playing by the seashore, where she experiences the true feeling of freedom.
The beauty and innocence of the young children playing together, swimming and singing, belies their tragic existence as virtual prisoners with daily threats of bombings and killings.
The beauty and innocence of the young children playing together, swimming and singing, belies their tragic existence as virtual prisoners with daily threats of bombings and killings. A young boy whose father has three wives, lives with his mother, 4 sisters and 10 brothers in a small 3 room dwelling. He loves being in a large family, for safety and security, but often sleeps on the beach to allow room for others. There is devastation everywhere, no electricity, food, medicine or safety. Many express hopelessness, while many others are determined to defend the land of their ancestors and the only home they’ve known.
But what makes this film one of the best on the subject, despite its grimness and despair, is it’s love and commitment for the people of Gaza, and it’s creative use of capturing some truly impassioned storytelling. The filmmakers obviously won the confidence of people whose stories have rarely been told in such a trusting manner. With very little reference to the political and governmental aspects of the region, this doc should affect anyone with a heart, regardless of their political persuasion.
Equally as impressive is another award-winning doc about a woman who has lived the Israel/Palestine dilemma her entire life. A tribute to the brave and enduring Jewish-Israeli lawyer, Lea Tsemel, Advocate follows her struggles from the very beginning days of joining the Jewish resistance, and actually being the first Israeli woman at the Wailing Wall. In her early naiveté she believed it was a War of Peace, where togetherness would be developed. “It didn’t last long, as soon as the war ended, they took the volunteers to see the Occupied Territories. On the road from Jerusalem, I saw people heading down toward Jericho. Lines of people going into exile. It reminded me of a picture I grew up with at home. It was called ‘The Wandering Jew.’” Her understanding and compassion for the Palestinians driven from their homeland developed then and continued in her life’s work defending Palestinians against the unjust occupation of their land.
In the university she joined Matzpen, a revolutionary socialist and anti-Zionist organization, and met her lifelong partner in the struggle. Michel Warschawski shared her political beliefs and spent years in prison for his beliefs. In 1972 their first child was born and Lea had her first major political trial, defending the Arab-Jewish underground. Michel remembers, “ It’s a story that’s hard to imagine today. Israeli Jews dared to join an Arab national movement. It was like an atomic bomb landed on Israel!” Just five years after the 67 War, a few courageous Israelis dared to state what today is obvious: “this is an Occupation of Palestinian land.”
The film is also creative in its use of editing, animation and soundtrack effects. Whenever scenes showing people who have to be undefined, that segment of the frame cleverly turns into animation until they move out of the frame.
Lea has constantly been harassed and threatened with death because of her defense of ‘terrorists’ and defiance of the Israeli Occupation. The moving scenes in the doc accented by impressive archival footage paints the picture of a determined peoples lawyer who expects to lose most cases against a partisan judicial system, but in the process exposes how institutional racism manifests itself through the courts. Her reason to defend certain ‘crimes’ by Palestinians is that people living under an illegal occupation have all the rights to defend themselves.
A young 13-year-old Palestinian boy is sentenced for knifing someone. Although no evidence was supplied and based solely on hearsay, he received a harsh 12-year sentence in adult prison. Lea spent most of her days defending the young man, and many others who have been arrested unfairly, while most often asking for no money in return. She is dedicated to the cause – the struggle to bring peace and justice to not only Israelis, but the oft victimized Palestinians.