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Forgotten by History
At a time when news organizations have hijacked cinema vérité to bolster editorializing and sanctify prurient voyeurism, American filmmaker James Longley snatches it back as a compelling storytelling tool in his 2001 documentary, Gaza Strip. During Ariel Sharon’s election, Longley spent several months filming what Geoffrey Wheatcroft, writing in the New York Times Book Review (8 September 2002), has called, “the full pathos of the situation of the Palestinians, a people forgotten by history who found themselves involuntarily caught up in another people’s great drama.”
The film unfolds in Gaza city, the refugee camp at Khan Younis, and the southern settlement of Rafah. In this, Longley offers no pretense of even-handedness. He is partisan to the Palestinian plight in the most literal sense, and his film demonstrates the symbiotic bond (a kind of intellectual Stockholm syndrome) that can arise so easily between empathetic investigator and sympathetic subject.
Yet he also brings into the air-conditioned cinemas of the West the unseen ordinariness of Palestinian aspirations and, perhaps more importantly, the unimagined difficulties of daily life (like hanging out washing or crossing the city where one lives). He captures a world where a 13-year-old can talk world-wearily of school as something he attended “when I was small.”
Gaza Strip charts the liminal zones of a divided land where childhood curiosity and adolescent rebellion can have deadly consequences. Longley constructs, through the eloquent editing of sound and vision, a riveting particularity so vivid that it transcends its physical borders to illuminate “everyday” life in divided cities, territories, and countries across the globe.
This careful construction begins with the story of Mohammed Hijazi, a barely teen-aged newspaper-seller who supports his family and whose passion is for an independent Palestine. As he does for individuals throughout the film, Longley tells Mohammed’s story in rhythmic pulses. He cuts back and forth between Mohammed’s life on the street, his early morning gatherings with other politically disillusioned newsboys and his stone-throwing excursions to Israeli checkpoints. Each scene is narrated via an extended interview that includes Mohammed’s description of his best friend’s death from Israeli bullets and the terror that drove his own father to beat him and tie him up at home to prevents Mohammed from joining the stone-throwing crowds.
Mohammed’s cogency, stripped of glibness, and colored with an adolescent bravura and cynicism, establishes credibility for the young people whom Longley chooses as his foci in the film. The degree of suffering Mohammed recounts bleeds authenticity into subsequent interviews, compelling the viewer to believe that every youthful face hides a backstory like Mohammed’s. And many of them do. These almost-adolescents describe in sensual detail (first white, then black, with the aroma of sugar and mint) the experience of the “tear gas” that sent more than two hundred Palestinians to the hospital in acute neurological crisis. Or they recount from tents the nighttime bulldozing of the homes on whose rubble they now sit. And between all these takes of horror these youth also begin to shine as flesh-and-blood inhabitants of a real world.
Longley substantiates their ordinariness (in an extraordinary situation) through his own courage in hanging out, camera in hand, when Israeli soldiers and Palestinian teenagers clash. He is able to let viewers see that these teenagers share the same playfulness, fallibility and frailty as young people anywhere else in the world, only in a deadly situation. He reveals how checkpoints become social gathering points at the end of the working day, or on the way home from school, where youth and patriotism make a deadly mix. Half excited at provoking a response, and half terrorized by potential consequences, a group of youngsters in the second half of the film scatters under crackling Israeli fire only to reassemble moments later. Two of the older teenagers climb casually back onto the wall from which they evoked the first flurry of bullets. They may be provoking their enemy, but they are also establishing their cool, an act as recognizable in suburban America as it is in Khan Younis.
The longeurs in this film come only when Longley tries too hard to plunge his audience into the psychological intensity of life in Gaza via a discordant arty-ness. He over does his footage of a nighttime attack over Gaza, falling into MTV clichés, like jump cuts, motion-blur slo-mo images, and distorted frames. A similar sequence of Israeli bulldozers plowing into Palestinian buildings, which is more fragmented, more distant and much less processed, is much more chilling.
The same caveat applies to the soundtrack: in most places, it’s an eerie amalgam of street noise, muffled conversation and Mr. Longley’s own compositions, with natural sound used for emphasis, but sometimes it resembles, in its electronic distortions, a late-Happenings soundtrack rerun from the sixties. But these visual and sound affects are only missteps, detracting temporarily from the film’s power.
That power raises one last, but inevitable, question about this film. How important is it that Gaza Strip offers only one side, and only partially at that, of the story? No Palestinian politicians, no security forces, no Hamas or Islamic Jihad. No Israelis beyond the pixilated newsprint images of Sharon and Ehud Barak. While the sources of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lie far back in the disorderly disintegration of first the Ottoman and then the British Empires, most news coverage never stretches back beyond a brief mention of the 1967 war. More, and more informed, historical and political context is desperately needed.
But necessary, too, are the pen portraits, the focus on the individual life, and its nights and days of frustration and anxiety, which communicate more personally. Longley neither pretends to be impartial nor apologizes for his sympathies, and pays his potential audience the compliment of confidence in their intelligence and reason. He presumes that we can see and appreciate his portrait of the families of Gaza as only one contribution to the world’s scant knowledge of the human cost of “the Middle East crisis.”