Humanity’s search for normality amid the chaos that is Gaza
‘We have three phases in Gaza. We prepare for war. There’s the war. There is mopping up after war’
Surfing in Gaza. “The object was to show the relentlessness involved in trying to eke out some normality. The surfers enjoy themselves while gunboats loom in the distance”
Early on in the making of Gaza, Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell’s excellent documentary on that troubled locale, Keane asked a resident how they got through the day.
“We have three phases in Gaza,” the man said. “We prepare for war. There’s the war. There is mopping up after war.”
Keane shakes his head sadly. “It’s that constant cycle of war. It’s just this constant horrible cycle,” he says.
Yet there is more to the documentary than suffering. Keane and McConnell’s film goes among a wide array of inhabitants – a teacher, a young musician, a fisherman, others – to demonstrate how everyday lives function amid the chaos. A hit at the Sundance film festival, the picture buzzes with life and humanity.
The project began in 2012 when Keane, a busy documentary director, set out to follow photographers in conflict zones. He bumped into Andrew McConnell, winner of the Luis Valutena Humanitarian Photography Award for his work in Africa, and the two soon established firm connections.
“It turns out he was from Enniskillen and I was born in Ballyshannon. Only 25 miles apart, either side of the Border,” he says. “I discovered he’d been working on a project about Gaza surfers since 2010. That had done really well. I had always been interested in Gaza. I always had a fascination for the Strip and never had access.”
The idea of making a documentary in the area proved irresistible. Blockaded in one corner by Egypt and along a longer border by Israel, the Gaza Strip has been in a state of taut isolation for the last decade. As Keane explains it, the election of Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, in 2006, gave “other countries” the chance to turn their back on the region.
“We have our own experience of that here,” he sighs. “We know what that’s like. If you don’t talk you have an excuse to opt out. Then no negotiation can take place.”
Initially the project raced along. McConnell found himself in the middle of the 2014 Israeli-Gaza conflict and shot 120 hours of footage that yielded just a traumatic eight minutes for the film’s grim closing sections. “We never wanted to make a war film,” Keane explains.
The Irish Film Board (now Screen Ireland) was sufficiently impressed to offer funding. Brendan Byrne, a highly respected filmmaker, came on to produce for Fine Point Films and they were away. But the boys soon found themselves dragged down by a curious undertow.
“I don’t know how to put this, but invisible hands were closing doors left, right and centre,” he says cryptically.
He can’t leave it at that. What exactly does he mean?
“What I mean by that is the pro-Israeli lobby had a strong influence in terms of film and funding. We would get so far and then it would go up the line and suddenly all correspondence would stop. All regular sources dropped off one by one.”
Was it made clear that the objections were political?
“It wasn’t an overt thing. It was just silence. And a silence that wasn’t normal,” he says.
He shrugs and adopts a fatalistic tone.
“I can’t show you evidence of that,” he says. “We had a good promo. We were mature and experienced filmmakers with the credentials. We had been at it for 20 years. Brendan and Fine Point raise film finance every month. They have five projects on the go at any time. The funds they would normally go to turned them down.”
At any rate they did eventually get the cash together, and they set about establishing a cast of characters. Keane admits that their brief came with its own inner contradictions. The team wanted to demonstrate that ordinary life does progress in Gaza, but that it does so in negotiation with violent abnormality.
“You are right. The object was to show the relentlessness involved in trying to eke out some normality,” Keane says. The surfers enjoy themselves while gunboats loom in the distance. A taxi driver tries to run a business in an asphyxiating economy.
“We’d sit down with them and they’d ask if it was a film about the war.
“Is it a film about the conflict?”
“Well, yeah, but not just that.”
We told them it was about them, and they’d say “who would be interested in our story? Is the world interested in my corner of Gaza?” They just didn’t believe that people would be interested in their lives.”
The situation has deteriorated dramatically in the few years since the film was shot. Even then the filmmakers were showering in seawater. Electricity was down to just a few hours a day. The television news reports the violence, but it doesn’t say enough about the suffocation that results from the shutting down of supply routes. The Gaza residents struggle to get basic medical care. Water is poisoned.
“When we left in 2018 for the last filming trip we had such a heavy heart,” he says. “It seemed hopeless. There was a line we could cross and they couldn’t. What are we leaving these people to? You have the UN saying Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020. That’s next year.”
The film should help communicate the urgency of the crisis. The first stop on that mission was a visit to the prestigious Sundance Film Festival last winter. In earlier interviews I read Garry speaking about a “fiery” Q and A after the film.
“Sundance were really expecting it,” he says “They had armed guards at the screenings. They explained that they had had violence after contentious issues. But it wasn’t that bad.”
He says this with the wry smile of a man who grew up near the Border during the grimmest years.
“They are a very organised bunch, the pro-Israeli lobby,” he says. “They’d turn up. Somebody would mention the word ‘occupation’ in the conversation and they’d shout: ‘there is no occupation’ and get up and leave. We’d say: ‘Do you not want to debate this?’ But they were there to make their point in shouted form and leave.”
At least one review in the trade papers demonstrated how differently many Americans think about such issues.
“Powerful enough that many viewers won’t mind the propaganda,” a subheading read above the notice in the Hollywood Reporter. The review goes on to balance guarded admiration with concerns about manipulation and soft-pedalling on Hamas.
“That was a weird article,” Keane agrees. “It looked like a film reviewer who actually enjoyed the film but his politics wouldn’t let him. That was agenda-ridden. Look, we did tell the story from one perspective. We didn’t give a right of reply. Maybe every documentary that comes from one perspective can be accused of being propaganda.”
Others have wondered why there is no footage of Hamas firing weapons over the border into Israel.
“It would be in the film if we had it,” he says. “Andrew tried to get it in the 2014 conflict. There is not a place they do it from. It’s haphazard. There’s nobody saying ‘it will be at four o’clock over there.’ We didn’t shy away. We showed mass Hamas rallies. We showed people saying that if Hamas wasn’t in power the Palestinian problem would be sorted. We threw as much as we had at it.”
Me meet on a sunny day outside RTÉ in Dublin 4. As the wind rustles through the broadcaster’s nifty new landscaping, Gaza could hardly seem further away. But comparisons have long been made between the traumas in this country and those in the Middle East. Maybe that happens too often. The film demonstrates that the distinctions are starker than the similarities. Still, we do know something about borders.
“We often got ‘what are two Paddies from either side of the Border doing making a film about Gaza? Is it something to do with your own history of conflict?’
“What do you say? Maybe it is. Maybe that sense of justice and being free to make your own decision – to not have an occupying force controlling part of your country – is there in our DNA.”
Keane, long resident in Ireland after time spent living in the US and London, is currently developing a film on the nomadic peoples of central Asia (he allows that any such brief synopsis is misleading). But the filmmaker is keeping an eager eye on the progress of Gaza. He is currently evangelising for a GoFundMe campaign in support of the Red Carpet Film Festival in Gaza City. If all goes well the film will get its home premiere there in November. Keane’s thoughts are with his friends on the Mediterranean.
“What do they do, like?” he says. “You have to convince yourself. You have to give yourself some hope. You’d be throwing yourself off bridges otherwise.”