There are two introductions to this film review. I wrote each of them at different sittings. It doesn’t matter which I wrote first.
On December 27, 2008, after enduring years of rocket attacks on Southern Israel by the Hamas government in Gaza, the Israelis launched an all-out attack on Gaza City and two other urban centers in the Gaza strip, Khan Yunis and Rafah. The attacks were aimed, according to Israeli sources, at military targets, police stations, administrative offices of Hamas, weapons caches and rocket firing teams. Air, naval, artillery, intelligence and combat units were all coordinated into a single powerful fighting force. Hamas increased its attacks at the same time, thus giving justification to the claim this “offensive” or “Cast Lead Operation” as the Israelis called it, was in fact a war of three weeks and three days’ duration. Thirteen Israelis died, four from friendly fire. Estimations of deaths on the other side number vary between 1200 and 1400 Palestinians. It is routinely referred to in Arabic as the “Gaza Massacre.” (primary source: Wikipedia "Gaza War")
Tears of Gaza, a 2010 documentary seen until now only at a couple select film festivals, opened two nights ago finally in New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Olympia, Washington, and at my neighborhood theater in Berkeley. Click here for addresses and playdates. A two and a half-minute trailer is available on YouTube.
I don’t cry in movies, normally. Beauty brings tears to my eyes. Magnificent performances of great talent can do it. Michelangelo’s Pietà did it when I first saw it. But the ugly reality of life triggers some kind of macho defence system which tells me to suck it up and watch, if you must, but watch steely-eyed. I ached at the scenes of destruction from the tsunami in Japan, but I didn’t cry.
Yesterday, I cried in a movie theater from the sheer horror of what I was looking at. The head and the heart go into instant combat. The head tells you to leave the theater; the heart tells you you need to stay and watch.
People are not supposed to show things like this. Not this up-close. Grainy pictures from a distance are OK. But not this close. And the camera is not supposed to linger on a child losing her mind with grief over the loss of her parents, or a man over the loss of all his children at once.
How you tell a story depends on where you sit, and when you write of war, you always have the option of zooming your lens all the way out and telling it with maximum objectivity, from a great distance – how the Second World War has its beginnings in the Versailles Treaty after the First World War, for example. Or you can get down on the ground, smell the sweat and the blood and the fear and risk never being able to be objective about what you’re seeing ever again. Tears of Gaza leads you into this latter experience.
Norwegian filmmaker, Vibeke Lokkeberg, and her producer-husband Terje Kristiansen were moved by images of victims of the bombing in Gaza in November and December 2008 to fly to Israel and try to get into Gaza to film what was going on in the aftermath of the war, as the Israelis continued to bomb selected targets. They were denied permission to enter, both from Israel and from Egypt, but managed to find Palestinian cameramen Yosuf Abu Shreah, Mwafaq al Khateeb and Saed al Sabaa and female interviewers to do the job for them, with funding from the Freedom of Expression Foundation (Fritt Ord) and the Norwegian Film Institute. The result is a documentary notable for its lack of context, consisting of interviews and of shots of carnage and destruction, with people running from one bomb site to another dousing phosphorus fragments and dragging out dead bodies of children with blackened faces, easily mistaken for rag dolls. The pictures include several dead children shot point blank in the chest.
As I watched, I became annoyed at the lack of context. What war? When? Was this really a war or just a political retaliation for Hamas rockets lobbed into Israel? Watching something so horrific drives you to want to make sense of things and the fact nobody was doing that for me made me furious.
The lack of context was deliberate. It’s a one-sided story. A story told from a Palestinian, specifically Gazan, perspective, and from the point of view of three Gazan children with real faces and real names - Amira, Razmia and Yahya. You want another view? It’s all over the place, the filmmakers will tell you. As Alice Walker said once when she was being criticized for her slant, “You tell your story and I’ll tell mine.” They might have said, you tell it from the air, if you insist; I’ll tell if from the ground.
Lokkeberg also made the decision to leave out the voice of a narrator. When you’re not watching the chaos of people desperately pulling bodies, living and dead, out of rubble, you listen to an interviewer asking people to tell their stories. There is nothing between you and the children, the mothers and others who narrate their own experiences. It makes a world of difference and creates a kind of I-Thou relationship you don’t usually get with victims in most documentaries on the dark side of life. It adds to your sense of agony as you watch. The only other film I’ve seen that made me ache so much is the 1985 documentary on the holocaust by Claude Lanzmann, Shoah.
Since Israel’s founding in 1948 and the first Palestinian resistance to that event, the world has been bewailing the inability of the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict to come to terms with each other. Both sides define the problem as existential. You tell a piece of the story, speak of some accord, some cease-fire, some effort on the part of an Israeli, Palestinian, American, Saudi or UN representative to find a solution, and likely as not it gets swallowed up in the larger existential struggle. Any effort to elicit sympathy for one side is readily taken as craven support for the other.
This is sure to be true for Vibeke Lokkeberg. She already had the reputation for being a shitkicker out looking for trouble before she undertook this project. People will want to fault her for her choices. Argue no story should ever be told without an effort to be fair and balanced, as if all things can be.
Documentaries are intended to get people to take action. Tears of Gaza, if you have a conscience, will make you want to join the nearest anti-war rally. Right-wing Israelis claim what it’s really about is generating anger and resentment against Israel. That is, after all, the message the kids in the film keep repeating. But most viewers should be able to see it’s the anti-war message, not the anti-Israel message, that drives the film.
Tears of Gaza makes no mention of occupation. There is no discussion of the history of the conflict. No policy changes are suggested. It simply records the cries of pain. And unless you insist that it is a political act to allow Palestinians to cry out in pain without moderating that cry with equal time for Israeli pain – a claim some are making – you will focus on the violence itself and the toll it takes, particularly on children, and recognize the message would be the same no matter who the bombs are falling on.
When you go outside the film looking for your own context, you become aware that the after effects of the war didn’t stop with the dead and wounded. 50,000 Gazans lost their homes. The rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza may have stopped, or slowed down, but the damage to the Gazan infrastructure has been so extensive and the psychological damage to the people of Gaza so lasting that it seems likely this will turn out to be a case of winning a battle and losing a war.
What is Israel to do? The great dilemma for the Israelis is there seems never to be a good answer to that question. If you view the war on Gaza or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict generally from the air and from the head, you find yourself bombarded with reasonable questions. Here’s a list I came up without half trying after digging this morning into the background of the film I watched yesterday. Not a carefully selected list with an eye for balance, but one generated on the fly.
- What is a proper response to the rockets launched in Gaza at Southern Israel (and potentially at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem)?
- How far back does one go in telling this story?
- There’s agreement internationally that responses in war should be “proportionate.” What is a proportionate response?
- How does one separate civilians out from military combatants? Can one speak of “targeting civilian populations” when the military uses them as shields, when it stores munitions in mosques and when civilians themselves go up onto rooftops to try to deter pilots from hitting them?
- How long do the people of Sderot, Ashkelon and Ashdod have to endure Hamas bombing of their towns before they can expect their country to retaliate?
- Does it matter that only a dozen or so Israelis died from Hamas rockets while more than a thousand died from the disproportionate retaliation? Is it wrong to ever mention numbers?
- Is a ruthless response “disproportionate” when the bombing has been going on for years and when Hamas routinely breaks truces?
- Does Israel also break truces?
- Would the problem go away if Israel withdrew unilaterally from all Palestinian territories? Is that even conceivable in your wildest dreams?
- Does it matter that the war on Gaza finally stopped the years of rocket attacks – or at least reduced them significantly? That it appears to have been a success, that Sderot, for example, is finally coming out of bankruptcy because people are no longer leaving the town in droves?
Allowing myself to come up with these questions tempered my frustration over the lack of context in the film. But the more I read, the more I reviewed what I already knew about the conflict and added little bits of new information here and there, the more I felt the despair I think most people feel when attempting to sort out fact and fiction, the despair I’ve always felt myself as I’ve tuned in from time to time over the years to what was going on in the conflict.
Can any good come from watching people experiencing this kind of misery? Most people will certainly want to turn away, and there is a strong case to be made for avoiding this kind of intimate look at suffering. There is reason to fear it will only make it harder for us to act reasonably and in everybody’s best long-term interest.
But I have to disagree. If it’s balance we’re after, that balance will not come by letting in all the facts but keeping out all the emotions. We leave it to soldiers to handle the blood and guts, expect them to harden themselves to reality. We don’t ask that of ourselves. But how, I want to know, are we to speak with authority, how are our opinions to have weight, when we have limited our participation in gathering information to facts from the air?
We want to be smart. Look at the big picture. Not miss the woods for the trees.
But even when we’re smart, we can be insensitive. Miss things. It’s easier for us Americans to complain about “them” – those Arabs and those Israelis – who can’t work things out – than it is to talk about “us” and draw parallels with the way their leaders underestimate the pain of the people on the ground and how we toggle between the term “bad guys,” and “collateral damage” when dealing with the folk our drones are doing in. We talk easily about Israeli indifference to the pain in Gaza and the madness of Hamas and not so easily about the point that our wars are now fought by video-game trained technocrats from air-conditioned rooms on a separate continent from where the bombs are falling. We all need more visits to the facts on the ground.
That, it seems to me, is the value of Tears of Gaza. Not just that it provides an often overlooked Palestinian perspective, but because it brings us down out of the comfort zone of rational geopolitical decision-making.
It may be true that zeroing in on misery only complicates our efforts to break through the impass. But if the reason for this is that we think problems can only be solved by those with cool heads, and not by people who can be brought to tears in a movie theater, maybe we ought to think that over from time to time. I think Amos Elon, Israeli historian, journalist and author of The Israelis: Founders and Sons, was right when he suggested that perhaps “the situation's enormous demands for justice might exceed the human capacity to administer justice.”
I think we crossed that line between things we can handle and things we can’t some time ago. The reality of unending war suggests the cool heads are in over their heads. I’m inclined at the moment to think we’ve lost sight of the cost of war, and that the only way out of this horror is to take it out of the head, smell it in the nostrils, and taste it on the tongue.
A number of reviews from a variety of perspectives are available online:
- LA Times
- Daily Beast
- Shockya.com (my recommendation for best written review)
- Nicholas Bell
- Berkeley Daily Planet
- Hollywood Outbreak