Will Love Triumph in the Midst of Gaza’s 14-Year Siege?

11 October, 2021

Gaza Mon Amour is cur­rent­ly screen­ing in Europe.

 

Jordan Elgrably

A new film from the Nass­er broth­ers invites film­go­ers to imag­ine that Gaza is a teem­ing cen­ter of com­merce and human engage­ment much like any oth­er city.

In truth, the near­ly two mil­lion inhab­i­tants of the Gaza Strip, half of whom are chil­dren aged 15 or younger, have lived for the last 14 years besieged by sea, air and land, sur­round­ed by Israel’s armed forces, locked down and sur­veilled con­stant­ly by drones. Nine­ty-one per­cent of Gazan chil­dren suf­fer from PTSD (accord­ing to the Euro-Mediter­ranean Human Rights Mon­i­tor), while half the adults long for escape.

But life goes on. Every day, new cou­ples get mar­ried, and every day, Gazans go to work and school. Gaza Mon Amour helps us see Gazans as peo­ple like us, albeit liv­ing under far harsh­er cir­cum­stances. Says co-direc­tor Tarzan Nass­er, “In Gaza the sky and the sea are occu­pied, Gaza is sur­round­ed, so for Gazans there’s no horizon.”

Yet Gaza Mon Amour is a roman­tic com­e­dy in which a senior fish­er­man named Issa (Sal­im Daw) secret­ly pines for wid­owed seam­stress Siham (Hiam Abbass), who lives with her divorced daugh­ter Leila (Maisa Abd Elha­di) in the refugee camp. The two cross paths in the cen­tral mar­ket where Issa hawks his mea­ger dai­ly catch while Siham mends clothes for women across the way. Late one night Issa trawls up an ancient phal­lic stat­ue of Apol­lo in his fish­ing nets and decides to hide it away at home, not know­ing what to do with this mys­te­ri­ous and valu­able trea­sure. Although the stat­ue brings him no end of trou­ble, at the same time his con­fi­dence grows and even­tu­al­ly he decides to approach Siham.

Twin broth­ers Arab and Tarzan Nass­er were born in Gaza in 1988, a year before the last movie hous­es were shut­ting down, and a decade before Israel dev­as­tat­ed Gaza in the mil­i­tary onslaught they called Oper­a­tion Cast Lead. The 33-year-old twins have been liv­ing in France since their first fea­ture Dégradé (Degrad­ed) screened to acclaim in Cannes’ Semaine de la Cri­tique, in 2015. They ini­tial­ly got the idea for the sto­ry behind Gaza Mon Amour in 2013, when a Gazan fish­er­man brought up an ancient Greek stat­ue from the sea.

In the press notes, Arab Nass­er explains: “We try to avoid the expect­ed clichés of Pales­tin­ian cin­e­ma. Our focus is on human beings, the peo­ple of Gaza. Grant­ed, these peo­ple know suf­fer­ing, war, a shit­ty life, but nev­er­the­less, they live, which means that they have a dai­ly life, love rela­tion­ships, dreams, hopes. We want to film this, with­out mak­ing the real­i­ty of Gaza more beau­ti­ful or ugli­er than it is. We show the dai­ly life of Gaza that for­eign­ers do not know. Even Egypt­ian view­ers are sur­prised by our films.”

Adds Tarzan, “We know the prob­lems of the Pales­tini­ans, the con­flict with Israel, but the Gazans don’t need to talk about it, they live it every day. The Israelis left Gaza in 2005 and [in 2007] closed the bor­ders around it: it is a very small ter­ri­to­ry cut off from the world … by film­ing the dai­ly life of the Gazans, we are film­ing the con­flict even if we don’t talk about it direct­ly. In fact, we film the effects of the con­flict rather than the con­flict itself.”

Direc­tors Tarzan and Arab Nass­er at the Venice Film Fes­ti­val. (cour­tesy La Bien­nale di Venezia)

In its Sisyphean real­i­ty, Gaza is per­pet­u­al­ly being per­se­cut­ed, bombed and dev­as­tat­ed, only to be rebuilt and destroyed again at a future date. At the crux of this repet­i­tive dra­ma is the state of Israel, for almost noth­ing comes in or goes out with­out Israel’s explic­it approval. As Louis Imbert wrote in Le Monde on Sun­day, “The recov­ery of the Pales­tin­ian coastal strip, dev­as­tat­ed dur­ing last May’s war, is ham­pered by the Kafkaesque reg­u­la­tions imposed by Israel.”

In spite of the human rights cat­a­stro­phe result­ing from Gaza’s siege (97% of Gaza’s water is undrink­able), the Nass­er broth­ers want­ed to make an old-fash­ioned, at times absur­dist romance, void of pro­pa­gan­da and pol­i­tics, and they have suc­ceed­ed, some­what in the vein of their col­league Elia Suleiman, whose fea­tures Chron­i­cles of a Dis­ap­pear­ance and Divine Inter­ven­tion were like­ly inspi­ra­tions for the play­ful­ness and off­beat humor in this film.

The Nassers have hint­ed that their father, to whom they ded­i­cate Gaza Mon Amour, inspired the char­ac­ter of Issa, a spry but lone­ly man who has nev­er mar­ried. Hap­pi­ly for us, actor Sal­im Daw turns in an utter­ly absorb­ing and inti­mate per­for­mance; in sparse dia­logue but with great skill, Daw brings the Gazan fish­er­man to life and in the process cre­ates an indeli­ble character.

Fish­er­man Issa and seam­stress Siham are at an age, enter­ing their 60s, where dreams of love and mar­riage often remain in the realm of fan­ta­sy, cer­tain­ly in con­ser­v­a­tive Gazan soci­ety. But peo­ple are social crea­tures in whom hope springs eter­nal, and Issa for his part will not be deterred.

Hiam Abbass has been in so many of the films that have marked our time, from The Syr­i­an Bride and Hany Abu Assad’s Par­adise Now to The Lemon Tree and Che­rien Dabis’ Amree­ka, not to men­tion Miral and Peace After Mar­riage, that in a way, I feel I’ve grown up with her. To me Hiam Abbass is Pales­tine. “Pales­tini­ans are proud of her,” Arab Nass­er notes, and who could quar­rel with that assess­ment? When­ev­er Hiam Abbass turns up in a movie—including Munich and Blade Run­ner 2049—the qual­i­ty of the film imme­di­ate­ly climbs a notch.

In spite of the pain and empa­thy I feel when­ev­er Gaza is the sub­ject of con­ver­sa­tion, when the lights went up at the end of Gaza Mon Amour, I felt I had just expe­ri­enced an epic poem devot­ed to love and to all the peo­ple liv­ing in the Strip. The film com­mu­ni­cates a qui­et, incal­cu­la­ble beau­ty. It remind­ed me of the mag­ic of cin­e­ma, of sit­ting in a dark­ened movie the­atre, I had near­ly for­got­ten over the past two years of the Covid pan­dem­ic. To judge from this sec­ond fea­ture out­ing, Arab and Tarzan Nass­er are film­mak­ers to follow.

 

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