«I was born by the sea, I will stay by the sea, and I will be buried by the sea!» 14 year old Ahmad Jamal al Aqraa utters.

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Modern Times Review.
Published date: March 13, 2019

His dream is to become a fisherman like his father; but circumstances are not easy. He is from Al Shati, one of the large Palestinian refugee camps on the Gaza Strip, and we meet him while he joins the crew of a large fishing vessel.

He is the first of a row of people populating the documentary Gaza, a panoramic description of life for close to two million Palestinians on the narrow strip of land along the Mediterranean coast. The Israeli blockade has been a brutal fact of life for more than ten years, and for the majority of the population misery is a more or less permanent condition.

Dreaming of freedom

It is deeply moving to experience how the Palestinians – each on their own – find fixtures that serve as a shield against the naked brutality of daily life. For Ahmad Jamal al Aqraa, it is the sea. Conditions at home are crowded. He has 13 brothers and 22 sisters, so when the weather allows, he often goes to the beach to spend the night. For many Gazans the beach has great symbolic significance.

Only a very few young Gazans have ever seen the world outside, but they all dream about it. There are only two border crossings – Rafah to Egypt, and Erez to Israel, both hermetically sealed to regular people. One of the Gazans says there is a third way out, by way of the sea, but when you distance yourself too far from the shore, you will encounter death.

«I was born by the sea, I will stay by the sea, and I will be buried by the sea!»

That is a fact of life for the fishermen. They know all too well how risky it is to sail out for more than 3 nautical miles. This is where the ocean becomes deep and where the big catch waits for you, but this is also where the Israeli patrol boats lurk. In the film, we meet the old fisherman, whose son is homebound for Gaza. The son went too far from the coast with his nets, which lead to confiscation of his boat and several years in Israeli prison. The old man is preparing his young grandchildren for the meeting with the father they hardly know. When the big day arrives, gunmen from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), shooting in the air and turning the day into a national spectacle, accompany the released fisherman on the short trip from Erez to his home. The old fisherman says over and over again, his son never cared for politics, and only wishes to live his life in the best possible way.

Choosing happiness

One might think the film identifies a Palestinian lack of will to resist. In a way it does, and for that reason it is interesting. The film goes behind the journalistic news stories by not focusing on resistance in the common sense. Instead, it describes a certain resignation – a will to find a life and happiness in the midst of all the tragedies.

Gaza Director(s): Garry Keane, Andrew McConnell

We find this with the taxi driver that, seen from the outside, looks like a content man. He is driving a nice Mercedes and seems to have enough mental surplus to care for nice clothes. He says that all around him people have lost everything, and he feels privileged to have all of his family around. Yet, just under the surface, you find all his worries. He has great difficulty to make ends meet by the end of each month. At a certain time, he even chose 20 months in prison due to unpaid bills. It is thought provoking that while there he met a number of local business people who turned out to be just as burdened by debt as himself.

One day he picks up a customer who turns out to be a manager of a local theater. The man starts to sing happily in the backseat despite also suffering from countless problems. He is happy by choice, for the alternative is dropping dead from a heart attack.

Cultural inheritance

Obviously the conflict is ever present. The two filmmakers were in Gaza when large protests along the Israeli fence climaxed in May 2018. May 14th became the bloodiest day, when Israeli soldiers from the opposite side of the fence killed 60 demonstrators. Around 2000 people were wounded, and the camera rides along with the ambulance documenting all the frustrations.

Only a very few young Gazans have ever seen the world outside, but they all dream about it.

As an almost absurd parallel, we follow the young girl Karma. She becomes the narrative opposite to the poor boy fisherman Ahmad. She is the daughter of well-heeled parents, and her home seems like a tranquil oasis in the midst of chaos. Her mother tells the camera that as a teenager she had her own plans to join the armed struggle, and that her greatest wish was to kill Israeli soldiers. Growing up she realized violence is not a solution to conflict, so today we see her expressing her resistance through culture. Together with a few other women, she collects Bedouin dresses with the intention of sending them to fashion shows abroad in order to show that Gaza also offers beauty. She has already entered into deals with organizers in the US and France, but the ever present sea is blocking her way. In spite of her privileged situation she is unable to send her dresses and models abroad.

Gaza Director(s): Garry Keane, Andrew McConnell

Meanwhile, Karma is concentrating on her music. She plays the cello. Her dream is to become an internationally acclaimed musician but deep inside she considers this impossible. To her, the sea is an invisible barrier – torture. In a captivating scene, she has brought her instrument to the beach. In the background lies the sea and a destroyed building as she sits in the dunes playing. At one point in the film, someone says that in Gaza you never know what will happen during the next five minutes. It is obvious Karma has taken this realization to heart as well but – as everybody around her – she clings to the moment and utilizes it to find small fragments of beauty.

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