Gaza Surf Club
Philip Gnadt and Mickey Yamine
Germany, 2016, 1h 27min.
Gaza Surf Club is a feel-good film about young people in a dire situation who try, against the odds, to follow their dream of surfing using proper equipment. The films opens with a geopolitical introduction of the territory: the Gaza Strip as a locked-in coastal enclave suffering from attacks and blockades from several sides, including the sea; backed by a soundtrack of bombings and news-reports about the fighting. Visually, it sets the stage for the story: maps pointing to the area followed by coastal shots and waves pounding onto the shore. We see images of rubble, destroyed houses, and then we are introduced to a group of enthusiastic surfers. The story is carried by three main character: veteran Abu Jayab (42), fisherman and surfing teacher, who comes across as somewhat embittered by a lifetime of imprisonment in Gaza; Sabah (15), who once excelled at swimming and surfing but is now, as a young woman, forced to abandon her passion; and above all Ibrahim (23), an ambitious surfer who dreams of opening a shop-cum-meeting place and wants to travel to Hawaii to learn the tricks of the trade.
The story of these protagonists is pretty straightforward. Abu Jayab is the oldest and most experienced surfer. He has a small metal shack where he keeps his boards. He has lost hope of ever leaving Gaza. While the sea has stopped providing for him as a fisherman, it offers him his only escape: surfing. Sabah recalls her days as surfer, watching a video made four years earlier with her family. Her father, proud of his capable daughter, was summoned to keep her out of the water by the coast guard when she grew older. But, the focus is on Ibrahim, who combines his jobs in a hospital and a metal workshop with surfing. He dreams of opening a surfing shop, but it is hard to import boards (they are confiscated by Israeli customs), and materials to make and maintain them are not readily available in Gaza. In addition, it is difficult to become part of international organisations. Luckily, Ibrahim has struck up a friendship with Matthew, who invites him to to Hawaii. After a number of futile efforts to get a visa in Egypt, Ibrahim finally manages to obtain one in Jerusalem. He travels to Hawaii where he is immediately confronted with the abundance of consumer products, surfing gear, and scantily clad women. Here, Matthew takes him on a tour visiting workshops.
Behind ‘the scenes’, Matthew is the founder of the Explore Corps, a non-profit organisation which organises outdoor education, recreation and arts projects. He brings Ibrahim to an interview on Hawaii’s local media platform Think Tech Hawaii. The Gaza Surf Club is one of the projects of the Explore Corps. All this remains invisible in the film, which prevents it from becoming a vehicle for an American NGO.
The film’s strength is its combination of interviews and everyday observations. It interweaves the stories of the protagonists and their relatives and friends, their dreams and passions, with a visual style that captures the context: the destruction, the scarcity. The hopeless situation these people live in is occasionally voiced, but is mainly presented as it appears: a background taken for granted, against which their lives unfold. We get to know their dreams and passions through their stories, and their daily lives through observations of meetings, dinners, work, and, of course, surfing. The result is a laid back film with a layered narrative that is anything but casual.
The cultural and economic differences between Gaza and Hawaii are obvious, and the two are explicitly set against each other in the film. But, these differences are never problematised. Instead, Gaza Surf Club shows the resilience of the human species, specifically of these people from Gaza. It is a humanistic film in that it presents them, not primarily as members of, and governed by, the religious/political powers that be, but as individuals perfectly capable of making their own decisions, based on their values and beliefs. As such, Sabah’s father, who once taught her to swim, wants her to enjoy life and is fed up with the limits other people set for his daughters, takes her out once more and lets her ride her surfboard.