Gaza cinema struggles amid post-war ruins

This summer’s Israeli assault on Gaza caused further setbacks to the already struggling film production industry.

Khalil al-Mozayen used scenes from the summer war in one of his latest film projects [Khaled Alashqar/Al Jazeera]

Gaza – The effects of this summer’s devastating war in Gaza are well-documented: More than 2,100 Palestinians died, hundreds of thousands were displaced and scores of homes were destroyed.

Lesser known is the impact of Israel’s 51-day bombing campaign on the region’s already struggling cinema scene. Months after the war ended, Palestinian artists and film-makers whose materials were destroyed by bombs say they are slowly starting to rebuild.

Khalil al-Mozayen, a 50-year-old Palestinian director in Gaza, has long been angling to revive cinema in the economically ravaged Gaza Strip – but the summer bombing campaign turned his entire film archive to ashes. In an interesting twist, this destruction became part of a new film project, titled “Sarah”, which was recently chosen to be part of this month’s Dubai Film Festival, which runs until Tuesday. The film, which chronicles the story of a Palestinian refugee named Sarah, includes scenes of the destruction of Mozayen’s office.

“Although Israel’s latest war destroyed my office and entire archive of films, I did not lose my determination to continue my film production career,” Mozayen told Al Jazeera. “I turned the ruins and rubble of [my office in] al-Basha tower into a real movie scene that highlights the ability of the Palestinian people to rise from the ashes like a phoenix.”

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Though decades have passed since the closure of Gaza’s last theatre – the al-Nasr cinema, shut down during the first Intifada amid complaints that it was an inappropriate distraction from the Palestinian struggle – the art of cinema remains strongly etched in the memory of Gazans who witnessed its heyday. Still, for many Palestinian youths, the experience of a dark theatre and the film countdown screen are but a distant dream.

Mahmoud Abu Ghalwa, 27, a film producer who works with Mozayen, is hoping to one day reopen some of Gaza’s old cinemas. He won first place in a Norwegian film festival two years ago for a documentary highlighting the rights of disabled residents of Gaza, and one of his dreams is to watch a film with his family in a local cinema.

Cinema is a weapon by which they fight to achieve freedom of speech and contact the outside world that they were denied access to by the Israeli occupation's closure and blockade of Gaza.

by - Khalil al-Mozayen, film director

“I believe in the significant role of cinema to make the reality better, while cinema’s dark hall is a gateway towards other cultures and societies,” Abu Ghalwa told Al Jazeera. “It is also a gateway towards freedom and a means to break the closure imposed on us both by society’s traditions and the occupation.”

Mozayen said some members of his film production team have not hesitated “to produce films reflecting the tragic reality and send a message to the world that the Israeli war, which destroyed their office, won’t ever destroy their love of cinema and arts.

“Cinema is a weapon by which they fight to achieve freedom of speech and contact the outside world that they were denied access to by the Israeli occupation’s closure and blockade of Gaza,” Mozayen added. Another new project his team is working on is a film titled “Hannibal”, related to an Israeli attack in Rafah this summer that killed dozens of people.

“Life in Gaza is a risky adventure,” he said.

Reham al-Ghazali, a 24-year-old film director from Gaza whose work has been supported by a Palestinian organisation called Shashat (“screens” in Arabic), which supports national cinema, had a film called “Outside the Frame” in the 2013 International Film Festival. It tells the story of two young Gazan women coming to grips with the region’s harsh realities.

Before the summer war in Gaza, Ghazali was planning to make another film highlighting the impact of internal Palestinian divisions on social relations in Gaza, but the war changed her plans; she is now planning to produce a film about the brutalities she witnessed.

“The war against Gaza was extremely terrible and unimaginable, to the point that it made me feel that I’m witnessing a horror movie,” Ghazali told Al Jazeera. “It destroyed my city and killed many children and women who were innocent.  This all has made me think seriously about ideas for a film that would tell a story that I myself … lived through earlier this summer.”

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The al-Nasr cinema building still stands in the centre of Gaza city, but it long ago stopped showing films. Once one of the largest theatres in the Middle East, al-Nasr remains a testament to cinema’s heyday in Gaza in the 1980s, when various theatres competed for customers. Today, al-Nasr’s doors are sealed with slabs of concrete.

A few hundred metres away, al-Amer cinema stands similarly abandoned, its interior blackened after vandals set the building ablaze in the 1990s.

In an attempt to bolster struggling film-makers in Gaza, the French Cultural Centre (CCF) was launched in the 1980s to provide assistance. Funded by the Consulate General of France in Jerusalem, the centre supports social and cultural activities in Gaza, including visual arts, film and language studies.

The centre, which recently developed a new screening hall in Gaza, uses its modest budget to organise competitions for short films to encourage the growth of cinema in Gaza.

“We strongly support cinema in the Palestinian society and our priority is to support the young film-makers, providing them with the needed equipment,” CCF director Anthony Bruno told Al Jazeera. “We specified a hall in our centre to present and watch films produced by the Palestinian youth as a part of our programme to support, revive and enrich the culture in general and film-making and production in particular.” 

Source: Al Jazeera