Cannes: Palestinian Brothers Offer Little-Seen Glimpse of Gaza
Identical twins Arab and Tarzan Abu Nasser’s Critics’ Week entry 'Degrade' tells the darkly comic tale of a pet lion, a hair salon and a combat zone.
When it comes to filmmaking siblings, Cannes has offered some serious brotherly love over the years. This time sees the Coen brothers head up the competition jury, while the Dardennes are two-time Palme d’Or winners. Now, all the way from Gaza, come Tarzan and Arab Abu Nasser, larger than life, long-haired identical twins who at first glance appear to have made it to the Croisette after a monthlong heavy metal tour.
Having already become known for their award-winning shorts (including 2013’s parody Condom Lead, the first from Gaza to have made it into Cannes competition), and a series of spectacular mock film posters, this year they unveil their first feature. A black comedy, Degrade — based on a true story — was shot in Jordan (for obvious practical reasons) and centers on a women’s hair salon in the middle of a Gazan war zone. But rather than Israeli invasions, the conflict going on outside is actually between the ruling government of Hamas and various influential families. And it's over a lion.
“There was a powerful family that had a lion from the zoo, and the government attacked this family to take it,” explains Tarzan. “When Hamas came to power in 2006, they looked to take out all of the various clans to assert their control, looking for reasons each time.”
Adds Arab, “They killed like 15 members of the family.”
From the carnage all around, the story jumps into the salon — a colorful, beautifying antithesis to the activity beyond the door — where a group of women from different social strata gather to discuss politics and the conditions of society.
“We wanted to tell our story through the point of view of women,” says Tarzan. “Around 80 to 90 percent of the world doesn’t know about the women in Gaza. They only know that she wears a cover [over her head] and she doesn’t have a voice. But if you look at the women, they’re the same as women anywhere in the world.”
Middle East Films have historically been male-focused, reflecting the patriarchal structures in the region, but films such as French-Lebanese Caramel and the Saudi feature Wadjda (from Un Certain Regard jury members Nadine Labaki and Haifaa Al Mansour, respectively) have begun to reverse that trend. The reversal continues, this time thanks to the Nasser brothers (whose real names are Mohammed and Ahmed Abu Nasser but have been called Arab and Tarzan ever since their grandfather gave them the nicknames when they were kids).
Earlier this year, two lion cubs from Gaza’s impoverished Rafah zoo were bought by another family. “These are the first lion’s sons,” says Arab. Degrade 2?