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A crying child, an explosion, mounds of rubble and jumbled rebar are common images to emerge from Gaza, a strip of land with 26 miles of coastline and a defunct harbor. Germany-based filmmakers Philip Gnadt and Mickey Yamine are betting that Gaza and surfing — a sport/lifestyle often associated with shimmering seas and coral sunsets — have never been coupled together.
“These people are trapped in the world’s largest open-air prison and ruled by war,” Gnadt told The Hollywood Reporter, speaking from the Dubai International Film Festival, which closed Wednesday night.
Gnadt and Yamine, the latter originally from neighboring Egypt, spent five weeks in the occupied territory shooting Gaza Surf Club, a documentary that follows the lives of three people: Abu Jayab, an elder-type sage; Sabah, a 15-year-old girl who is no longer allowed to surf or swim because she is a woman; and Ibrahim, 23, who one day hopes to build a clubhouse where the surfers of Gaza can communally hang out.
Old and young, men and women alike are drawn to the beaches, seeking freedom in the roughly six miles of open ocean allotted to them. (Israeli police and coast guard strictly patrol the water border.) The Palestinian territory, which shares a border with Egypt and Israel, is home to 1.7 million citizens.
Gaza Surf Club drowns in supple water shots and golden-hour portraits but doesn’t ignore the surroundings, scenes filled with the deprivation of war.
“So many locals are used to seeing news crews come in. They talk about war, give their canned quotes about Gaza and the film crews leave,” said Yamine. “We were there for five weeks, and after the first interview, some of the guys in the film like Abu Jayab were like, ‘Now what?’ So we knew we needed to sit with them for a while, stay a while and live their lives with them every day in order for them to actually open up.”
The film originally got its sea legs thanks to Robert Bosch Stiftung, a charitable foundation out of Germany that supports the arts.
“Every funding we applied for we got,” added Yamine. The budget for Gaza Surf Club swelled to $350,000, which allowed for the crew to plot their entry and exit points as well as reschedule their travel dates; a conflict broke out when they were first meant to be filming.
Gaza Surf Club premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.
“One of the things we hear in Toronto was that we’ve managed to ‘humanize’ people that are often thought of as less than that,” said Yamine.
“And this is when you realize how badly media brainwashed us. They think everyone from Gaza are either crazy fanatical terrorists or victims, and everyone forgets about the 12-year-old kid who got a surfboard from her father and wants to play in the water,” he added.
In a region where politics and religion are always under the spotlight, the two producer-directors aimed to take a different approach, although the duo didn’t shy away from speaking about politics, whether it was the U.S. president-elect or Aleppo.
“Aleppo is the new Gaza, attention-wise maybe,” said Yamine. “It’s not a conflict between two countries among each other. It’s lots of different fractions, and it’s super complicated over there. You’ve got the Syrian rebels, al-Qaida, the Kurds, the Christians. It’s so horrific and so bad, you can’t blame one person. Just like in the states it wasn’t one person that got Trump elected. A whole lot of people voted for him.”
In Gaza, there are no movie theaters, no airports, no trains, no incoming boats and limited television stations. But Gnadt is excited to screen the film to its citizens.
“It is so isolated,” he said, “but even sometimes they need a reminder that a place like Gaza isn’t just about war.”
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