'The Apollo of Gaza' ('L'Apollon de Gaza'): Film Review

Courtesy of AKKA Films
A seductive, coy look at a much-covered news story.

Nicolas Wadimoff goes to Gaza and Jerusalem to explore the mystery of an ancient statue discovered at sea.

Balancing romance with skepticism and a touch of mischief, Nicolas Wadimoff's The Apollo of Gaza looks at the tale of an astonishing archaeological find and asks both "Is it a hoax?" and "If not, where did it go?" While viewers may walk away feeling slightly toyed with, the bones of the story as it is generally understood are here; what we get beyond that is the kind of personal voice that newspaper accounts can't offer. The doc should have art house appeal in markets around the globe, stoking interest in a story whose next chapter may take years to begin.

In 2013, a fisherman in Gaza saw the shape of a man buried in shallow waters. He thought it was someone who drowned. But upon closer inspection, it was a statue — one so heavy it capsized his boat and broke tow ropes when he first tried to pull it up. Eventually he got it to the shore, then home. Along the way, he realized he might have something very valuable on his hands — something that needed to be hidden until he could figure out how to sell it.

If the statue is what it seems from photographs — a bronze sculpture of Apollo, made sometime between the first and fifth centuries BC — the fisherman was certainly right. But as it sneaks up on the truth from multiple vantage points, the film spends a fair chunk of its first half with experts who debate the Apollo's authenticity. In nearby Jerusalem, a scholar dearly wants to examine the thing in person, but political realities prevent him from traveling there; another man, a former dealer in antiquities, is certain from the pictures that the statue's a fake. For one thing, he thinks the patina is all wrong, suggesting the bronze has been aged artificially.

But perhaps the surprisingly good state of the statue — it has no barnacles on it, as it should after centuries underwater — means only that it was found recently on land and somehow made its way into the water? One interviewee notes that "found at sea" means more or less "found nowhere" when it comes to the law. If smugglers dug it up somewhere, the government ruling that territory would surely claim it as a national treasure. Perhaps a crew of looters were trying to sneak it across the Mediterranean when officials approached, forcing them to either toss it overboard or be arrested.

Theories are tossed back and forth. Wadimoff elects not to identify any of his speakers, which is frustrating for literal-minded viewers who want most to know which hypotheses are the likeliest — does that man saying "Of course it's real!" have an economic interest in the outcome? In some cases, the speaker's background seems clear: One man who is convinced nobody in Gaza would be able to make a fake bronze this big should know — as we watch him work, he's clearly making replicas of ancient art for commercial sale.

Without quite saying so, the pic seems to come around to the belief that the Apollo is real, beginning to focus on the story of where it was taken and what happened next. Here, the interviewees are cagier than the filmmaker; several acknowledge that they will not tell us everything they know. One archaeologist who was taken to examine it in its hiding place came away heartbroken — he knew it was real, that it was priceless and beautiful, and that it belonged to the people of Gaza. Others share the latter belief, largely because having a masterpiece in the region would draw tourists.

Finally, we are sitting in the office of a governmental antiquities minister, who implies that the authorities do have the Apollo in custody but must wait for safer circumstances before they show it. This leads to theories that the Apollo is held not by the governing wing of Hamas but by its military side, whose operations are shadier. It is taboo to discuss the military wing, we're told, which is why so much is implied and so little is said clearly.

Where officials won't talk, the movie will. Wadimoff offers dreamy sequences in which shots of the sea are accompanied by voiceover speaking, maybe, for Apollo himself. We may want to lay our eyes on him, but, having waited for millennia, he can sit out another war or two before being worshipped by another generation of mortals.

Production companies: Akka Films, National Film Board of Canada
Director-screenwriter: Nicolas Wadimoff
Producers: Philippe Coeytaux, Colette Loumede
Director of photography: Frank Rabel
Editor: Christine Hoffet
Composer: Claude Fradette
Venue: Cairo International Film Festival (International Panorama)

In Arabic and French
78 minutes