'Born in Gaza' ('Nacido en Gaza'): Film Review

Courtesy of La Claqueta
Hard-hitting and inevitably heartbreaking, but fails to exploit the richness of its material

This Spanish documentary, shot in 2014, examines the effects of the Israel-Palestine conflict on Palestinian children.

In July 2014, images of an air strike on a Gaza beach which killed four soccer-playing youngsters went global, prompting Spanish director Hernan Zin to fly in and shoot a documentary about the plight of Palestine’s children. The result is Born in Gaza, an inevitably powerful and depressing record of man’s inhumanity to its own offspring whose primary virtue is in retelling a story which constantly needs to be retold.

It feels hastily put together, which is the price it pays for its striking immediacy, and it lacks the sophistication, depth and objectivity of B.Z. Goldberg’s Promises (2001), which involved somewhat older Palestinian and Israeli children engaging with one another. But Born in Gaza has a directness and clarity deriving from its apparent wish to straightforwardly celebrate the lives of these children whilst criticizing politicians’ attempts to destroy them. Shocking and upsetting Born in Gaza inevitably is, but subtle it isn’t, and a longer gestation period could have made for a far richer exploration of the subject.

Zin tells the stories of 10 children as young as 6. They include Mohamed, who searches through mounds of trash for things to sell; Udai, who saw his older brother die; Mahmud, the son of a farmer whose land has been rendered unfit and whose camels and lambs have fallen victim to the bombings; Rajaf, whose father was killed while trying to save lives in his ambulance; and Sondos, a little girl with a wounded stomach.

The children speak plainly and heartrendingly about their experiences, recounting the effects of the war on their lives, but either unaware of or unable to properly explain its causes. “We don’t have missiles or tanks,” one child explains. “We grow vegetables, not bombs,” Mahmud pleads.

Three months later, following the August 2014 ceasefire, Zin returns to pick up the kids' stories. The promised help has not been forthcoming, and there is implicit criticism here of not only the Israelis carrying out the bombings, but also of the Palestinian authorities. Rajaf and his friends pay poignant homage to his dead father by sprinkling water from a plastic bottle onto his grave. Motasem now sees the ghost of his dead brother at night and suffers from posttraumatic stress: He requires psychological help, which he is not permitted to have.

There is no direct political debate whatsoever, presumably because the politics is meaningless to these children, and no voiceover: Zin has chosen to silence the adult voices and let the children’s words and the images speak for themselves. Statistics are printed printed baldly onscreen, the cold numbers behind the horrors, including those referring to the number of dead and wounded children. Repeated aerial shots in this generally good-looking film reveal the shocking devastation caused by the attacks, including at the UN hospital where Sondos is a patient. The children are sometimes shown in slow motion as they move through the rubble, presumably an attempt by Zin, who assumes most of the tech credits, to make the audience contemplate the children as individuals rather than as mere statistics.

The treatment is knowingly unbalanced: The impact of the conflict on the enemy’s side is never addressed, and neither is the responsibility for the chaos of the children’s parents’ generation. But then again the word “Israel” is heard only once in the film, an editorial decision by Zin that can be interpreted in varying ways. There is no cheap pulling of heartstrings at any level, but Carlos Martin’s score, particularly over the final minutes, when we see children running happily toward the camera, doing what kids should do, comes dangerously close to spirited Chariots of Fire territory.

It’s a rather artificially upbeat conclusion to a documentary whose true subject is perhaps most clearly defined by Rajaf’s words: “I’d like to enter the resistance and do justice to my father.” Because what is really being sown in Gaza, of course, is not vegetables, but hatred.

Production companies: La Claqueta, Contramedia Films
Cast: Udai, Mohamed, Rajaf, Malak, Hamada, Sondos, Bisan, Motasem
Director-screenwriter-photographer-editor: Hernan Zin
Producers: Olmo Figueredo, Bebe, Jon Sistiaga
Composer: Carlos Martin
Sales: La Claqueta

No rating, 78 minutes