'Gaza': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Powerful enough that many viewers won't mind the propaganda.

Directors Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell show what ordinary life looks like in Gaza in a beautifully shot, increasingly manipulative documentary.

For much of its running time, Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell's Sundance documentary Gaza achieves its ambitious professed goal, namely opening eyes to the side of Gaza that isn't usually seen in the news, the ordinary lives of people living in an extraordinary place that one subject calls "a big, open prison."

That it begins by asking "What do the people do when they're not under siege?" and ends by surrendering to what is basically propaganda, not just the footage and view of Gaza we see in the news, but a manipulative and disingenuous version of that view, isn't a surprise. Within the context of the doc, it seems almost inevitable, but I still watched for at least 50 captivated minutes hoping for restraint I probably should have known would eventually be surrendered.

The version of Gaza I know, the version of Gaza most TV viewers probably know, is one of poverty, tragedy and destruction, pictures of dead civilians and masked soldiers, of young men hurling rocks and buildings left in smoking ruins.

That's surely a side of this coastal strip of land holding two million people, one border closed by Egypt (not that you'd really know it), the other border closed by Israel (not that you'd ever be allowed to forget it) and bound in by the Mediterranean. It's the sea that's actually the dominant feature of Gaza and of the documentary, a pervasive source of hope and sadness, a reminder of a source of food and industry and freedom that many residents are old enough to still remember. The rest, assuming Keane and McConnell are treating things accurately, spend an astounding percentage of their lives just staring out. The beaches are a location for lamentation, for flagging livelihood and occasionally still for some recreation. They're also a fruitful source of sunsets, nighttime parties and sad overcrowding, all captured by McConnell, a photographer who also serves as cinematographer on a documentary that is filled with breathtaking imagery that rarely makes it into media coverage of Gaza.

The directors illustrate Gaza's day-to-day life through a series of characters from all walks of life. We see how they live, hear their war-torn histories and watch them stare out into the sea.

There's teenage Ahmed, whose father has three wives and literally dozens of children, all living in a tiny home in a refugee camp. He dreams of making a living fishing, but has the soul of a poet, opining wisdom like, "I live by the sea and I'll die by the sea" and "There are days when we eat only salt" as he stares out at the water.

I assume Ahmed wasn't coached and that 19-year-old Karma really does enjoy sitting and playing her cello overlooking the ocean. Karma is one of several characters here who practically demand follow-up details nobody wants to provide. In a place where there's no food, the water isn't drinkable and there's only electricity for four hours a day, who gets to live in the relative comfort that Karma's family has? And how is her English so perfect? These aren't accusatory questions. They're questions I have once my eyes have been open to the myriad ways people in Gaza live.

It's not like other people don't discuss their incomes. A good-humored cab driver, who proves to be the point of intersection for many of the subjects, talks about a nation that lives in debt and the 20 months he spent in prison for failing to pay his bills. Among his customers — when he isn't sipping thick coffee and staring out at the sea — are a local theater director, an aspiring hip-hop artist with a tragic backstory and a woman who does funny voices.

There's a vainly preening lifeguard and surfer, a seemingly wealthy woman who stages small fashion shows, a paramedic working with no life-saving resources and an aging tailor who is the only person in the documentary to say "Hamas" out loud — Gaza's ruling authority is mentioned in online chyrons — and to calmly say that as long as Hamas is in charge, reconciliation is probably impossible.

The press notes for Gaza say Hamas is one of the villains of the story, but that's a ludicrous statement. Hamas may be one of the villains of the actual historical record, but it's a non-factor in the documentary. Occasionally we pass by a military-affiliated figure with a rocket launcher or a machine gun, but to watch Gaza you'd think such weaponry was only used to be fired in the air when the Israelis free unjustly imprisoned Palestinians.

It's not that I'm saying Keane and McConnell were supposed to pretend that violence isn't reality in Gaza just because their intended goal was showing "normal" life. Clearly this is the nightmare of normal life — none of those Hamas figures with their rocket launchers are enough part of "normal" life to be featured characters — and filming was taking place in May 2018, one of the most violent and deadly periods in Gaza's history. There's just a feeling of uncomfortable manipulation in having a film start with Karma complaining, in her unexplained perfect English, "The only thing they give us is sympathy" and then spending the last 30-plus minutes primarily on pulling bodies from the rubble, children wailing in slow motion, accompanied by a Ray Fabi score that permits no beat to play without aggressive underlining.

More than half of Gaza already made the same points doing much less. I was moved by the sad-eyed hopelessness of a man who once owned a full clothing factory and now lives on the labors of two sewing machines; by the woman pointing to old photos of a cosmopolitan Gaza and wondering if she made a mistake by bringing up her children here; by the old fisherman telling stories of humiliation at sea by patrolling gunboats; and, yes, by all of those people staring out at the sea. Of course, by the end, Keane and McConnell are tugging so hard at heartstrings that most viewers will be unable to resist, even the ones who can see the puppeteers in constant motion.

Directors: Garry Keane, Andrew McConnell
Producers: Garry Kean, Andrew McConnell, Brandan J. Byrne, Paul Cadieux
Executive producers: Trevor Birney, Christian Beetz, Maryse Rouillard
Editor: Mick Mahon
Cinematographer: Andrew McConnell
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Documentary Competition)

93 minutes