‘Gaza Surf Club’: Film Review | TIFF 2016

Courtesy of TIFF
Memorable snapshots, but a deeper dive would have been welcome.

The youth of Gaza take to the waves in a documentary by Philip Gnadt and Mickey Yamine.

Many beaches are escapes from the everyday, but for residents of the Gaza Strip, the contrast between their piece of the Mediterranean and the reality of sieges and blockades is the difference between joy and despair. Focusing on three figures in the surf culture of Gaza City, directors Philip Gnadt and Mickey Yamine open an intriguing window on life under occupation. A welcome but sometimes frustratingly piecemeal perspective on life in a troubled region, Gaza Surf Club offers revelatory moments even when it’s skimming the surface.

The Germany-based filmmakers pursued their story over several years that included a period of military conflict in the Palestinian territory, which is locked between Israel and Egypt and subject to international boycotts. Niclas Reed Middleton’s camera is alert to the rubble and deprivation of war, but the documentary is notable for its concentration on the horizon and the expansiveness it engenders.

It was a documentary about surfers in Europe that initially inspired Abu Jayab as a kid; now he mentors youngsters who want to take up the sport. At 42, the fisherman is the oldest of the film’s subjects and something of a pioneer in a place where merely importing a surfboard is no simple feat. Recalling the scarcity of equipment and the need to take turns on a shared board, he says with an unapologetic glint in his eye, “During the war, I feared more for my boards than my children.”

There’s apparently no connection between Abu Jayab and the other figures in the doc, who represent key aspects of the sport vis-à-vis local tradition. Sabah, 15, is no longer allowed to swim or surf because she’s female — an element of the film that could have used more context and specifics. Whatever the details of the prohibition and its potential repercussions, they don’t stop Sabah’s ebullient father from taking her out on the water — nor do they stop younger girls from flocking around her, thrilled and fascinated, when she emerges from the waves.

It would have been good to spend more time with Sabah, who dreams of being famous and traveling. The details of her family life and the role of her mother remain hazy. But as the filmmakers zero in on such intimate and seemingly offhand moments as the teen painting her nails with “Islamic nail polish” — easily removed in case a teacher objects — they capture whole worlds of friction and resilience.

As they follow 23-year-old Ibrahim, the surfer with whom they spend the most time, Gnadt and Yamine uncover a partially told story of surf diplomacy. After many attempts to secure a visa, Ibrahim is able to fly to Hawaii, at the invitation of a surf aficionado named Matthew, whose occupation is never made clear. On Oahu, Ibrahim receives lessons in surfboard construction and repair, as well as tips on shaving with a safety razor. “In the past 10 days,” he notes without judgment, “I haven’t seen a single girl wearing all of her clothes.”

Gaza Surf Club lets the disparity between the Hawaiian island’s blue-green paradise and the gray ruins of Ibrahim’s hometown speak for itself. Though it leaves aggravating gaps in the stories it uncovers, the film delivers bracing evidence of the lure of the ocean, and of why Abu Jayab says that “in the waves, I’m in a different place, a different world.”

Production: Little Bridge Pictures in co-production with Westdeutscher Rundfunk and supported by Robert Bosch Stiftung
With: Ibrahim Arafat, Mohammed Abu Jayab, Sabah Abu Ghanem, Rajab Abu Ghanem, Matthew Olsen
Directors: Philip Gnadt, Mickey Yamine
Screenwriters: Philip Gnadt, Mickey Yamine
Producers: Benny Theisen, Mickey Yamine, Stephanie Yamine, Andreas Schaap
Executive producer: Mickey Yamine
Director of photography: Niclas Reed Middleton
Editors: Marlene Assmann, Helmar Jungmann
Composer: Sary Hany
Sales: XYZ Films

No rating, 87 minutes