Hadeel Assali: ‘Most People Would Never See This Side of Gaza Society; Only a Family Member Could’

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At the very moment he sent me the audio, I made the movie in less than two days. I just took footage [of my family] that I already had…it it was just really to get the word out about what was going on. , a PhD candidate at Columbia University who is from Gaza, shares the context in which she made the short Shuja’iyah: Land of the Brave. Shuja’iyah is a densely populated urban neighborhood of the Gaza Strip that came under devastating Israeli assault on the night of July 19, 2014, essentially leveling the entire area. Film Synopsis: Shuja’iyah: Land of the Brave represents one filmmaker’s personal reflection on the meaning of “crimes against humanity” in the context of Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’ waged in the Gaza Strip in 2014, using footage of her family filmed in the summer of 2013 juxtaposed against audio from the summer of 2014. Assali posed the question, when we say ‘crimes against humanity’, what ‘humanity’ are we talking about?” BPFF: What is the film about for someone who hasn’t seen it? HA: The film is a call, a plea for help. There was a recording from a journalist in Shuja’iyah as the massacre was taking place. And the Red Cross, and basically the world, were not responding. He’s watching people get massacred and the Red Cross isn’t coming, they’re not answering their phones, and he’s just pleading for the world to respond. My cousin from Gaza sent me the audio recording of this guy, and out of desperation said to please do something with this — anything. It needed a translation, since it was in Arabic. And the only way for people here to understand that was to make a film. I decided, instead of putting images of destruction and death, to show what this place is, and who these people are, who are being terrorized like this. The footage is my own family around different parts of Gaza. Nevertheless, it’s daily life in the Gaza Strip juxtaposed against the horrible massacre that’s happening, where anybody could be targeted. BPFF: Who is speaking in the film? Who are we seeing in the film? HA: So in Gaza, they have this app called Zello. It functions kind of like a walkie-talkie, and they were using it pretty frequently in the war. You get on a certain channel, and everyone that’s signed on to that channel can hear people speak. That’s how this recording was made — on this app. People were using it to transmit information to Gaza and beyond. My cousin and several others heard it because they were on that channel, and they recorded it. The people in the film are mostly my extended family who live in Al-Maghazi refugee camp, which in the central part of the Gaza Strip. Aunts, uncles, a lot of little cousins… And there are a lot of people from around Gaza City. You see people hanging out at the port, you see one scene towards the end where my uncle takes us to the ruins of a prison where he and all my other uncles were imprisoned — it’s been preserved as a kind of a museum. I was really lucky to be there during Eid of 2013, when my three uncles go from house to house on ‘Eidiyeh, and I got to tag along and see so many relative in one go, so that’s a lot of what you see. It’s kind of a homecoming for me. BPFF: You were just there again recently – what did you see? HA: I’d say that it’s … the worst it’s ever been. There is a very serious cloud of depression and anxiety about the war returning, because none of the demands have been met. More than 10,000 people have been smuggled out to try and find another life. And recently there was a whole boatload of Palestinians that sunk in the Mediterranean as they were trying to get out. It’s pretty well known that most of the borders are open — and pretty much all of the young people will try and leave — every single one of my cousins and friends there asked me, “how you can get me the hell out of here? I just want to get out.” There’s over 50% unemployment…I’m usually really against portraying the Gaza Strip as a place of despair and a place of destruction and a place of negativity, because there is so much life there. And there is life there — it’s not that there isn’t life there — but times are really tough right now. And that was the main feature of this trip. I went to Shuja’iyah, and I saw all the destruction. You see people hanging out at their homes that have turned to rubble, because they just don’t have anywhere to go. They might go stay with family or they might go stay at the schools that have been turned into shelters. But one guy I talked to said, “This is our home. It holds us back, even if it’s just rubble.” He couldn’t leave it. He spends the night at a relative’s but he comes back and spends all day at his house. And this isn’t a poor neighborhood — these are nice homes. But 2,000 homes have been completely destroyed, literally holes in the ground. I don’t think any home has been spared from even partial damage. If you go to Shuja’iyah now, you’ll just see all the people there. It’s a lull. It’s a post-war haze, and they haven’t quite recovered. It’s heavy. People are scared. People are worried that the war will come back, and it will be worse than before. BPFF: Why did you decide to make the film, and why is it important now? HA: At the moment I made it, it was a crisis. At the very moment he sent me the audio, I made the movie in less than two days. I just took footage I already had that I was slowly working with. It’s not exactly a cinematic masterpiece, but it was just really to get the word out about what was going on with the Red Cross. Why aren’t they responding? BPFF: What do you think is the value of the contrasting visual and audio narratives simultaneously? HA: I think if anything, the contradiction keeps the viewer a little uncomfortable. For me, anyway, there are some really pleasant scenes. I love the scene with my great uncle and his little granddaughter. And the little kids with the older men. There is something really tender about that, whereas in any other circumstance you would see these men and in our context in the US, those are what the American images of a terrorist. But yet you see them here, hugging and kissing these kids, eating ice cream with me. Being uncles. Most people would never see that — that such a deep look into Gaza society that only a family member could get that close. I don’t think it’s that easy to see that deeply into the family, when there aren’t bombs falling. To me, there is a peace; a lot lot love. A lot of love. And with the audio, I guess it builds tension that is painful.

–Alia Gilbert for BPFF

screens on October 19, 2014 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston as part of a slot about the ongoing crisis in Gaza, and at various other times throughout the festival as part of a repeating thematic thread. View full schedule and buy tickets