Film festival gives Gazans ‘chance to breathe’
Gaza City - Movie stars and other artists walked on a 40-metre-long red carpet rolled out to welcome them and other guests past lines of people, some clapping for them.
The scene is common at the annual Cannes Film Festival in southern France but this event was in Gaza, which hosted the Human Rights Film Festival for a second consecutive year.
The festival, titled Badna Nitnafas — Arabic for “We Want to Breathe” — aims to pump new life into Gaza.
Event organiser Khalil al-Mozayen said the festival’s message to the world “is that Gaza’s population wants a breath of fresh air. People want to breathe life. They are eager to breathe freedom and arts.”
In the absence of cinemas, the festival offered Gaza residents a chance to escape hardships for a bit of fun; to watch movies, Mozayen pointed out.
“We’re clearly trying to tell the world that Gaza is not a city of ‘terrorists’ but of ordinary peace-loving people who yearn to live a good life,” he said. “The bottom line is that Gaza has another face, a beautiful human face. People in Gaza are not terrorists. They love to live a good life and they can go out and watch a movie.”
Over four days in mid-May, about 70 films, including narrative features, documentaries and shorts, were screened — all free to the public.
While the Cannes Film Festival may be getting headlines, film fans who took advantage of the Gaza event said their version, which is certainly not nearly as flashy, is just as special.
Gaza housewife Maysa Al-Atrash said she was “excited” to attend. “I like an event like this, activities for me and my kids, a cultural event for the whole family to attend and enjoy,” she said.
The event, which was put on at the Rashad Shawa Cultural Centre in Gaza City, attracted an average of 1,500 people each day. People of all walks of life seemed happy to stride down the red carpet.
The carpet stretched from Gaza’s main street to the steps inside the cultural centre into a corridor that led to an exhibition hall, with four large screens showing the winning films. Mozayen welcomed the audience and guests, explaining that he hoped the event would help people get away from the miseries of war, at least briefly.
At the opening ceremony, a 60-minute film called The Idol relating the story of Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf, who won the popular TV contest Arab Idol in 2013, was shown.
Suma Kabariti, a 24-year-old Gaza resident, said she attended the festival because she wanted to watch Assaf.
“It’s a nice get-away from the war, devastation and violence to do something you like, in this case watch a movie,” Kabariti said.
The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli blockade for ten years since Hamas seized control of the densely populated and underdeveloped enclave. While poverty and unemployment swell, people have been deprived of basic services, such as electricity, which is generated for only four hours a day.
“Our festival team decided to have the event for the simple and marginalised people who were forgotten by our leaders,” said Mozayan, adding that “Hamas authorities prevented the festival’s organisers from having it at Gaza fishermen dock” on the sea.
Hamas has been trying to impose strict sharia law on Gaza, seeking to veil women and ban mixing the sexes in public.
“It is the right of the Gaza Strip people, and nobody else, to breathe, to feel free and to see an end to the current internal Palestinian division that damaged all aspects of life,” said Saed Sweirki, another festival organiser.
“Our message is clear: Gaza has the ability to live in peace, far from war and miseries.”
Over four days, 12 narrative films, 17 documentary films, 30 short narrative and documentary films and seven animated films were shown to crowds of clapping and laughing people, who eagerly attended the one-of-a-kind event.
Thirty years ago, there were ten movie theatres in Gaza but since the beginning of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987, the cinemas have been closed. However, some film directors are trying to revive cinema in Gaza.
“In the past three decades, Gaza people devoted their time to resisting the occupation,” Mozayen said. “Now, through our film festival, the people in Gaza will start going again to cinemas and enjoy watching films.”