Two powerful documentaries from the Middle East should be put on the must-see list for New Yorkers with a passion for justice. Sharing the theme of the impact of war on children and a partnership between Arab filmmakers and Europeans of conscience, they should definitively answer the question so much in the news today: why do they hate us?
“Tears of Gaza”, which opened yesterday at the Cinema Village, is an unstinting, Guernica-like look at the horror visited on the Palestinian people by the Israeli Wehrmacht (called the IDF) that is focused on three children who lost their parents and other family members in the winter of 2008-2009.
While watching the television news, veteran Norwegian director/writer/actress Vibeke Løkkeberg saw a story about a boy crying over his father who was killed during an Israeli bombing. Upset over the failure of the world media to cover the ongoing brutality that reminded her of the US invasion of Iraq, she wrote a script for the film based on three orphaned children.
Teaming up with her husband and producer Terje Kristiansen, the two were prevented by both Israel and Egypt from entering Gaza. As was the case with Libya before Qaddafi’s overthrow and Syria today, the international press was blocked from Gaza. Unlike Libya and Syria, which were and are ruled by “villains” (excepting of course when they were brokering deals with Western multinationals or torturing victims of the CIA on behalf of the “war on terror”), Israel’s blitzkrieg received the endorsement of American and European elites and was not likely to inspire newspapers or television networks to risk their reporters’ lives over a war against “Hamas terrorists trying to destroy Israel”.
As necessity is the mother of invention, Løkkeberg and Kristiansen ended up with footage shot by Palestinian photojournalists Yosuf Abu Shreah, Mwafaq al Khateeb, and Saed al Sabaa who were in Gaza at the time. Editing and postproduction was done in Norway.
The film starts on a wistful note showing Palestinians at the beach and celebrating a young couple’s marriage. And then all hell breaks loose. In unrelenting detail, you see Israeli jets and helicopters destroying civilian homes and leaving dead bodies strewn everywhere as ambulances speed here and there collecting the still-living. When you see the obvious defenselessness of the Gaza slums and the aerial terror being rained down on them, you feel a rising sense of anger at the Zionist entity. If you were for the Palestinians before you saw the movie, your solidarity will increase. If you were sitting on the fence (and those sorts of people should be dragooned into seeing it), you will find reason enough to oppose Israel. And for those who know how to connect the dotted lines, there is every reason to understand why al-Assad—up to now—has been getting away with Gaza-style slaughter of his own people and why you should demonstrate on Saturday against him.
The press notes for “Tears of Gaza” includes an epigraph from Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Opening at Maysles Cinema on October 8th, “In My Mother’s Arms” is focused on three war orphans just like “Tears of Gaza”. Filmed during the final days of the U.S. occupation of Iraq (excluding the remaining mercenary forces of course), it tells the story of Husham Al Thabe, a young, handsome, and chain-smoking Iraqi man who runs an orphanage for 32 children in a two-story house in the Al-Sadr neighborhood, Baghdad’s poorest slum and a frequent target of senseless bombings by Sunni terrorists. Although the film, like “The Tears of Gaza”, lacks any didactic narration of the sort found in more explicitly political films, Husham’s mission speaks for a break with the sectarian strife that has marked Iraq since the early 2000s, intentionally fostered by American imperialism. The orphans are Sunni, Shia, Turkman and Kurd, a cross-section of the country’s population and obviously representing Husham’s intention to heal the nation’s wounds.
The film begins with Husham stopping his car beneath a bridge and approaching two homeless boys. Do they have families, he asks? No, they were killed. How do you survive? The answer: begging. He invites them to come with him and they do. He provides a warm and supportive environment for all the kids, even if he is one step ahead of the landlord who seeks to evict him. Unlike the state orphanages, which are notorious for their mistreatment of children, Husham’s relies totally on private donations, mostly from humble bazaar merchants who give hundreds rather than millions of dollars.
The most poignant of the children is 7-year old Saif, a Kurd who barely remembers his mother who was killed by a terrorist bomb along with his father. When other children taunt him by calling out his mother’s name—Mujada—he attacks them in a blind rage.
The name of the film derives from a play that Husham mounts with the help of a theater director based in the Al-Sadr slum. “In my mother’s arms” is a kind of oratorio devoted to the vision of mother and child reunion, even if only in the realm of the imagination. It stars Saif who sings a lament about life’s cruelties. Despite the sadness of the play, Saif achieves a kind of psychological breakthrough by finding a reason to live: the chance that others can appreciate his performance.
The film is co-directed by two Iraqis: Atia and Mohammad Al-Daraji. Atia founded Iraq Al-Rafidan, a full-service film and video production company with a mission to give a voice to the Iraqi people. The Al-Daraji’s partnered with Humam Film, a UK/Dutch company established in 2006 “to seek and explore individual creativity while producing films with a social conscience and impact.” This of course is the kind of partnership between NATO countries and the Arab world that should serve as an example.
The film begins with some shocking statistics about the number of orphans the war has left. You get some sense of the depth of the problem by reading an Alternet article dated December 18, 2007:
Iraq’s anti-corruption board revealed on Saturday that there were five million Iraqi orphans as reported by official government statistics, urging the government, parliament, and NGOs to be in constant contact with Iraq’s parentless children.
That’s about 1/6th of the country. For comparison’s sake, the U.S. has just over 2 million orphans even though it is nearly ten times the size of Iraq.
Meanwhile, the government of Iraq has demonstrated hostility toward private aid even when its own institutions are worse than useless. Alternet reported:
Maysoun al-Damlouji, a member of the parliament’s Civil Society Organizations Committee, slammed a recent government decision that closed down all private orphanages. “Instead of helping private institutions improve their performance and remove all obstacles hindering their work, the Iraqi government decided to close them down, adding to the complexity of the situation in the state-run institutions.
This is one instance in which an exception to the drive toward privatization hastened by the invasion and occupation of Iraq works would benefit the people. Or perhaps the more important lesson to be drawn is that the clash between state-ownership and privately-owned institutions is secondary to the more important criterion, namely whether a government serves the people or the people serve the government—the struggle that virtually defined the Arab Spring that is ongoing.