Andrew McConnell was first drawn to Gaza by the surfing. The Irish photographer, himself a surfer, was so fascinated by the subculture that he crossed the Egyptian border in 2010, stayed for a few weeks, photographed the local surfers and published the resulting photo essay around the world.
That caught the eye of Garry Keene, a documentary filmmaker. Keene was working on a project about conflict photographers at the time, and had long been intrigued by life in the secluded Mediterranean strip.
When Keene contacted McConnell, they hit it off instantly. For starters, they grew up 40 kilometres apart in Ireland. But it was more than that: both men wanted to make a film showing a different side of this Arab slice of the world that few outsiders ever get to see.
The result is Gaza, a feature-length documentary that took the duo four years, 250 hours of footage and three visits to the strip to finish.
“I’ve always thought it much more interesting to deal with situations from a personal
point of view,” Keene says, sitting on a chez lounge beside McConnell in a gallery space during their visit to Toronto recently, during the Hot Docs film festival.
“That’s where it all starts and where it all ends,” he continues. “The political nature of the situation is the wrong approach, I think. It’s a one-sided approach. I think you get closer to the facts of the matter just by talking to people – just figuring out how they’re affected, how they’re dealing with the political landscape around them.”
Their film showcases a tapestry of different lives. Viewers meet a gifted cellist, a teenage fisherman and his 40 siblings, an exuberant theatre director, an undersupplied paramedic and a singing cabbie, among others. The narrative weaves between each, occasionally touching on Hamas and Israel (most people don’t like either), but mainly sticking to the stories of their lives, stitched together with long, beautifully composed shots of food markets, seaside sunsets and bustling kitchens.
“We wanted to make sure it was all about the people, let them speak for themselves,” Keene says.
Gaining access wasn’t hard. Gaza, the filmmakers agree, is filled with trusting, honest people. The harder part was whittling down their film to a tight 90 minutes. McConnell had shot 100 hours of the 2012 war alone; in the final product, it lasts seven minutes.
Then there was the content itself. Their footage of a paramedic struggling to mend injuries in pitch darkness with rockets flying overhead is unimaginable.
“Occasionally, if you feel yourself getting emotional, you just lock it out quickly, focus on technical issues or whatever,” McConnell says. “The camera’s a good barrier to help you block out what’s happening.”
The focus, after all, wasn’t the difficulty of their filmmaking process. It was about the difficulty of life in Gaza.
“The people deserved the cinematic treatment of their lives,” Keene says. “We were rebelling against the kinda crap news footage – horrible, shaky, handheld, dirty imagery that speaks volumes in terms of the look of something…. We just felt, if we’re going to go into these peoples’ lives and gain their trust and ask them to tell us their story, that we were going to do them justice and create something very beautiful.”
Gaza opens in Toronto at the Hot Docs cinema on June 21.