These past two weeks saw one of the most violent attacks on Palestinians by Israel when the Israeli army invaded the Jenin refugee camp, which resulted in many casualties and several arrests. Palestinians responded with fatal operations. The Israeli occupation of Palestine has always provided rich subject matter for Arab cinema, with various films tackling the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since 1948 Nakba, but in the 1990s a new wave of Palestinian filmmakers like Hany Abu-Assad, Elia Suleiman and Rashid Mashharawi gave Palestinian film new meaning in the wake of the 1987 Intifada.
In general, cinema has always been a tool of documentation. Whether in documentary or feature films, it depicted conflicts around the world, from the World War I and II and the Cold War to the Iranian Revolution. War films might be considered one of the richest genres in history where it can tell the most delicate human stories during these conflicts and battles.
The Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo screened the Palestinian film Gaza mon amour (2020) last Sunday following the ongoing conflict in Palestine. Its title being a reference to Alain Resnais’s 1959 Hiroshima mon amour, which tells the story of a French actress shooting a film about the impact of the atomic bomb of Hiroshima, during which she has an affair with a Japanese architect who lost his family to the bombing, Gaza mon amour is an equally place-centred love story.
Directed by the Palestinian twin brothers Tarzan and Arab Nasser, Gaza mon amour evokes the horrors of the occupation: raids and conflicts. It draws a picture of how that city forces its restrictions upon the lives of its residents and how Palestinians are forced to live by the terms of the Israeli boundaries, all of which is embodied in the daily lives of the heroes.
The the couple at the centre is made up of Issa (Salim Daw), a 60-year-old fisherman, and Siham (Hiam Abbass), a widow living with her divorced daughter Leila (Maisa Abd Elhadi), both seamstresses at a women’s clothing store in the market where Issa heads to sell his of fish.
Issa has to show his work permit every night to the authorities so that he can sail out to ply his trade. Ironically enough, one night his net catches life-size statue standing up. He takes it home and hides it after he covers its genitals, wondering whether it is a priceless treasure. It will become a source of headache and confusion in relation to the authorities.
Siham is shocked by the news that the owner of the store wants to cut down her salary, due to inflation, so she wants to make a fresh start at the local university.
Issa secretly admires Siham and is constantly plucking up the courage to approach her in any way. On the other hand his young sister Manal (Manal Awad) is trying her best to choose a wife for him from their neighbourhood.
Samir (George Iskandar), Issa’s friend and a store owner, informs Issa during one of their late-night chats over tea, that he wants to use all his savings to travel to Europe and leave his hometown Gaza, complaining about how life in Gaza has become almost impossible due to power cuts and air strikes and, above all, his business is not doing well: sales are too low to make ends meet.
Directors and screenwriters Tarzan and Arab Nasser successfully achieve a fine balance between subtle humor and the tragic story of Gaza through their two protagonists. Siham, however, does not become aware of Issa’s interest until he decides to follow her into the market. Since they take the same vehicle, Issa tries to initiate some kind of conversation with her till they reach the market where he holds the umbrella for her. Desperate for an excuse to interact with her, he heads to her store, taking all his trousers and asking her to make them a little shorter even though they fit him perfectly. At first she says this is a woman-only store but then she relents and he ends up wearing trousers that are too short for him.
Nevertheless, Siham’s mind is elsewhere, thinking of her daughter’s future and hoping she will find a new husband or pursue a career to secure her a reasonable living. The screenplay, together with brilliant directing, highlights the details of life in the city of Gaza, showing how hard it can be through the smallest details like pictures of late relatives on walls or how television reflects a cramped landscape: bleak news, old movies, or foreign soap operas.
The character of Issa is brilliantly constructed. He has a special sense of humor without knowing it. His actions especially after he discovers the statue and hides it in his room and his naïve comments about it and how he has questions about himself, whether he is old fashioned. He smokes and cooks his fish in a very primitive yet delicious way. All this gives the film a special flavour.
The film has two sides: its realism is balanced by absurdism, combing a delicate portrait of the little things that give life meaning with those characters in the city who appreciate those as opposed to the daily hardships they face and how this love story between two relatively old people, though powerful, is made impossible by the harsh circumstances.
The film’s brilliance, its most alluring element is the performance of Daw and Abbass which really enriches the action with experience, charisma and skill. It captures the viewer’s attention throughout the 87 minutes.
The film received the Best Film and Best Actress Award at the Critics Awards for Arab Films in 2021. It was also nominated for the Venice Horizon Award at Venice Film Festival in 2020 and the Bronze Horse at the Stockholm Film Festival in 2020.
The twin brothers are known for their film Dégradé (2015), also set in Gaza and featuring also Hiam Abbass, which tells the story of two hairdressers and ten customers from different backgrounds who spent the day together trapped in a beauty salon while Hamas police fights a gang in the street. They also made two short films; the 6-minute With Premeditation (2014) and Condom Lead (15 minutes, 2013).
* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly