Sports and politics on the big screens of Gaza/Israel
Photo: Still from “Gaza Surf Club.”

TORONTO — There are many films about Palestinians, specifically Gazans, who somehow find creative cultural diversions from the death and destruction their land has been facing from the Israeli Occupation since 1948. A memorable and powerfully progressive documentary, Shake the Dust, from 2014 shows how Gazans and other poor communities in underdeveloped nations have discovered the power of dance, specifically break dancing. The Idol, by Oscar-winning director Hany Abu Assad, is a powerhouse true story of a young Gazan singer who overcomes all possible odds to win the Arab Idol singing contest.

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this year premiered another film about Gazan youth attempting to live a normal life in a country that is far from safe and stable. The Gaza Surf Club (see link for the trailer) is a new doc by Philip Gnadt and Mickey Yamine, who pull off the impossible by pretty much avoiding discussion of the “elephant in the room” — the Israeli Occupation — and rather focusing on the exciting sport of surfboarding. In a land of constant war and violence, it’s hard to believe there are people who will do anything to ride a board in the ocean. With all that water out there, the Israelis still have control of the entire Gazan environment. Land, sea and sky — the Palestinians are trapped.

Filming took place over several years, the cinematographers having to plan their visits around weather conditions for surfing waves. They also scheduled carefully between major conflicts. The film starts with an extended slow motion truck shot of the ruins of war — the rubble, destroyed buildings and homes — “half the country was flattened.” We immediately meet some of the more avid and dedicated practitioners of the thrilling pastime. Abu Jayab, 42, first saw surfing in a European documentary and brought it to Gaza, using handmade boards and training youngsters about the unknown joys of the sport. A fisherman by occupation, as was his father, his passion for surfboarding is driven by the same emotions that probably inhabit the hearts of most Palestinians — “in the waves, I’m in a different place, a different world.” Committed surfers often wait long times for the right waves, and when they come they stop everything else and race for the ocean.

The main character, Ibrahim, who is in his 20s, wants to make boards, but since materials are scarce he longs to travel to the West to get training and access to equipment. With financial assistance from the producers and clearance from the government, he travels to Hawaii to learn the fundamentals of board making, and ends up staying for a length of time in Houston to learn more about surfing.

Sabah, age 15, had to end her surfboarding dreams since after a certain age it’s frowned upon in her conservative Muslim community. In a scene late in the film, fully clothed from head to foot, she surfs with assistance from her dedicated father, who couldn’t resist sharing the joys of the sport with the daughter he loves.

The Gaza Surf Club was started in 2007. Sports companies donated supplies with the goal of helping to create local stability by building a community center where a Palestine surfing entity might compete with the rest of the world. They ran into troubles with Hamas, who wanted it to be a government entity rather than a private business for profit.

The directors stated in a Q&A following the film that “there are roadblocks in every element of society,” but they were “surprised how people in Gaza have gotten used to war, and how they are still smiling and have a life. That’s worth showing.” The engaging film is enhanced by a stunning sound score creating a unique balance of music from the West and East.

A curious little film, actually a compilation of found historic footage, Off Frame AKA Revolution Until Victory reveals the tragic state of affairs documenting Palestinian history. They are a people whose land and history are being obliterated and who have to rely on copies of newsreels, classroom and training films found in other countries’ collections. This is not really a movie but 70 minutes of recovered archival footage, clips from their struggles dating back to the 1930s. It includes footage from the PLO Film Group charged with filming the political actions of the dominant liberation force. The movie ends showing a teacher asking her students about how to defend their country. It’s the only Palestinian footage surviving from the 1982 Lebanon war, black and white and found in a foreign film festival collection. Although it is disjointed and experimentally edited, its rarity and historical significance make this a must-see film for those following the Palestinian struggle.

Nationalistic sports fervor comes to a head in Forever Pure. An interesting study of racism in Israel is captured in a thoroughly engrossing and dramatic documentary by a young Israeli journalist turned director, Maya Zinshtein. She came across the story by accident when asked to write about the newly hired Chechen Muslim soccer players. She had no clue what was to happen. Mayhem developed among the racist fans who didn’t want Muslims on their “pure Jewish” team, an irony considering Hitler’s use of the term. The director gained privileged access to the inner workings of the team and the locker room banter.

She starts the story when Russian billionaire oligarch Arcadi Gaydamak buys the team simply as an investment to make money. Beitar Jerusalem’s fan club, La Familia, proudly chants “We are the most racist team in the country” during games. They harass and mock Muslim players on other teams and even have the endorsement of noted political figures who attend their games regularly.

Eventually Gaydamak lost support of the fans when he abandoned interest in the team after his true motivation was exposed as he failed in his campaign for mayor of Jerusalem. The team went down fast in the standings. Fans turned their aggression against him, and apparently out of revenge — and to intentionally expose the depth of Israeli racism — he brought in two Chechen Muslim players to join the team.

The film is electric in its political and sports confrontations and shows racism actively in the process of destroying a society. It’s a film of mostly men, fans and jocks dealing with political realities beyond the soccer field. The Jewish goalie was shocked at how his fans turned against him because he was friendly with the Muslims. An Argentinian player stayed out of the debate although he supported the Muslim players. The director was personally threatened by La Familia, which has now become a political entity, moving from sports into politics. At one point La Familia convinced 20,000 fans to boycott the games and the stands were empty. It’s a riveting portrait of football culture gone amok, and possibly a metaphor for the turbulent social challenges facing Israelis in regards to the Occupation.

Photo: Still from “Gaza Surf Club.”



Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer frequently writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.