Discover more from Critic at Large
Children of stone and sand
A 2015 Spanish documentary reminds us of the children behind the statistics.
Not bliss nor wealth it is, but impious deed, From which that after-growth of ill doth rise! Woe springs from wrong, the plant is like the seed— While Right, in honour’s house, doth its own likeness breed. —Aeschylus, Agamemnon, Strophe 4 (Trans. E. D. A. Morshead)
Dear readers: I returned to school this fall, where the workload led me to take a hiatus from CaL. I am resuming my posts today with a look at a short documentary worth watching.—CA
In 2014, the Israelis and Palestinians fought an intense conflict triggered by the killing of three Israeli teenagers kidnapped while hitchhiking in the West Bank. The three boys were captured by two Hamas agents who panicked when they realized one boy had managed to contact the police with his cell phone. The men shot the boys in cold blood while the call was still on and then abandoned their bodies in a field.1
In retaliation for the murders, Israeli forces staged a seven-week siege of Gaza, during which 507 Palestinian children were killed and 3,598 were wounded. Peter Beaumont, a reporter for the Guardian, described what he and other journalists saw happen one sunny afternoon by the seaside:
The first projectile hit the sea wall of Gaza City's little harbour just after four o'clock. As the smoke from the explosion thinned, four figures could be seen running, ragged silhouettes, legs pumping furiously along the wall. Even from a distance of 200 metres, it was obvious that three of them were children.
Jumping off the harbour wall, they turned on to the beach, attempting to cross the short distance to the safety of the Al-Deira hotel, base for many of the journalists covering the Gaza conflict.
They waved and shouted at the watching journalists as they passed a little collection of brightly coloured beach tents, used by bathers in peacetime.
It was there that the second shell hit the beach, those firing apparently adjusting their fire to target the fleeing survivors. As it exploded, journalists standing by the terrace wall shouted: “They are only children.”
In the space of 40 seconds, four boys who had been playing hide and seek among fishermen's shacks on the wall were dead. They were aged between seven and 11; two were named Mohammad, one Zakaria and the youngest Ahed. All were members of the extended Bakr family.
Three others who were injured made it to the hotel: Hamad Bakr, aged 13, with shrapnel in his chest; his cousin Motasem, 11, injured in his head and legs, and Mohammad Abu Watfah, 21, who was hit by shrapnel in his stomach.
Shortly after the attack, the Argentine journalist/filmmaker Hernán Zin read about the event and traveled to Gaza, where he made a documentary—Born in Gaza—about some of the children who survived the attack Beaumont witnessed. Zin documents the aftermath of that terrible day in their lives while also looking at other Gazan children. The film is not perfect. Zin and his Spanish production team moved quickly to capture their footage and release the film, and the urgency with which they worked is evident. As one critic noted, “it feels hastily put together, which is the price it pays for its striking immediacy, and it lacks the sophistication, depth and objectivity of B.Z. Goldberg’s Promises (2001), which involved somewhat older Palestinian and Israeli children engaging with one another.”
Promises features seven Palestinian and Israeli children who live in and around Jerusalem. Goldberg, who was raised in Israel, has noted that the children in his film “live no more than 20 minutes from each other, but they are each growing up in very separate worlds.” Promises won the 2002 Academy Award for Best Documentary, but it is a different film. It pauses and pulls back slowly from the conflict to show a shared humanity. Born in Gaza rushes in and sees the conflict from the inside. Flawed, it may be, but what it presents more than makes up for any imperfections.
In his film, Zin lets the children speak for themselves, each one describing the terrible toll that life in Gaza—if one can call such an existence a “life”—takes on the children of this tragic land. Watching the film, which is devoid of narration, I was struck by Zin’s talent in avoiding the sentimentality into which such a movie might easily have descended. Zin never allows his story to move from the emotional reality the children live and describe. Intelligently, Zin knows he does not need to add anything to words that paint a picture of utter hopelessness, fear, and despair. “I may need to go abroad for surgery,” says Motasem at one point in the film. “I have shrapnel in my back, hands and legs… I tell my mom every day I want to die. A few days ago, I tried to jump from the balcony, but my sister held me back.”
There is no political debate in the movie. The complex history of this ancient place has no part in Zin’s cinematic narrative. There are no arguments about who owns what land or whose claims have primacy. There are no soldiers, resistance fighters, or terrorists. Rather, Born in Gaza is a story about a place made of concrete and rubble, where one sees no green, only narrow grey alleys through which children walk in the dusty ruins of what might have been. It is an unflinching look at a world fashioned and manipulated by grownups — a place where children, long before they understand any of its politics, must confront all of its violence.
There is a psychological fatigue that can set in when we are exposed to the rhetoric of extreme violence. We can become numbed by it, forgetting that behind the headlines and statistics lie humans who are no different from us. Violence done to children can be especially easy to tune out, for it represents a horror we wish did not exist. The deepest trauma has a narrative boundary few people ever cross, so we typically experience it at a great psychological distance. When writers such as Iris Chang or Tadeusz Borowski step across that boundary and describe human violence in fullness, they sometimes pay with their sanity or even their lives. Zin does not cross that boundary, but his children unknowingly walk up to its edge. They describe their lives largely from a state of confusion, unable to comprehend why they “can’t be just like other children.” We, however, see them for what they are: victims of an indifferent world—boys and girls who have no choice but to sit, wait, and weep while longing for someone to change it.
As we read the horrific stories from Israel and Gaza, and as the number of dead and injured children climb into the thousands, an hour’s pause to watch Zin’s film is an illuminating experience. You will hear neither side making its case. You will hear no claims of righteousness or promises of hate. You will hear only the soft voices of broken souls defined by a sorrow we can hardly comprehend—children with lives of stone who disappear like grains of sand.
Horovitz, David and Ginsburg, Mitch, “What happened on the night of the kidnapping,” The Times of Israel online, 30 June 2014, https://www.timesofisrael.com/what-happened-on-the-night-of-the-kidnapping/.