Appellate Judge Dan Mancini takes a look at a film that makes stunning use of the documentary form's power and immediacy.
Militants. Suicide bombers. Innocent victims.
In one of Death in Gaza's many disconcerting sequences, we're at first delighted by a bright and precocious four- or five-year-old Palestinian girl named Ayyad, who lives in poverty with her family in the decimated city of Rafah in south Gaza. Ayyad is a little girl like any other: innocent, charming, and cute. Director James Miller's camera drinks her in as she talks to journalist Saira Shah. And then we're sucker-punched by the child's matter-of-fact declaration that she doesn't like Jews because they're dogs. "What would cause someone to hate so much that they're willing to die in order to kill?" asks Shah near the beginning of the documentary. It's a question too broad to be answered by an 80-minute movie. But Death in Gaza succeeds in giving us a glimpse of the tragic, deep-seated Palestinian culture of rage and hatred, and its infusion into children in their earliest years of development.
The movie opens and closes on May 2, 2003, the day that James Miller was gunned down by an Israeli soldier on a nighttime patrol in Rafah. In between, we're allowed a glimpse of the lives of Palestinian children caught in this war zone, and their indoctrination into the politics of hate. The picture was to be the first of many by the production company formed by Miller and Shah after the huge success of Beneath the Veil and Unholy War, two gripping pieces on Afghanistan, made for CNN. It was to be followed by a companion piece that would trace the lives of Israeli children. Miller's death changed all that. The movie became not only the tale of three Palestinian children, but also the tale of Miller's tragic end in the crossfire. Death—the real subject of the film—reached outside of the frame in which Miller and his crew tried to place it, and touched them personally. The picture that the director's colleagues assembled in order to honor him is blunt, unflinching, and achingly human. It succeeds in attaching real human faces to a conflict that is overwhelming and seems hopelessly irresolvable.
Death in Gaza's primary subject is a 12-year-old boy named Ahmed. His best friend, Mohammed, apes everything he does. They seem like normal, sneaker-footed, T-shirted boys, except that they play games like "Jews and Arabs"—it's much like "Cowboys and Indians" except that one wins by dying. Ahmed prays each afternoon at the mosque, side-by-side with the militants engaged in street battles with the Israeli military. He becomes a look-out for them in the dangerous streets. In perhaps the most horrifying sequence in the picture, he's in a cloistered room with masked militants. "Let's see what you look like with a rocket-launcher," one of them says, before they pose the boy with one atop his shoulder. It's a chilling moment, draped in death. As Mohammed casually observes at one point in the movie, "martyrdom's not just for grown-ups."
The centrality of death in the lives of these children is brought home in a brief but bloody sequence about Salem, a 14-year-old shot and killed while chucking rocks at an Israeli tank pinned by a mob in Rafah's narrow streets. He becomes a martyr, and is buried in a lavish ceremony. His image is added to one of the many posters that adorn the city's walls and desolate buildings, celebrating martyrs. "They're outgunned by the Israelis," Shah observes in voice-over, "so they've turned death into victory."
The other subject of the film is Najla, a bright 16-year-old girl who dreams of becoming a lawyer so she can bring justice to her people. At one point, we watch her in a one-room school house, being taught the falsehood that a country called Palestine existed before Israeli aggression in 1967. She and her sister talk repeatedly of Israeli cowardice. Their observations are wrong-headed but inevitable, grounded in the very real hardship in which they live day to day. The desolation of their lives and the hate with which they've been inculcated leaves us weary and pessimistic.
It is while trying to leave Najla's house one night as Israeli soldiers are patrolling and seeking out underground weapons caches that Miller is gunned down. The soldier is a Bedouin Arab and Israeli citizen, revealing the deep complexity of a political conflict that involves race but can't be divided neatly along racial lines. The shot that killed Miller was unprovoked. We're told by Shah that the soldier who pulled the trigger was found guilty by an Israeli military court of violating protocols for returning fire, but was never punished (for more information, follow the link to the Justice for James Miller web site included in the "Accomplices" section of this review).
Miller's instantaneous death is captured by one of his crew shooting from the porch of Najla's house. The incident is draped in darkness, sparing us the grisly visual details. The moment remains sobering and powerful, though, a reminder that Death rules both the day and night on the Gaza strip. Its vicious cycle is unbreakable; no one is safe. Despite this glum outcome, the film ends with one tiny glimmer of hope: Miller's death, we're told, has shaken Ahmed, who'd come to admire the foreign journalist. He's severed ties with the masked militants and dreams of becoming a photographer.
The DVD's transfer comes from a variety of video sources. Quality varies depending on the source. Some shots are crisp with vibrant, accurate colors. Others—like nighttime sequences—are grainy, or sport washed-out colors. Either way, transfer-related flaws are minimal because the sources are presented warts and all without the combing and edge enhancement that can create egregious video artifacts. Aesthetically, the limitations of some of the source materials give the documentary a gritty immediacy.
The stereo audio mix is perfectly acceptable for the source. On-the-street dialogue and sound is clean, as is Saira Shah's voiceover narration.
The disc contains three featurettes to supplement the main program.
Remembering James Miller (7:04)
James Miller Tribute Compilation (28:09)
The Making of Death in Gaza (11:03)
The context provided by these supplements is welcome, but unnecessary. Death in Gaza is a powerful stand-alone piece that reveals the humanity of its subjects without dumbing down the serpentine regional politics. It's also a sad and gripping tribute to the promising and talented filmmaker whose death is its subject. Not guilty.
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• Remembering James Featurette
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