Where did you get the idea to make a film about Gaza and the surfers' scene over there?
Philip Gnadt: I'm not a surfer myself. I've done some bodyboarding on the Atlantic coast, so I can imagine how hard it is to catch a wave. My real interest in the subject came from the region, more precisely through a friend I met in Stuttgart who was born and grew up in Gaza. He described the Gaza issue from a different perspective.
We're all familiar with the term Gaza that frequently comes up in the news. Everybody has the same diffuse image of conflicts, bombed-out houses and masked guerrilla fighters. My friend told me about how life can be between wars. That sparked my interest and led me to read up on the subject. I found the lack of a real solution quite depressing.
But then something happened…
Gnadt: Indeed. I stumbled across an article about surfers in Gaza. Finally, I thought, something different for a change! Hossam, my friend, had never heard of them either. In Gaza, one of the most isolated areas in the world, surfing is a sport that is synonymous with personal freedom. It was a really strong image. That's when I decided to make the documentary. I started doing research and got in touch with the surfers.
I had one major problem, though: I don't speak Arabic. Looking for someone who could help me out with the language and knowledge about the culture, I met Mickey, who grew up in Cairo. He was drawn to the topic immediately too. From then on, we developed it together.
What made a lasting impression? What surprised you the most?
Gnadt: It may sound a bit cynical, but something that impressed me generally about the people there – not just the surfers, but everyone we met – was their positivity. As Mickey comes from the region, his take on the mentality of the people there was less dramatic. But for me, it was a complete eye-opener. As soon as I crossed the border, I felt comfortable. I had imagined it would be scary, but I felt welcome there.
Of course, we looked quite exotic. We were running around at the beach and some kids approached us, wanting to know what we were doing there. That first impression haunted me over the next six weeks. Such open behaviour of course has to do with a person's age. The older people are, the more disillusioned they tend to be. Those turning 50, 60 or 70 don′t expect much to change anymore. Young people have a different approach; they have yet to abandon their dreams. Still there was a general undercurrent of optimism which took me by surprise.
Were you able to talk openly about politics? What was the atmosphere like on set?
Gnadt: We tried to avoid pushing the political aspect: our objective was to show a different side of Gaza. But as soon as you talk to people, the conversation inevitably turns to politics. There's Israel's policy of isolation, which prevents people from moving around freely. Yet the Gazans are also suffering under the Hamas regime. Some topics were simply not addressed – especially with all the cameras and recording devices that were around. It was quite noticeable. People were careful. But nevertheless, it did work quite well as Mickey and my co-producer Stephanie Yamine could both speak Arabic, so they did the interviews...
Mickey Yamine: The interviews went well because we were able to talk to each other directly without depending on translators. Philip, the cameraman Niclas Reed Middleton, Stephanie and I would sit together in the evenings and discuss what had happened during the day and what we should do the next day. We always talked about emotions and feelings, rather than about concrete questions. That's why the interviews went so well. We were able to lift the lid on life in Gaza rather than simply receiving the stock answers our interviewees would have given to any journalist. So we were able to probe a little deeper, asking them about their dreams and how they really perceive the situation.
Of course, politics always plays a role. In Arab countries, however, there's often not much room for politics because people cannot influence them. In European democracies, it's a different story because people do have a voice and are able to influence things. In Gaza, things are different. Hamas rules there. And we met lost of people who were not fans of Hamas. Nevertheless, they have to live with the status quo without being able to change it. Voicing your opinions, especially on political issues, can be very dangerous. We witnessed a few such situations... Once one of the older fishermen flipped out cursing Hamas. The others' reactions were quite telling. They got worried the scene could be included in the film. And they asked us to keep it out for security reasons.
It's interesting that there's also a female surfer in your film, adding yet another angle to "Gaza Surf Club." How did that come about?
Gnadt: During our research, we found out that there were also a few girls who wanted to learn surfing, or who had already learnt it. In the run-up to filming, however, we were unable to contact them. Thanks to our producer Stephanie, we managed to gain the confidence of one of them. Stephanie also invested a lot of time in obtaining the trust of the girl's father, so that he would let us enter their living room and the girl's bedroom and join her on the water with a surfboard.
I presume it wasn't easy to film in Gaza. Was the project hampered by political problems?
Yamine: Fighting broke out in Gaza just as we were due to start filming. That's why we had to postpone filming and wait for the latest outbreak to be over…
Gnadt: Of course, it's also not a place you can simply travel to. It did take us some research and preparation to find out how we could enter Gaza. As Mickey grew up in Egypt, he knew about the possibility of entering via Rafah and the Sinai. That's how we did it for our first research trip in 2013.
Two or three months later, Egypt was in political turmoil and that completely changed relations between Egypt and Gaza, or more specifically Hamas. The border was more or less closed, smugglers' tunnels were blown up. The border only remained open for humanitarian purposes. The situation was very complicated.
Initially we wanted to avoid going through Israel because we thought the Israelis might have a problem with our project and the topic. Ultimately, though, it just entailed more bureaucracy. A year later we managed to enter Gaza from Erez in Israel.
Interview conducted by Jochen Kurten
© Deutsche Welle 2017
The youth of Gaza take to the waves in a documentary by Philip Gnadt and Mickey Yamine.
Many beaches are escapes from the everyday, but for residents of the Gaza Strip, the contrast between their piece of the Mediterranean and the reality of sieges and blockades is the difference between joy and despair. Focusing on three figures in the surf culture of Gaza City, directors Philip Gnadt and Mickey Yamine open an intriguing window on life under occupation. A welcome but sometimes frustratingly piecemeal perspective on life in a troubled region, Gaza Surf Club offers revelatory moments even when it’s skimming the surface.
The Germany-based filmmakers pursued their story over several years that included a period of military conflict in the Palestinian territory, which is locked between Israel and Egypt and subject to international boycotts. Niclas Reed Middleton’s camera is alert to the rubble and deprivation of war, but the documentary is notable for its concentration on the horizon and the expansiveness it engenders.
It was a documentary about surfers in Europe that initially inspired Abu Jayab as a kid; now he mentors youngsters who want to take up the sport. At 42, the fisherman is the oldest of the film’s subjects and something of a pioneer in a place where merely importing a surfboard is no simple feat. Recalling the scarcity of equipment and the need to take turns on a shared board, he says with an unapologetic glint in his eye, “During the war, I feared more for my boards than my children.”
There’s apparently no connection between Abu Jayab and the other figures in the doc, who represent key aspects of the sport vis-à-vis local tradition. Sabah, 15, is no longer allowed to swim or surf because she’s female — an element of the film that could have used more context and specifics. Whatever the details of the prohibition and its potential repercussions, they don’t stop Sabah’s ebullient father from taking her out on the water — nor do they stop younger girls from flocking around her, thrilled and fascinated, when she emerges from the waves.
It would have been good to spend more time with Sabah, who dreams of being famous and traveling. The details of her family life and the role of her mother remain hazy. But as the filmmakers zero in on such intimate and seemingly offhand moments as the teen painting her nails with “Islamic nail polish” — easily removed in case a teacher objects — they capture whole worlds of friction and resilience.
As they follow 23-year-old Ibrahim, the surfer with whom they spend the most time, Gnadt and Yamine uncover a partially told story of surf diplomacy. After many attempts to secure a visa, Ibrahim is able to fly to Hawaii, at the invitation of a surf aficionado named Matthew, whose occupation is never made clear. On Oahu, Ibrahim receives lessons in surfboard construction and repair, as well as tips on shaving with a safety razor. “In the past 10 days,” he notes without judgment, “I haven’t seen a single girl wearing all of her clothes.”
Gaza Surf Club lets the disparity between the Hawaiian island’s blue-green paradise and the gray ruins of Ibrahim’s hometown speak for itself. Though it leaves aggravating gaps in the stories it uncovers, the film delivers bracing evidence of the lure of the ocean, and of why Abu Jayab says that “in the waves, I’m in a different place, a different world.”
Production: Little Bridge Pictures in co-production with Westdeutscher Rundfunk and supported by Robert Bosch Stiftung
With: Ibrahim Arafat, Mohammed Abu Jayab, Sabah Abu Ghanem, Rajab Abu Ghanem, Matthew Olsen
Directors: Philip Gnadt, Mickey Yamine
Screenwriters: Philip Gnadt, Mickey Yamine
Producers: Benny Theisen, Mickey Yamine, Stephanie Yamine, Andreas Schaap
Executive producer: Mickey Yamine
Director of photography: Niclas Reed Middleton
Editors: Marlene Assmann, Helmar Jungmann
Composer: Sary Hany
Sales: XYZ Films
No rating, 87 minutes