I just saw the 2010 Norwegian documentary, “Tears of Gaza,” a film about the Israeli military operation “Cast Lead” (2008-9). I don’t think of myself as a particularly squeamish person, but though the movie is only about 84 minutes long, it took me seven or eight sittings to get through it.
I tried at first to watch it straight through, but had to stop after the first twenty minutes. I then decided to watch it in twenty minute increments, but found that I couldn’t pull that off, either. I was eventually reduced to watching five or ten minutes of it at a time, trying my best not to close my eyes when the going got rough, but excusing myself when it did.
After three days of playing cat-and-mouse with a film I myself had chosen to watch, I congratulated myself on having gotten through a full three-quarters of it, only to decide that it was time for a well-earned break. After waiting a day to recover, I managed to watch the last fourteen or fifteen minutes of “Tears” before essentially collapsing in a heap on my living room floor, lying there for awhile in shock, and trying to process what I’d just seen.
I know it sounds like exaggeration or melodrama, but watching this film was like being immersed in the videographic equivalent of a torture chamber. The director, Vibeke Lokkeberg, has managed to have the film shot–at considerable risk to the camera crew–in a raw and somewhat unedited style that gives the viewer the alarming impression of being a participant in rather than a mere spectator of, the action.
You’re not a participant, of course, and when it finally dawns on you that you’re not–that that missile strike you just saw can’t reach through the screen and harm you–you can’t help but feel a bit of survivor’s guilt at the fact that you’re still alive and in front of your TV screen when all the people “around” you are torn to pieces, and either waiting for the paramedics or waiting for the gravediggers.
My studies and experiences of Palestine have focused almost entirely on East Jerusalem and the West Bank. I’ve been up to the Israeli “border” with Gaza, and technically speaking have spent time within Gaza, but have never visited Gaza “for real,” in the sense of having spent extended time in Gaza proper after having crossed through one of the official crossings into it. Part of the reason is that it’s extremely hard to get into Gaza; the place is, after all, under blockade.
But lurking beneath such practical considerations is an undeniable reservoir of fear. I don’t, in my case, mean physical fear. I personally wouldn’t face much physical danger by going to Gaza. It’s unlikely that the Israelis would attack precisely when I was there; put another way, it’s unlikely they’d let me in if an attack was imminent. And I have no particular fear of the local inhabitants, so it’s not that, either.
Nor is it a fear of the COVID-19 pandemic in such a population-dense and medically-impoverished place. Arguably, as far as COVID-19 is concerned, Gaza is safer than New Jersey, where I live: New Jersey has suffered almost 13,000 deaths from COVID-19 (population: 8.8 million); Gaza has suffered only one (population: 1.8 million). So it’s not as though, epidemiologically speaking, I’d be exchanging the better place for the worse by leaving here for there.
The fear I have in mind is not physical but psychological. Odd as it may sound, I’m not sure I have the psychological wherewithal to handle Gaza. It’s one of those places I’ve self-consciously bracketed off in the corner of my mind that I liken to Room 101 in Orwell’s 1984, the walled-off mental space to which one consigns the nightmares one would rather evade than confront. “Tears of Gaza” is about as close as I’ve come to any nightmare I could conjure up. Sure enough, Gaza turns out to be everything I thought it would be, though not in a good way.
Believe it or not, I mean all of this as a movie recommendation. I forced myself to watch “Tears of Gaza,” and so, dammit, should you. Yes, it’s completely horrific. Yes, it’ll leave lasting scars. But sometimes, a little moral trauma can be good for the soul.
Put it this way. After watching this movie, you will never again want to watch another “war movie.” In fact, you’ll itch uncomfortably at the mere mention of the word “war.” You’ll wonder whether we ask too much of front-line emergency workers–paramedics, fire-fighters, doctors, nurses. You’ll wonder how Gazan children manage to survive traumas that would break the average adult.* You’ll become more forgiving of the “irrational belief structures” of people subjected to decades of siege, bombing, and invasion. And you’ll wonder whether the people traditionally valorized as “good guys” in this conflict, the Israelis, really deserve the accolades they so reflexively get.**
Would good guys really have found it necessary to launch a barrage of phosphorus bombs on a school full of refugee families? Would they have found it necessary to execute little children of three or four at point-blank range? Are the good guys really defending themselves against “aggression,” or are they engaging in their own apocalyptic brand of aggression under cover of deceptions and outright lies? The film provokes without conclusively answering these questions. But it makes the task of answering them more urgent than it might otherwise have been. Philosophy, as Aristotle said, begins in wonder. Often enough, I think, moral inquiry begins with the brand of wonder associated with horror.
Most of all, I found myself wondering whether I was complicitous in the fucking mess I was watching unfold on the screen, and if so, how I could ever manage to wash my hands clean of it. Narcissistic as this may sound, I found that thought more traumatizing than any particular atrocity depicted in the movie. Complicity, after all, is the meta-atrocity that drives the machinery of war. It’s bad enough to see atrocities unfold before one’s eyes. It’s much worse to find oneself driving the machine that makes them happen.
In short, this movie provoked a lot of important questions, and in doing so, made me feel thoroughly like shit, but in an oddly salutary way. I hope it does the same for you. Highly recommended.
*”Tears of Gaza” is usefully compared with “Promises,” a 2001 film that, like “Tears,” also focuses on the experiences of children, but from a much sunnier perspective. I happened to see “Promises” at a Jewish film festival in New Jersey; I can’t imagine “Tears” being shown at such an event.
**For a rigorous, comprehensive discussion, see Norman G. Finkelstein, Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom (California, 2018).