On steadfastness and survival

Palestinian filmmaker Ahmed Mansour’s film Angel of Gaza, his second since coming to the United States in 2015, tells the story of a Gazan family’s experience with war, separation, and diaspora through a focus on the family’s young daughter. Malak, a charismatic and articulate child, is seven when we first meet her in Gaza where, with her mother and younger brother she has lived through the 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza, the departure of her father for the United States when she was just two years old, the Great March of Return, a series of weekly nonviolent protests by Gazans calling for their right to return to their lands in what is today Israel, and the highly restrictive and arbitrary control at the crossing point in Israel. The film then follows her family’s journey from Gaza to the United States to reunite with her father.

Mansour mentions the spectacular events of Gazan life that shape Malak’s life and offers footage of the spectacular destruction that viewers have come to associate with the Gaza Strip, but chooses not to thematize his material. We do not witness the family’s experience with the violence of the 2014 attack, the 2018-19 protests, or their difficult border crossing. Instead, Mansour focuses on the everyday life of Malak’s family, moving contrapuntally between the ordinary activities of Malak, her mother and brother in Gaza and those of her father in the United States. Malak paints pictures, writes in her diary, plays with her brother, and helps her mother in the kitchen. These scenes alternate with others of Malak’s father in the United States as he establishes permanent residency there and navigates the bureaucratic process of his family’s immigration.

Mansour’s film is also unusual for its focus on a relatively privileged Gazan family. Many documentaries about Gaza focus on those most affected by Israeli violence and the prison-like conditions maintained by Israel and Egypt’s blockade of the Gaza Strip: films have addressed the health effects (both mental and physical) of repeated experiences with violence; poverty and unemployment, environmental degradation and economic strangulation. Characters profiled in Gazan documentaries have often lost their homes and childhood. Their lives are defined by relief aid and the stresses of barely scraping by. In Angel of Gaza Mansour instead addresses familial relations, the pain of separation and people’s determined efforts to reunite with their families.

The experiences of Malak and her family mirror those of the filmmaker himself who has also been separated from his family since leaving Gaza shortly after the 2014 war. For both Malak and Mansour the May 2021 Israeli attack on Gaza was the first experienced from exile; both witnessed the destruction of familiar and beloved locations from afar. This affinity lends the film a certain intimacy, even as Mansour protects his subjects from voyeuristic depictions of their experiences. There is a quiet dignity to the family’s steadfast love for one another across seven years of separation and the intimate connection to Gaza that they maintain after successfully settling in the United States.

Angel of Gaza raises troubling political questions about the steadfastness which for decades has been a cornerstone of Palestinian resistance. What does it mean for the Palestinian struggle that families like Malak’s must leave Palestine to survive? Such stories are relatively rare in Palestinian film—Cherien Dabis’ feature narrative Amreeka (2009) and Yasser Murtaja’s posthumous documentary Between Two Crossings (2018) come to mind. Much more common are films that highlight Palestinian bravery, forbearance, and creativity in the face of untenable living conditions, and some viewers may wonder whether they represent a retreat from Palestine as a political project. But there is a danger of romanticizing resistance and its efficacy in the face of Israel’s formidable power. During the 2018-19 Great March of Return, for instance, hundreds of peaceful protesters were murdered and thousands permanently maimed in a political action calling for an amelioration of living conditions in the Gaza Strip. The United Nations had already declared the region unlivable due to the infrastructural and economic collapse brought on by the ongoing blockade and sanctions. When life itself is untenable, and resistance to untenable conditions requires a direct confrontation with violent death, departure, and especially the evacuation of children, is not only a reasonable, but an expected response. Indeed, out-migration from Palestine and Palestinian communities in the Arab world has been a significant aspect of the Palestinian lived experience, and for many Palestinian communities, personal and economic connections with family and community members abroad have been crucial to the survival of those communities. Films, then, like Mansour’s that address this phenomenon with dignity are a welcome addition to Palestinian cinema. Together with works such as Annemarie Jacir’s Like Twenty Impossibles (2003), Salt of This Sea (2008), and Wajib (2017) each of which thematizes the relationship of diasporic Palestinians to Palestine and the Palestinian question, they contribute to a fuller understanding of the Palestinian experience.

Editor’s Note: The Gaza is Palestine campaign is hosting a screening of Angel of Gaza on December 2, 2021 at 3:00 p.m. EST. You can register here.

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