Gaza is often called the largest prison in the world: Israel drastically restricts imports to the area and enforces a six-mile maritime border, while both Israel and Egypt make it hard for Palestinians to enter or leave. But in Gaza Surf Club (2016) there is little mention of the blockade or the occupation.
While it is a niche sport – getting surfboards in is a struggle – surfing in the Mediterranean is a fantastic contrast to Gaza’s intolerable conditions, and the subject has made for an exhilarating film. Gaza Surf Club tells the story of three Palestinian surfers associated with the real-life Gaza Surf Club, a project launched by a sporty US non-profit called Explore Corps in 2008.
I met director Philip Gnadt, producer Mickey Yamine and co-producer Stephanie Yamine when they brought the film to Cairo Cinema Days at Zawya last month. They are a friendly and enthusiastic team, eager to discuss their film. “Surfing is a symbol of a very personal kind of freedom,” says Mickey, who grew up in Cairo and moved to Germany aged 18, founding his Berlin-based production company Little Bridge Pictures in 2013. “In Gaza it’s very down to the basics — it’s very raw and very pure.”
The film’s impressive cinematography echoes that. A raft was built to hold the camera steadily for close-ups of the surfers in the water, creating a very clear and beautiful, almost stylized, image moving through the waves. This effectively relays the magic of the water and a sliver of the feeling of freedom the surfers experience. Gnadt describes the music, composed for the film by Egyptian indie musician and composer Sari Hany, as blending the feeling, rhythms and instruments of Arabic music “in a way that would also work for a western audience.” In some scenes the music mixes brilliantly with the sound of the waves alternately conveying a sense of serenity, then excitement.
Ideas of hope, freedom and hopelessness are strongly represented through the film’s three diverse characters. This is particularly apparent in the differences between the characters of 23-year-old Ibrahim Arafat and 42-year-old Abu Jayab, who functions as a representation of the beginning of surfing in Gaza. The younger surfer is much more ambitious and persistent, while Abu Jayab is more jaded, having experienced many more years of oppression and defeat. The third character is 15-year-old Sabah Abu Ghanim.
For several years, Ibrahim (“who is kind of not the leader but the center of the group”) has been trying to travel to an Explore Corps workshop series on the business of surfing, in order to help him open a water sports store and community center in Gaza. We see him applying for a sixth time, after the US refused him a visa five times and with the aid of GISHA, the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, helps him travel to his visa interview in Jerusalem. This builds up considerable suspense in the film, as we wait to find out if his sixth attempt will be successful.
Gnadt, 43, worked as a camera assistant for several years and in 2003, while working as a freelance director for corporate and documentary films, he made a 12-minute documentary about an elderly women living with deteriorating sight called Paula and founded a production company called Substanz Film. His biggest film project to date, Gaza Surf Club was initiated in 2012, when Gnadt saw pictures of surfers in Gaza in a sports magazine and was surprised. He says he immediately “wanted to do something on Gaza from a different perspective.” As he does not speak Arabic he needed language help, and so he sought out Mickey and Stephanie.
Surfing was not the only sport the three considered. “In the beginning we wanted to do a documentary about youth culture in Gaza,” says Stephanie, Mickey’s cousin and a producer of TV commercials, shorts and films on social development issues. “We divided the documentary into surfers, parkour and break-dancers — but the surfers were very charismatic.”
For their first trip to Gaza, a year before they started shooting in 2015, they entered through the Rafah border crossing from Egypt, in Sinai. Egyptian border officials said their papers were not valid, but they got through after making some phone calls and waiting 10 hours. On their second trip, the Egyptian government made it very hard for anyone to cross and they realized it wouldn’t be possible to get their 17 cases of equipment through. But once they managed to obtain a press pass, they got in through Israel without a problem.
Stephanie describes this crossing into Gaza, passing through a 1.4 km tunnel, as like walking through a “huge cage.” “We got in and then there was this part when we were alone — we walked alone because the Israelis and Palestinians don’t talk — there is this big area that looks like a labyrinth, where you walk between walls,” She says. “Each one of us had a mountain of cases and no one was helping us because no one could help us, and then there was this little door to pass through. And you don’t talk to anyone, just to machines. There are cameras everywhere.”
“It was like when you go to the circus and the lions come through a tunnel and then out into the arena,” says Gnadt. At a Hamas checkpoint, officials checked all their equipment, opening the cases one by one. “It was two months after the war. So they got a little tired of it and they explained: we have to open everything because the Israelis bombed our x-ray machines.”
I ask about the lack of political context in the film. “It gives the people of Gaza, who are also fed up from this fight, the voice and the opportunity to show their lives and how they live them without always bringing in the politics,” says Mickey. “Obviously, the politics is still part of the film and part of the story of Gaza. It’s there in the subtext and you’re painfully aware of it, but it’s a different angle and it was important for us to focus on that for once.”
It is indeed refreshing to see Gaza portrayed in a way that looks beyond stories of woe, but as the filmmakers acknowledge, it is aimed primarily at western audiences and certain aspects were highlighted to appeal to them, resulting in some scenes that seem to reinforce stereotypes. It is quite apparent that a lot of significance is given to Sabah, for example, even though she stopped surfing a few years earlier. Sabah’s father taught her and her sisters how to swim — we see footage of Sabah in the water with her surfboard when she was 11 — but it became harder when they got older. It’s only towards the very end that she finally surfs again. “We had many interesting interviews with her, but of course the highlight was to see her surf and we didn’t know if it would happen or not,” says Mickey.
For some, the scene in which Sabah surfs will simply be “showing Gaza as it is,” but for others the spectacle of her taking off her veil and diving into the water may appear to support a stereotype often imposed on Muslim women and girls: that they are oppressed beings in need of emancipation. The topic of empowering Arab women and freeing them from perceived cultural constraints, such as the hijab, famously pleases western audiences. The filmmakers feel that it was an achievement to film a female surfer in a conservative society. “There was another lady who surfs but we never found her,” says Stephanie. “She was a women’s rights activist. But she was not the famous one. The famous ones were Sabah and her sister. We tried to convince her sister’s husband, but there was no way.”
Moreover, other scenes seem to highlight conservative aspects of life in Gaza. Three separate shots of Ibrahim praying spread throughout the film feel like another clichéd attempt to show Westerners the culture and habits of Muslims. There’s no other discernible reason why this repetition was made.
However, despite the slight tendency toward stereotyping, Gaza Surf Club sheds light on the lives of a community that is well worth getting acquainted with. Outside of the film, the real-life Gaza Surf Club’s Facebook page recently announced that a list of items that are prohibited or designated “dual-use” by Israeli authorities has finally been made available to the public. According to the post surfboards are considered “vessels” and are therefore banned, as is fiberglass, which is used for making and repairing them.
Note: This article erroneously suggested that Gisha aided the club in bringing surfboards and materials into Gaza, which has been corrected.