In 2013, the only activity 10-year-old, Palestinian-born Ahmed could participate in was long, gruelling hours on the Gaza Strip’s beaches selling ice creams to indifferent customers in the scorching sun. The peace and innocence of a child’s life, something many young children would take for granted in regions of stability around the world—including here in Australia—was not something Ahmed could ever recollect. Years before his birth, the tensions and conflicts between Palestine and Israel had already reached boiling point, many times over. Now, a life of war and poverty is all Ahmed, and the other children living in the Gaza Strip, know. It was while Ahmed was selling ice cream that several adults, including Ayman Qwaider, found him and were confronted by his deplorable circumstances. Ayman and the others decided that something needed to be done for these young children. They needed a peaceful, creative space where kids could be kids—another world to escape to, where the pains of a long, gruelling day of work or the overwhelming realities of loss and war could be forgotten. The result was the Gaza Children’s Cinema, a project led by the Tamer Institute for Community Education, presided over by Ayman as Volunteer Director. Born out of a desire to create a safe haven for children, the project is evidence of the magic of cinema—of how film can alleviate suffering and provide light to one of the darkest places and moments in postmodern world history.
Today, children growing up in Palestine have had few opportunities to go to the cinema to watch films. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the growth of fundamentalist Islamic powers in the region, has put a dramatic end to cinema-going. Cinemas had been enjoyed by people in the region for a long time, notably since 1948 when the refugee agency United Nations Relief and Works Agency held Arabic film screenings in refugee camps. As films from different parts of the world began to be presented in the 1960s, fundamentalist religious groups began criticising cinema, calling it blasphemous and a Western tool of cultural imperialism. Cinemas began to disappear from Palestine around thirty years ago, with the creation of Hamas in the 1987 Palestinian uprising (or First Intifada), which was a revolt against the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Resistance groups like Hamas became hostile to cinemas and frequently attacked them. Most attempts to rebuild them were futile. In 2007, Hamas successfully gained complete power over the Gaza Strip; they made direct impositions on cinema, censoring films they deemed were inappropriate and others that were simply too ‘Western.’ Due to the Israeli siege, it was made almost impossible to leave the region, as people were now required to hold a permit to do so. This made watching movies outside of the Strip inconceivable; until 2013, when the idea of the Gaza Children’s Cinema came about.
Since all of the movie theatres have long been destroyed, the Children’s Cinema holds their weekly screenings in different community centres across the Gaza Strip, especially in marginalised border communities and refugee camps. Demand is incredibly high in a country so desperate for any form of entertainment and escapism. Attended by friends and families from tight-knit, familiar social circles, the event captures the people’s desire to be a part of a bigger community.
Mr Abu Salam from Ain Media can see the benefits of supporting a program such as this—one explicitly for the community. His interest in the Children’s Cinema began with a desire to show the history of Palestine, but has now allowed the screenings to also focus on more innocent subjects, like human emotions in Disney-Pixar’s Inside Out (2015).
Since almost half of the Gaza Strip’s population of two million people are under the age of 14, it is the children who are making up this new cinematic community. Many who are stepping into the Children’s Cinema are going in to their first cinema ever, and for those who have only ever known violence and misery, the films are a quick and consistent relief.
Salem knows the effect the cinema has had on these children’s lives: “These people, who suffered these wars and sieges, are now in rows having popcorn and watching [a movie that] reflects the Palestinian situation.” Asides from giving the children a safe space, he sees the Children’s Cinema as being one of the reasons for breaking the siege that has been forced on the region for what has now been more than a decade—since the Hamas takeover in 2007. The siege was Israel’s retaliation to the Hamas victory, in which they stopped the movement of people and goods from entering and leaving the Gaza Strip. The films that are now passing through and being watched by the children are one of the only goods to do so—which makes them even more precious than before. The United Nations cites the siege as being the cause of a humanitarian crisis occurring in the region, leading to inhumane living conditions. Children, more than anyone, are bearing the brunt of these cruel circumstances.
“The situation in [Gaza is] … devastating, and the protracted conflict is chasing the dreams of these kids into nightmares,” Ayman said. “Gaza Children Cinema is not only a space that provides kids with film workshops but… [is also] a platform [used] to raise awareness about the ongoing human crisis of Gaza. The project has been utilised to tell the stories of children who are… entrapped in what [the] UN calls [an] open-air prison”.
Imagine yourself to be one of them: you are a survivor, a child who has lived through many wars in Gaza—in 2014, only a few years ago, 551 Palestinian children were killed, and almost 3000 were injured; you are aware that more children like yourself were killed than actual soldiers fighting the Israeli forces. Perhaps you have lost a sibling, or two, or three. You feel depressed, angry, scared. You must struggle to survive. This is the reality for many of Gaza’s youth. It is a story that Ayman is well aware of, and one he could see reflected in the life of ice-cream-selling Ahmed—and others like him.
That is why projects like the Children’s Cinema have never been more important. Their great aspiration is to use film to alleviate children’s suffering. They see how cinema can relax and destress these children, take them away from their current worries and show them worlds where people live in peace, unconcerned by war or death or losing loved ones. Film is an escape, and it is a reminder to dream.
Yet the international community have been blindfolded, or chosen to remain blind, to the extreme injustices of people’s lives in Gaza and in Palestine. It is our inaction, our tendency to ignore, that leaves those in pain powerless. If you would like to donate to the Children’s Cinema, and support the team’s mission to share the magic of cinema with more kids in Gaza, head to their website or visit their Facebook page.
Ayman says that, “[This]… is an invitation to Australians to make the voiceless voices of those children heard.”