Director Vibeke Lokkeberg and producer Terje Kristiansen’s powerful documentary, Tears of Gaza, which opens in theaters on September 21st, shows the terrifying impact of war on a civilian population. Through graphic footage of the 2008-2009 bombings of Gaza by the Israeli military and emotional testimony by the survivors, the filmmakers offer an unsettling, visceral and thought-provoking look at how ordinary families live and suffer when daily life, war and occupation are inescapably intertwined.
I sat down with Lokkeberg and Kristiansen to talk about their film which examines with disturbing immediacy the brutal consequences of war from the viewpoints of three children and allows the audience to connect with them in a very personal way. They discussed why they made a deliberate choice to try to avoid any contextualization, how they were able to shoot extraordinary footage in the middle of a war zone, and why they believe documentary cinema is better suited to examining these issues than the traditional media. Hit the jump for more:
COLLIDER: Gaza has been the subject of numerous documentaries that have examined it from almost every conceivable angle. What inspired you to make a film that focuses on the impact of war on a civilian population?
VIBEKE LOKKEBERG: When the war started, I followed it from the border of Israel and Gaza, and I saw that no journalists were allowed to come in. They were locked out so that nobody could see what they did. There were two Norwegian doctors who came into the hospital to help the people. They were the only two white people or non-Arab or non-Palestine people. They sent a message to the whole world through their phone pictures about what it looked like in there and how the war was terrorizing the civilians. We saw from these pictures dead children, dead women. It was a house of slaughter. I felt it was a tough experience to go through the 24 days of the war in front of a television and having so little information. Then, the day after the war, there was a very small interview I saw with a boy who cried, telling that he lost his father. That was Yahya who you saw in the film. I said to my husband that we have to do something. We cannot just sit here. What are we able to do? Yes, we can make a movie. We can go and get this boy to have him tell his story to see the everyday life of his family living in this ruin after his father and brothers are dead. Let’s do that. So, we decided to do that.
LOKKEBERG: Because, as you mentioned to me, there have been hundreds of films made on this issue where you have both sides. It doesn’t really impress people because it’s like talking to your mind for you to learn something, and they are protecting their view in Israel that they have the right to kill terrorists. We have the axis of evil in the Middle East and we have the war on terror, and these people, they said they’re part of Hamas, so that’s why we can target them. They are “the other” which we have the right to kill – all of us in a way. For us, it was the human aspect.
TERJE KRISTIANSEN: The main thing was the human aspect and how it was to be killed. The news reports just show you the incidents. Here are 20 people killed. Here are the statistics and figures, but you don’t get in touch with how a human being and a family and a group of people feel and what their destiny is when the area is actually bombed. Gaza is a very small physical area with 1.2 million people. Most of the people are under 18 years old. More than 50 per cent are children. Earlier, it was a prosperous Mediterranean city with seven universities and a lot of activity. Now it’s occupied and like a kind of refugee camp that’s closed. You need to go through tunnels and everything to get inside the human story. We think that the Vietnam War which we were living with actually started to stop the moment we saw the human side of it.
LOKKEBERG: Because you saw this picture of the girl running through the street burning from the napalm. (Lokkeberg is referring to 9-year-old Phan Thị Kim Phúc who was the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken in 1972 after South Vietnamese planes bombed her village.) That really changed the perspective of that war.
KRISTIANSEN: People don’t like people to get killed. I understand when societies don’t want to show too much of it because then we react.
KRISTIANSEN: We never considered that because that would be a kind of alienation. It would be like a bird looking down. Then you will get the distance. You have to try to get inside. That would be a more conventional documentary then.
Can you talk about the challenges you faced making this film? How did you work with the people inside Gaza and find a camera crew to shoot your film?
LOKKEBERG: We were denied access to come into Gaza. We asked. We said we wanted to make a documentary. The Israeli military said no, you cannot come in. So then, we went to the West Bank because we had never been there before. We wanted to be educated as to what this conflict really was. When we came, we had a Palestine guide. That means you come to other places to see the truth. If you have an Israeli guide, they will not take you to these places where on the wall it says “against Arabs.” So, we went there and we went to the Sinai Desert and to the border of Egypt to try to come in this way. But no, we couldn’t, and neither did the children. We didn’t dare because they were bombing tombs every day. That was after the war, but they were still bombing. There were still F-16s coming over there and drones all the time. They are developing them so soon we’ll have them here maybe. Then we got connections and we had a team inside Gaza which usually works for Reuters and ABC. They’re professional, but they’re only used to make reportages, so we had to discuss with them that this should be a film where people were able to identify with them. We entered into a very specific agreement where the camera should stay and how the scenes should be shot because what I wanted was to see into their everyday life – in the ruins, in their graveyard, at the beach and in the car.
KRISTIANSEN: The cameramen we worked with (Yosuf Abu Shreah, Mwafaq al Khateeb, Saed al Sabaa) were actually with the Associated Press. It works this way. In Gaza, there are three or four production units which during normal situations give support to journalists coming into Gaza so they don’t need to have their own crew with them. This is that kind of crew. But we knew beforehand which children we wanted to be in contact with so we had to use go-betweens and then they were directed by Vibeke through this camera team. A lot of images in the film are from amateurs that were actually in a combat situation during the war.
LOKKEBERG: And you see the proof here that white phosphorous bombs were used which was denied by the Israelis.
KRISTIANSEN: They used cluster bombs, too. One of the two doctors is a specialist in war injuries on bodies, and he said they have a bomb that is dropped and it was constructed in a way that children liked it. When they went up to it, it exploded and it destroyed them here [indicating from the waist down].
LOKKEBERG: So they cannot have children. They cannot get married. It’s a terrible thing that with these weapons they are planning all this. They also planned that everybody shouldn’t die. There should be some invalid children, too. The mother has enough to do with just taking care of the child so she can’t enter into any thinking about politics.
LOKKEBERG: We were presented with them. We had asked them to show us some pictures. Can we see them?
KRISTIANSEN: We had seen images, especially of the boy, beforehand, so we knew we wanted him, and then we wanted the girls. Two of them we knew beforehand and the third was actually an extra, a friend of the other two.
How did you go about assembling the raw footage to show the consequences of war from the viewpoints of three children?
LOKKEBERG: It was already planned that we should have the opening on the beach where you are introduced to these children. Then, we wanted you to feel relaxed just knowing how they’re living, going to the market, going to the beach, and doing everyday things. Terje can tell you about the editing.
KRISTIANSEN: We tried to establish how the life was for a person. They have a wedding. They go to school. They have parties. But the drones are over them all the time. The F-16s are over them all the time. They never know when they’re going to get bombed, but they try not to stop living. They never know who is going to get hit next time, and to live in that situation is very dramatic.
Do you think documentary cinema does a better job of portraying the everyday life and the profound tragedy of Gaza than journalists or the TV media? Does it allow you to portray the victims with a greater sense of dignity under the circumstances?
LOKKEBERG: Absolutely, because in the reportage you see in television, you just want the topics. They’re like puppets for you. You are asking them certain questions and then you turn to the audience and you talk about them. You comment about them. You make them the third person in a way. They become an object. They’re not there to speak to you because the journalist is in between and that stigmatizes people as someone less intelligent maybe or less important.
KRISTIANSEN: Or just a number. Just one more victim. When we read 20,000 civilians dead in Syria, it’s just a figure. But, when you actually see the face of a person in distress and in pain, you will relate to it.
LOKKEBERG: She becomes you or me. She’s not a stranger. We want to get away from this feeling that okay, she’s one of “the others.” She’s a stranger. She can be killed, because there is some reason that we do it. We’re not sure why, but…
KRISTIANSEN: We wanted to put it into context, to convey a kind of destiny and situation and feelings from Gaza to you. And then, the big test, if we succeeded or not, was when we brought the film to Gaza and let them see the film. It was screened there several times and at a film festival that they arranged, and all the people said yes, it’s exactly how we experienced it. Then, we felt that we had given them their dignity, that we had made a portrait that they were actually grateful for.
LOKKEBERG: Yes, they ran to help. That’s so risky, because the next bomb will come after the first one. They know that, but they do it anyway. They are so involved collectively in each other. It’s something we don’t have. No, that impressed us very much, because as you said, Terje, when people see an accident, they run away from it. They don’t go to help. It’s sad if you think it’s you who dies and nobody cares. This is a film in which we want to say we care.
KRISTIANSEN: It’s important also for us to show to ourselves and to the audience that an Arab is not a beast from the jungle that needs to be wiped out. It’s a normal human being. It’s exactly like us but a little different. There’s a kind of racism in our cultural way because everybody is being turned into terrorists.
LOKKEBERG: They say it’s like we had Russia as the enemy before and that’s over and we had to invent another one. And so, here they are.
What comparisons would you draw between what we see in Tears of Gaza and what we’re currently seeing in Syria and the situation there?
LOKKEBERG: Even more have been killed in Syria than in Gaza and the same thing is happening to the civilians, the victims, and the women and children especially. They have no protection. My idea is that women and children should have a voice also when it comes to creating wars. I mean, we are nobody. We are zero when it comes to war. The guys have all the power. They decide. They’re ready to go out and shoot, but what are we doing? It’s like these people with eight children. What can we do?
KRISTIANSEN: Politicians, in their way, have managed to sell to the audience the idea that we need to have some wars to make the world better. But, we don’t think that is correct because we don’t know of any good war that has solved any political problem with dignity because a war gives wounds to a society for several generations. We had the Second World War in Norway, but it was a very light one. It was not a big problem. But still, this is occupying people and families today. War follows people for generations and war doesn’t solve problems.
KRISTIANSEN: They should see that they’re both victims – victims of a tragic situation created by Western countries like France, England and other countries. The problems down there are imported from us. The other countries in Europe are the guilty ones.
What did you learn personally as filmmakers from the experience of making this film?
LOKKEBERG: To me, personally, it was very important. I think it changed my whole attitude toward politics, that we have to involve ourselves to do something. We can’t just look at what they’re deciding and doing. We have to react. In a way, it’s very difficult for me as a director to get rid of this subject because it involves people who are living in a tragedy. It’s difficult just to jump in and then jump out again. I see more meaning in life by doing something concrete in a movie than just thinking of my career or what’s next or what’s in it for me or my next movie or something like that.
KRISTIANSEN: Documentaries are closer to reality than features. This is the first documentary in 35 years that we have made and it’s very satisfying to work with something concrete in the living society because so much is happening in this time now. Fortunately, the digital technique makes it possible for everybody to make images so it’s difficult to hide injustice. You can stop it by distribution but then we have the social media, so it’s a revolutionary period where you cannot stop the freedom of speech or the freedom of images or the freedom of meaning. You can try to stop it but it will come like a tsunami.
LOKKEBERG: I hope that they will go home and say what can I do? I have to do something. When I know the world is like this and people are suffering like this, I cannot just sit here and know that my tax dollars are going to buy more drones or more F-16s to send to Israel or wherever.
KRISTIANSEN: Everybody asks us after the film when we have a Q&A what shall we do, and then, we say you should say enough is enough. Start a peace movement. Start an anti-war movement again because war doesn’t solve anything and it’s getting crueler. It’s getting more and more cruel. And now, they’re going in small drones to kill individuals, and next time we’ll see some individual up here on the hill who’s killed by a drone because his neighbors don’t like him or something like that.
LOKKEBERG: Or, he parked wrong.
KRISTIANSEN: It’s a dangerous development. It’s getting crazy.