Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Death in Gaza

The tears will flow easily and often while watching Death in Gaza, an Emmy-Award winning documentary airing on CBC this week.

First, James Miller, the British documentary maker/director/cameraman and father of two, was shot and killed in 2003 by an Israeli soldier while filming in Rafah, at the southern end of the Gaza Strip. (The film opens with Miller's obituary). Second, the primary interview subjects are three Palestinian kids, Ahmed, 12, Mohammed, 12, and Najla, 16. It's an understatement to say their future looks bleak.

Death in Gaza
Miller worked with reporter/narrator Saira Shah. Their goal was to make a documentary about the effect of violence from the perspective of both Palestinian and Israeli children. After Miller's death his colleagues shifted the focus to his bravery and commitment and documented the desperate lives of the children of the West Bank and Gaza. Despite the fact that the team never interviewed Israeli children the film is balanced and clearly has a message of anti-violence.

Violent Days and Nights
Miller effectively and chillingly captured life in the streets of Palestine. During the day viewers are shown buildings pock-marked with bullet holes, dust-choked streets, posters of young martyrs rather than movie stars on walls, and Israeli tanks patrolling the rubble-strewn streets. Young children throw stones at the tanks that respond by firing live rounds into the air. The region is essentially an open-air prison.

North American viewers are familiar with these images of the Middle East in 1½ minute news items but Miller's film goes far beyond that to capture the day to day horror that is a way of life.

Playing Jews & Arabs
Mohammed and Ahmed's version of Cops & Robbers is Arabs & Jews. Clusters of youngsters play in the alleyways with toy guns fashioned out of scrap wood. They also spend their days throwing rocks or homemade explosives at Israeli tanks and other armoured vehicles.

In one scene, when a Palestinian is killed in his jeep during a targeted assassination by an Israeli helicopter, children scramble over the smouldering debris to collect flesh, blood, and body parts in sandwich bags. They marvel over what they found just as children in other parts of the world might collect bugs, rocks, or seashells. The children's teachers are violence and hatred. They have no positive role models.

Cannon Fodder
At night, when citizens and street vendors retreat into the relative safety of their homes, the paramilitary comes out to recruit the young. They need cannon fodder.

Narrator Shah sits with 12-year-old Ahmed and the paramilitary soldiers he admires. While wearing black masks so their faces are entirely hidden, they first play games with him, ruffle his hair affectionately, and then teach him how to hold a rocket grenade launcher. Wide-eyed Ahmed complies. It's obvious he looks up to them.

Shah questions the morality of recruiting young children to be terrorists, and one hooded paramilitary member responds, "Don't worry about responsibility, sister, we're men, when we say goodbye to Ahmed, there are thousands more like him."

The 2004 documentary, Death in Gaza, airs on CBC on May 1 at 8 p.m. ET.

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