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Gaza Mon Amour: The Palestinian narrative finds refuge in a romantic comedy Open in fullscreen

Hadani Ditmars

Gaza Mon Amour: The Palestinian narrative finds refuge in a romantic comedy

Gaza Mon Amour is a charming portrayal of late-life romance. [Versatile Films]

Date of publication: 8 October, 2020

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Love triumphs over tragedy in the Nasser brothers' touching satire on desire and despair in Gaza.
A feel-good film about the Gaza Strip has won the hearts of critics internationally. 

Gaza Mon Amour, the charming sophomore effort of twin brothers Arab and Tarzan Nasser, premiered to critical acclaim at last month's Venice film festival, and came away from the Toronto International Film Festival with the Netpac award for "best Asian film."

But it would be misleading to categorise the film about a lonely 60-year-old fisherman named Issa (played with steely determination by Salim Daw) who falls for the widowed seamstress Siham (Hiam Abbass of Succession in a subtle but powerful performance) as "apolitical." 

In fact, its depiction of a man who - in spite of the Israeli military and harassment by Hamas - dares to dream and love, defies both Western stereotypes about Palestine and the excesses of authoritarian regimes.

It makes the personal political but portrays life in Gaza with a grace and humour that humanise rather than objectify the plight of a people whose reality is often conflated with the endless trauma of news cycles. 

This love letter to Gaza by the Nasser brothers – like their first feature Dégradé set in a Gazan beauty parlour - dares to make a land fetishized by televisual drama into a place that feels like home.

By showing, not 'telling' the tragedy of Gaza, its reality is revealed with poignant humour in a way that is almost incidental to the larger love story

Unsurprisingly, the film, with a documentarian aesthetic, was inspired by a true story from 2014 about a Gazan fisherman who happened upon an ancient Greek statue of Apollo, immediately confiscated by Hamas who hoped to sell it for a hefty sum. The statue vanished, with various stories claiming it was either sold to a foreign buyer or destroyed in an air strike. 

"It was really quite sad," Tarzan Nasser told The New Arab, "to realize that our government did not know what to do with this statue, other than burying it in some cellar. But at the same time, our imagination was aroused... What could be more exciting than to imagine the god of love making an appearance in Gaza, arriving to rock the life of an old, single fisherman?"

In Gaza Mon Amour the statue of Apollo (known for his many affairs) takes on its own kind of magical agency, reflecting the power of love to make even the world's biggest open-air prison into a palace. 

In Gaza Mon Amour the statue of Apollo takes on its own kind of magical agency. [Versatile Films]

By showing, not "telling" the tragedy of Gaza, its reality is revealed with poignant humour in a way that is almost incidental to the larger love story. A land of widows is portrayed with comic compassion in a scene where Issa's interfering, matchmaking sister (well played by Manal Awad) ushers a group of them into her brother's home for his perusal. 

And a low angled long shot of Issa as he walks through the narrow confines of a Gazan camp, framed on either side by political graffiti but rising above it, oblivious, with his mind firmly focussed on pursuing Siham, makes him into an unlikely working-class hero.

While the film's rather grey depiction of  life in Gaza -  transformed whenever Siham appears by the enthusiastic tones of Puccini's Musetta's Waltz - seems inspired by Italian neo-realism, the character of Issa is also played as a kind of Palestinian Charlie Chaplin or even Buster Keaton.

This love letter to Gaza by the Nasser brothers dares to make a land fetishized by televisual drama into a place that feels like home

But in this Gazan Modern Times, the love story with Siham is both a device to transcend and to celebrate the beauty of the everyday. While some recent Palestinian cinema – like Najwa Najjar's road movie Between Heaven and Earth – celebrates the breadth and beauty of the Palestinian territories - here the claustrophobic confinement of Gaza's 140 square miles is used to create a sense of intimacy. 

After a scene where Issa tells his sister of his plans to marry, as she watches a romantic film on his television in his tiny living room – (the protagonist proclaiming – "I want to be in another time and space with my love"), a subsequent scene shows him doing his ablutions and praying, his quiet dignity transcending the cramped quarters.  

In another scene he lifts weights and paces back and forth in his hallway, anticipating his next meeting with the seamstress, and in one glorious close up in his sad sack kitchen, he lovingly skewers sardines and dances to Julio Iglesias. Furtive meetings at bus stops and the sharing of an umbrella in a rainy market turn the quotidian into quiet fantasias.

While love may not conquer all in Gaza Mon Amour it certainly triumphs over despair. But the film – with its aging lovers and dedication to the Nasser brothers' father - also acknowledges the generational drama at play in Palestine and elsewhere in the Arab world. 

Gaza Mon Amour makes the personal political but portrays life in Gaza with a grace and humour that humanises rather than objectifies its characters

Siham's daughter Leila (portrayed with authentic millennial angst by Maisa Abd Elhadi) longs to join the diaspora and escape Gaza, while a young friend of Issa's tells him "Your generation has screwed ours with your advice," as Israeli warplanes approach. He later opts for the dangerous escape of illegal migration by boat.

Indeed the 32-year-old Nasser brothers themselves, who dress like hipster rock stars or Palestinian characters as reimagined by Wes Anderson, live in Paris. And the French-German-Palestinian-Qatari co-production, where Issa the fisherman has an Apollo inspired wet dream about his love while in a Hamas jail cell - was filmed in Portugal and Jordan.

Like the statue of Apollo, the sea surrounding Gaza is a metaphorical force majeure, as much about definition as limitation. In one scene, Issa talks to his young friend about an old love from a time when the sea was clean and full of fish, "not small and dirty like now."

Gaza Mon Amour stars Palestinian actors Hiam Abbass and Salim Daw. [Versatile Films]

An Egyptian crooner sings from a television, "the blue colour of your eyes carries me to the depths of the sea /I have no experience in love or navigation/ I'm drowning."

And in the final scene, Issa and Siham, adrift at sea on his boat, face the wrath of an Israeli helicopter, barking orders in Hebrew at the surprised lovers.  

"What happened?" asks Siham. "I think we trespassed the border," Issa replies, before they both break into peals of laughter, retreating to the refuge of their romantic bolt hole.

Their laughter offers a sense of relief - and not just for the characters' happy - if absurdist - end. Viewers might also feel relieved that in a hostile sea of mediatized terrorists and agency-less victims, the Palestinian narrative has found nuanced refuge in a romantic comedy.

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone, and has been writing from and about the MENA since 1992. Her next book, Between Two Rivers, is a travelogue of ancient sites and modern culture in Iraq. www.hadaniditmars.com

Follow her on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars 

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