Karama-Gaza Human Rights Film Festival
Roll out the red carpet!

Every year, amid the rubble of Gaza City, a film festival takes place. Co-founder, organiser and film producer Khalil al-Mozayen is willing to risk provoking the wrath of Hamas's moral guardians to make sure his festival goes ahead. By Peter Munch

The red carpet has a room of its own – and the honour is deserved. Khalil al-Mozayen, who occupies the adjacent office, opens the door and, with laptop in hand, sits himself down in the centre of the carpet.

"120 metres long", he says proudly. This carpet, after all, neither rolled nor cleaned, spread out in an unfurnished room on the 15th floor of a shabby office building, is one upon which a great deal of hope rests: hope that life may become a bit easier once more, that the doors to the outside world will re-open – or at least that the Gaza Strip will soon have a cinema of its own once more.

Khalil al-Mozayen is a man with a mission. The 52-year-old in jeans and trainers, his glasses perched atop his bald head, is rarely to be seen without a cigarette in his hand, an indication of his restlessly energetic character. He once studied film in Russia, a Palestinian in St Petersburg.

No culture without cinema

Today he is director of a film production company in Gaza City. Most importantly, he it was who brought the red carpet to Gaza. "Red Carpet" is also the name of the film festival he is organising. And that is only the beginning: "My dream is to bring cinema back to the Gaza Strip," he explains, "because without cinema there is no culture."

A short tour around the remnants of the city's cinematic past is the best way of finding out how realistic or otherwise this dream is. First stop the Nasr cinema on Umar al-Mukhtar Street, Gaza's main shopping street. A massive two-storey building, it was divided into two areas; downstairs was for the more exuberant and noisier young people, above, in the first class seats, sat the families along with the great and the good of Gazan society.

Today all that remains as a reminder of the good old days – and the films from Egypt and Bollywood – is the blue sign above the colonnaded doorway. The ticket booth bricked up, the once white walls charred black from an arson attack in the mid-nineties that forced the cinema's closure.

The Nasr cinema in Gaza City (photo: DW/H. Balousha)
Victim of decades of neglect and decay: the Nasr cinema on Umar al-Mukhtar Street, the main shopping street in Gaza is a massive two-storey edifice. Downstairs was for the more exuberant and noisier young people, above, the families along with the great and the good of Gaza society occupied the first class seats

There were ten cinemas in the Gaza Strip back then; all ten closed down at about the same time, forced to yield to the pressure exerted by the Islamists. For them the cinemas were sinful – the films of course, but the darkness too, which offended their puritanical sense of morality.

One can still get a sense of how it must have been back in the heyday of the cinemas, if one squeezes through a small gap in the barred-up entrance of the old Amer cinema. The roof has fallen in, the ranks of seats given way to weeds, but scattered around on the ground one can still find many reminders of the past: faded rolls of film, old music cassettes, green beer bottles with the brand name "Rolling Stock" still legible and the plastic bottles the visitors used to create their own hashish pipes.

Infernal Western culture

It all seems like a very long time ago now; the drugs and the beer are also long gone from the Gaza Strip, officially at any rate. The Islamist Hamas rulers are maintaining their dogged struggle against Westernisation and moral decline – and are very happy to use any opportunity to get their message across.

The Khan Junis cinema, for example, whose former name "Huria" means freedom underwent an unceremonious conversion. Today, "Dar-al-Kitab-wa-sunna" stands above the entrance.  "The House of the Koran" is an Islamic community centre. Thus symbols become inverted in this cultural war and time is on the side of Hamas. Of the nearly two million residents of the Gaza Strip, more than half are under 18 years of age – in their homeland, sealed off as it is from outside influences by Israel and Egypt, they have never seen a film in a cinema.

They may watch films on television or computer, but the magic of the big screen is something they have never experienced; and you don't miss what you don't know. Khalil al-Mozayen, however, is of an age to remember the old cinemas and he is not about to give up on his hope of seeing their revival just yet. Just eight years old when he first saw the inside of a cinema, it was the beginning of his love affair with the silver screen.

"It was like looking out of a window and seeing the world," he says. "That was it. I was hooked." His father was initially less enthusiastic and he was often made to stay home. On one occasion he was even physically dragged from the cinema by his father. None of it made any difference. "I used to collect rubbish to get money for tickets," he recalls; "later I managed to get a job in a cinema and cleaned the toilets just to be able to watch the films."

And Khalil al-Mozayen has decided that he is not going to allow Hamas to intimidate him any more than he allowed his father to stop him watching films. Of the three films he himself has made so far, two have been banned in the Gaza Strip. "They have scenes with women that Hamas found unacceptable," he explains. "I managed to smuggle the third film past the censors, otherwise it would have been banned too."

"Hamaswood instead of Hollywood"

Actually, the Islamists are not even against films as such – they object only to those they can't control. Shortly after Hamas came to power in the Gaza Strip in 2007, the then interior minister even talked enthusiastically about developing an "Islamic cinema" of their own, without "offensive material" of course and with "resistance against Israel" as its focal point.

"Hamaswood instead of Hollywood" was the slogan that heralded the 2009 launch of their first film. It featured the exploits of a brave resistance fighter, its screenplay the work of Hamas grandee Mahmud Zahar himself. The follow-up project was to be about the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in the Gaza Strip, but the outbreak of war in 2014 meant the project had to be put on hold.

It was this devastating 50-day war that was to push Khalil al-Mozayen into opening another window on the world for himself and others – and to set about organising a film festival. It opened in May of 2015, deliberately timed to coincide with the opening of the Cannes festival, though location and the circumstances could hardly have presented a greater contrast to the Côte d'Azur. It was here that Al-Mozayen decided to roll out his red carpet through the rubble-strewn centre of the Shujaiyeh district, where the war had raged most intensely and barely a house remained standing.

It was over this carpet that the residents walked to the premiere – with well-worn and dirt encrusted shoes, on crutches and in wheelchairs. "It summed up our whole message: we've had enough of war," he says.

The "Karama-Gaza Human Rights Film Festival" as success story: 30 films in five days. Contributions came from Palestinians, neighbouring Arab countries, Europe and the US – all on the theme of human rights. This year's motto was, "We want to breathe"

Open-air cinema

Twenty films were screened over several days; the audiences watching from seats laid out in the open air among the rubble. "It was like a miracle," says al-Mozayen, "we had expected around 2,000 people to turn up, but 12,000 came." Even Hamas was happy at first because the film festival drew the attention of the outside world to the devastation in the city. As al-Mozayen set about planning this year's festival, however, he was quickly made aware of the disapproval of the Islamists.

His plan to take the festival to Gaza City harbour and make it available to everyone incurred the wrath of Hamas. Specious excuses about the possibility of an IS attack at such an exposed venue were given by Hamas in an attempt to justify the decision. "It was quite a struggle," explains Khalil al-Mozayen, "they wanted to put an end to the whole idea and I was submitted to interrogation almost every day."

Al-Mozayen is nothing if not impulsive; to witness him in full flow talking about his film festival is to be made aware that the interrogation was most likely a two way thing – and may not always have been the most pleasant of experiences for the Hamas people either. "I'm not afraid," he bellows, "they can arrest me, they can kill me, I really don't care. We are all dead in Gaza anyway."

No one else can talk like this in the Hamas empire, at least not without suffering the consequences. The international popularity that al-Mozayen has enjoyed since his 2015 film festival, may have brought him a degree of protection. It's fair to say that he's surprised not to have been beaten up at the very least. And the festival took place at the same time as Cannes again; on this occasion though, inside an arts centre.

Of course lots of restrictions were imposed: all films selected had to be submitted to the censorship authority in advance and any offensive scenes removed. Men and women were made to sit apart, the watching guardians of public morals stationed in the aisles between them. What's more, the overhead lighting had to be kept switched on during screenings, a regulation guaranteed to seriously impair the quality of the experience.

"We want to breathe"

Most importantly, though, it was a fantastic event. Thirty films screened over five days. There were contributions from Palestinians, from neighbouring Arab countries, from Europe and the US – all of them on the theme of human rights. The motto of this year's festival was "We Want to Breathe".  When Khalil al-Mozayen addressed the audience at the opening, he said, "I would have loved to have had screenings in the open-air, or in the old Nasr cinema, but I was not allowed to." "Come on, Hamas, we've had enough, we need a bit of freedom."

He had seen to it that the red carpet was laid out to lead from the arts centre, down the stairs and across the street. "We wanted it to be as glamorous as possible," he says. People came in their best clothes and lots of them took selfies on the carpet.

"Despite Hamas doing its best to spoil the festival, it was a great success," says al-Mozayen. "It was an event that brought happiness to Gaza." For now the red carpet is back in its room next to his office. But he is already planning ahead. In 2017 it will be rolled out in the Gaza Strip once again.

Peter Munch

© Sueddeutsche Zeitung 2016

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