Nicolas Wadimoff's Film on Gaza: "Aisheen"

Life After Destruction

The documentary film "Aisheen – Still Alive In Gaza" scooped the ecumenical jury prize at this year's Berlinale. The film, which was produced one month after the end of the war in Gaza, does not focus on the destruction itself, but about the life that follows it. Igal Avidan spoke to the Swiss filmmaker Nicolas Wadimoff

​​ Your film was made as a co-production between Switzerland and Al Jazeera Children's Channel from Qatar. How did this unusual cooperation come to pass?

Nicolas Wadimoff: The producer of the Al Jazeera Children's Channel called me up and asked if I would be interested in making such a film. I had been to Gaza twice before, and agreed, but I wanted to be a co-producer so that the film could be shown in cinemas.

Was it difficult to get a travel permit for the Gaza Strip?

Wadimoff: I entered from the Israeli checkpoint at Erez without problems. Israel is very liberal with media representatives. Officially, you're allowed to stay for three, or four days in Gaza. But because I was also filming seven reports for the Swiss TV broadcaster TSR, the Israelis let me stay for two weeks.

What changes did you establish in the Gaza Strip?

Wadimoff: The destruction was greater than I had expected from the television images I had seen. I found destroyed houses, fields and factories, especially along the border with Israel. This was also my first visit since Hamas seized power. But I was there three weeks after the end of the war and people were still in a state of shock, as though they had been roused from a nightmare. The conflicts and the rift between Hamas and Fatah were pushed to the sidelines as a result.

​​ On 15th February, Hamas security forces in the Gaza Strip, where the militant organisation has been in power since 2007, arrested a British journalist. They said he had endangered security. Were you in any way restricted or obstructed by Hamas during your two weeks in Gaza?

Wadimoff: No. I was never accompanied and could film what I wanted, wherever I wanted. I worked with a local fixer, who organised appointments and set up interviews for me. They were all happy to talk to us in front of the camera.

Did your interview partners say what they thought was expected of them?

Wadimoff: Let's take the scene with the young rap musician, for example. He wasn't afraid of our camera, because he is saying exactly what he's thinking. He didn't do this on radio: The people in Gaza censor themselves, because it's too dangerous to hold views that differ from those of Hamas. Hamas controls society and dictates a very conservative Islamic behaviour.

Gaza Zoo, where animals that have died of hunger are replaced with stuffed ones, plays a central role in your film.

Wadimoff: We filmed there four times. That's how we got to know the young people who work there as volunteers – otherwise the following scene wouldn't have been possible; Three young men sit on a swing and talk casually among themselves. One says he's eaten pistachio nuts today, the other says he went to the Mosque. Meanwhile bombs are falling in the border region where the tunnels were dug out. And then one of the boys begins to complain.

&copy claudiotomassini & associates
Faycal Hassairi, producer at Al Jazeera Children's Channel (left) and Nicolas Wadimoff receiving their award at the Berlinale

​​He complains about his school, the unmotivated teachers. Because of them, he says, he'll never be able to realize his dream of becoming a doctor one day. Then he says he wishes the Jews would disappear. What's that got to do with school standards, asks his friend. "The Jews would cripple the education system," he growls and warns: Without education, they'll all go on to be suicide bombers.

You deliberately dispense with analyses or personal commentary and sometimes allow your protagonists to produce stereotypical concepts of the enemy Israel. Why?

Wadimoff: My last documentary film, L'Accord (2005) was about the Geneva Accord, in which I quiz Israelis and Palestinians about this peace project. After that, I didn't want to make any more films about Israelis and Palestinians, because I had the feeling that everything had already been said.

Now is the time for fiction films. We don't need information, we need stories. And that's what I've attempted here, although this is a documentary film: to try and tell the stories of a number of people.

Will your film be shown in the Gaza Strip?

Wadimoff: The cultural office of the city of Geneva sponsored the film and suggested this. At the end of November 2009, we had three screenings in the hall at the Red Half Moon Society. The room was full every time, all the protagonists came and enjoyed seeing themselves and their friends and acquaintances on the screen.

People laughed and sung together with the rap band. It was a great atmosphere. I hope to show the film in Israel and the West Bank as well.

Did men and women sit together?

Wadimoff: Yes, absolutely, at all the screenings, perhaps because the venue is viewed as secular, or because Hamas does not want to force this separation.

Do you think your film can have a positive influence on the deadlock between Israel and Hamas?

Wadimoff: When I was 20 years old, I thought that films could bring about change. I'm not so sure anymore. If films can open the eyes of those living in Israel and Palestine, perhaps those people would then be able to see the human beings behind the conflict. And show for example that totally normal people live in Gaza, not just Hamas militants. That's something I wanted to highlight in my film.

Igal Avidan

© 2010

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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