Gruff and skeptical, Abu Marzouq clearly does not want to be filmed. The ambulance driver is the reluctant protagonist of the first feature-length documentary by Gaza-based filmmaker Mohamed Jabaly. Ambulance follows a crew of paramedics led by Abu Marzouq during Israel’s 2014 bombardment of Gaza. The documentary, featured in the BBC Arabic Film Festival 2017 currently underway in London, is at once highly reflective and rough, unadulterated.
Drawn from dozens of hours of footage recorded at innumerable sites of catastrophe, Ambulance unfolds in the same chronology as the war. This is no narrative that would be recognizable in a nightly newscast. Instead of answering circular and often problematic questions of who started what, Jabaly answers unasked questions, and shows the physical, psychological and social impacts of war.
Ambulance begins with a list of statistics: 51 days, 18,000 homes destroyed, 500,000 people displaced.
In Jabaly’s film these figures are given meaningful redefinitions. No longer an abstract number, “destroyed homes” become the bodies pulled out from beneath collapsed cement, and the anguished faces of family members as they learn the news that loved ones have been crushed.
“They’re all gone”
For Gaza’s emergency workers, the violence is personal. In one poignant scene, in the thick of bombardment, one of the young paramedics gets a call. Following protocol, he asks: how many in the house, can they move, who is missing. He hangs up and reports: “My uncle’s house was destroyed with 12 people inside.” Sitting next to the camera, he says a prayer and leans back into the ambulance seat. His face melts and grief takes over: “They’re all gone.”
As ambulance crews rush to the Shujaiya neighborhood of Gaza City, viewers see displacement not as a fact, but as a process. The area was under intense shelling as its residents emerged from their homes into the streets to flee certain death, carrying mattresses, plastic bags, children. Here, the ambulance crew provided reassurance, transporting those too frail or distraught to make the journey to the city center.
The desire to bring better understanding to what happened in Gaza is what prompted Jabaly to make the film in the first place. Having previously filmed at the government-run hospital in Gaza City, Jabaly was called in by a colleague on the first day of the attack. He recorded in the emergency room as the dead and injured poured through the doors.
By the end of the day he had permission from the hospital director to ride with one of the ambulances for the duration of what would be seven weeks of devastating bombardment. What emerges from Jabaly’s film most clearly is the heroic aid provided by the paramedics. The crew and their driver give shelter to fleeing families, emotional support to terrified kids, first aid to the wounded, and bodies to lean on for relatives struck down with grief.
Abu Marzouq, having worked through the major Israeli offensives in 2008 and 2012, is a silent leader who supports his crew and leads them deftly through a disintegrating landscape. As he slowly warms to the glass eye of Jabaly’s camera, he instructs the filmmaker where to look, what to see. When Abu Marzouq is injured, his team is shaken. The crew had driven into an area with reported shelling, not realizing that the violence was ongoing. There are loud bangs and the camera goes dark. The next scenes show Abu Marzouq being treated in hospital, taken there in the very ambulance which he uses to save others. He is pale and shaken, but refuses to go home after he is stitched up. His shift is not yet done.
Violence of waiting
For Jabaly, bearing witness to the devastation gave him agency to make the aftereffects of war visible. But filming other aspects of the violence he found impossible.
“I missed a lot of footage,” Jabaly explained to The Electronic Intifada.
While accompanying a crew distributing aid to displaced families in makeshift shelters, “I couldn’t film,” he said. The waiting families reminded him too much of his own suffocating experience during Israeli onslaughts in 2008 and 2012, and the agonizing anticipation of an unknown end.
The violence of waiting comes out in an altogether different way through a new short documentary by Mahdi Fleifel (A World Not Ours), another BBC Arabic festival selection.
In A Man Returned, a glassy-eyed heroin addict prepares a new home in Lebanon’s Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp for the woman he will marry. “We have to make the impossible possible,” he tells her, his face cast in the light of a mobile phone.
The statement is heartwarming until its context is revealed. Abu Eyad, the real-life childhood friend of Fleifel, had recently returned from Greece with a drug addiction.
Having undergone the perilous Mediterranean journey via smuggling boat in search of a better life, Abu Eyad returned to the camp with no better prospects than when he escaped – or perhaps worse. Leaving his wedding party to make a drug sale, making the impossible possible seems far away indeed. Fleifel’s “man returned” is the third in a series of documentaries following Abu Eyad, each tracking a so far failed attempt at ending the violence of waiting that seems an eternal part of life in Ein al-Hilweh, the most populous Palestinian camp in Lebanon.
Then They Said: Refugee, another short documentary featured in the BBC festival, follows Fadi, a Palestinian activist, as he leads a theater and dance group in Dheisheh refugee camp adjacent to the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem. Fadi works to get youth off the streets and into a space where they can deal with their grief. Art, here, commemorates friends and neighbors killed or imprisoned by Israeli forces.
In its UK premiere, the feature-length documentary Roshmia portrays the seemingly inevitable destruction of the home of two elderly refugees for a new highway. The couple face another displacement, decades after they settled in a Haifa valley in the wake of the mass displacement of Palestinians during the establishment of Israel in 1948. Whether seen through Fleifel’s documentary gaze, in Salim Abu Jabal’s quiet and eloquently shot portrait of an elderly couple in today’s Israel, or Ambulance’s raw and visceral footage of Gaza, the reverberations of violence pervade all corners of life, from the wedding celebration to the Gaza morgue.
Nora Parr is Lecturer in Comparative Literature and English at King’s College London.