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What the future looks like in Gaza

Filmmakers set out to capture young people's perspectives. Then the cameraman was killed, and the story shifted.

August 11, 2004|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

"How would it feel to be shot?" reporter Saira Shah asks Ahmed, a Palestinian boy living in Rafah, a slum on the Gaza Strip.

He has no answer. He knows how to make a homemade bomb and has practiced holding a rocket on his shoulders; he knows that the Israelis are the godless enemy. He knows a lot. But the boy's eyes betray his fear. He wants to be a lookout at night for Palestinian militants battling Israeli tanks. "This job is perfect for a little boy," a masked Palestinian militant tells the filmmakers of "Death in Gaza," a documentary debuting at 9:30 Thursday night on HBO. "Nobody suspects him."

With the news media's attention currently triangulated in Iraq, "Death in Gaza" deserves to be seen. Not because of any new light it sheds on the Arab- Israeli conflict but because its imagery is raw, unfiltered and hard-won, a rebuke to all the pie-in-the-sky political rhetoric about making freedom in the Middle East.

The film, the work of British cameraman James Miller and reporter Shah, was supposed to explore the roots of Palestinian-Israeli hatred through the eyes of children on both sides of this perpetual conflict. But Miller and Shah, who previously teamed on the Peabody-winning films "Unholy War" and "Beneath the Veil," only got to the Palestinian side; on the night of May 2, 2003, Miller was shot to death by an Israeli gunfire in Rafah, on a night when the two were filming the bulldozing of a neighborhood suspected of harboring weapons tunnels. The Israeli soldiers in the tank, according to the documentary, were Bedouin Arabs. A subsequent forensic investigation confirmed the shots came from the tank.

Miller's death actually comes to serve as the hopeful coda for a film that wanted to show more but still manages, in its 80 minutes, to illustrate how the cycle of violence in the Middle East infuses adolescence and the imaginations of boys living in an impoverished world, where defiant jihadis are the equivalent of idolized professional athletes.

The children, raised for martyrdom, get sold out by their own people, by the leadership on both sides of the fighting. They're not so much future adults as future victims, the film illustrates. Much of "Death in Gaza" is told from the perspective of three Palestinians living in Rafah: 12-year-olds Ahmed and Mohammed, best friends in all things, including the dream of martyrdom, and Najla, a 16-year-old girl whose home is in the path of the Israeli bulldozers. Ahmed and Mohammed are shown doing what boys do: playacting at violence, except that here the violence they shadow is all too real. And so we see them assembling a makeshift explosive and playing a game of "Jews and Arabs" on a dusty street.

There are some very familiar scenes in this film (Palestinian kids throwing rocks at tanks) and gruesome ones (Palestinians trying to collect the tattered flesh of a bombing victim for a more proper burial). There is another side in this narrative of endless suffering, of course, and the sad fact is that had James Miller not been shot by an Israeli armored personnel carrier, he would have crossed the divide to show it.

*

'Death in Gaza'

Where: HBO

When: 9:30-11 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-14

Executive producer Sheila Nevins. Directed and filmed by James Miller; written and reported by Saira Shah.

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