What it takes to organize a film screening in Gaza

Getting an entry permit from the Israeli army, securing permission to screen the film from Hamas, and how to prepare for inevitable power cuts are only some of the hurdles. Imagine what it takes to coordinate humanitarian aid.

By Jen Marlowe

A full house at the premiere of Naila and the Uprising at the Red Crescent Cinema Hall in the Gaza Strip, September 2018. (Shareef Sarhan)
A full house at the premiere of Naila and the Uprising at the Red Crescent Cinema Hall in the Gaza Strip, September 2018. (Shareef Sarhan)

We had been talking about organizing the Gaza premiere of Naila and the Uprising for months, but it wasn’t until mid-summer that my colleague in Gaza, Fadi Abu Shammalah, and I began the preparations in earnest.

Fadi and I discussed the merits of the two potential venues that could accommodate a film screening of the scale we were anticipating. The first was the Red Crescent Cinema Hall. The second was Al-Meshal Cultural Center. And then, on August 9, the dilemma was answered for us: Israel bombed the Al-Meshal Cultural Center, wounding 24 people and reducing the potential venue to a pile of rubble.

Organizing a film screening in Gaza may not rank near the top of the list of most pressing concerns facing the Strip. But it provides a window into what it takes to organize almost anything in Gaza.

First, there was the matter of my entry. Fadi and I had produced the Gaza side of Naila and the Uprising on behalf of Just Vision, a non-profit whose other films include Budrus and My Neighbourhood. It was important that both of us represent the film at the Gaza premiere. But there are only three avenues in which Israel lets foreigners cross into Gaza: with an Israeli government-issued press card; as part of an Israeli-approved diplomatic mission; or via a humanitarian aid organization registered with the Israeli Ministry of Welfare.

Children playing in the rubble of al-Meshal Cultural Center in the Gaza Strip. (Jen Marlowe)
Children playing in the rubble of al-Meshal Cultural Center in the Gaza Strip. (Jen Marlowe)

Luckily, a humanitarian organization that had supported the film agreed to coordinate my entry and submitted the request to the Israeli military. I was not optimistic — I had heard from several sources that since 2016, when Israel accused the head of World Vision in Gaza of siphoning money to Hamas, requests from humanitarian agencies are denied much more. I only learned a week before my flight to Tel Aviv that I had received permission from the Israeli army to enter Gaza. A second request, for a Palestinian colleague from East Jerusalem, was neither granted nor denied — as far as we know, it is still “pending.”

Next, we needed permission from the Hamas authorities in Gaza. Previously this process took a mere three days, but the day before I had planned to cross into Gaza I still did not have permission from Hamas. Fadi made one call after another, running from ministry to ministry and to multiple interviews with both Intelligence and Interior Security, where Hamas officials grilled him on who I was and what I would be doing there. Five minutes before the office closed for the day, Fadi texted me a photo of himself holding up my permit and grinning broadly.

The following morning, as I navigated the maze of permit checks, turnstiles, concrete corridors, and surveillance mechanisms separating Israel and Gaza, I couldn’t help but think of how privileged I was to be able to enter and exit at all. Arduous as the process was for me as a foreigner, most Palestinians in Gaza have no way to exit the enclave.

Of course, Fadi had to coordinate more than just my entry with the Hamas government; he had to obtain permission from the Ministry of Culture to show the film, a process which took multiple visits and phone calls. Though officially a letter from the ministry was all that was needed, Fadi had organized enough events in Gaza to know he also needed to ensure that Hamas Interior Security and Intelligence also gave their approval.

Only once that approval was obtained were we able to begin the real work. With just a week to go, Fadi and his crew printed and delivered hundreds of invitations, rented equipment, coordinated security, recruited volunteers, and more. At the end of every long day, we wrapped up our work at al-Mashtal Hotel, just north of Al-Shati refugee camp.

Mohammed Abu Safia, Jen Marlowe and Fadi Abu Shammalah outside the Red Crescent Cinema Hall in the Gaza Strip, the day before the screening of Naila and the Uprising. (Mohammed Abu Safia)
Mohammed Abu Safia, Jen Marlowe and Fadi Abu Shammalah outside the Red Crescent Cinema Hall in the Gaza Strip, the day before the screening of Naila and the Uprising. (Mohammed Abu Safia)

I usually stay with friends in Gaza, but staying at this particular hotel was a condition of the organization that coordinated my entry. I was told that Israeli authorities had agreed that in the event of an attack, al-Mashtal wouldn’t be targeted. The horror of it was not lost on me: the rest of Gaza Strip could be carpet bombed, apparently, but this hotel’s guests — Qatari diplomats and myself — would be spared.

The day before the screening, invitations were delivered, RSVPs were flying in, and volunteers and security for the event were organized. We needed now to prepare the venue. Jamal Qumsan, one of Fadi’s crew, had rented the best LCD projector and sound system available in the Gaza Strip.

I thought Jamal would install the projector on the ceiling, but when I entered the cinema hall, I saw him setting it up on a small table in the middle of the aisle. “In case the electricity goes out during the screening,” he explained. Gaza currently gets four hours of electricity, followed by 12 hours without. Though the Red Crescent Cinema Hall has a generator, there is a gap between when the electricity cuts and the generator kicks in. It is this fluctuation in the electrical current that damages sensitive medical equipment — one of many factors hindering the ability of Gaza’s hospitals to provide adequate health care.

In our case, if the electricity cut, even momentarily, the projector would shut off. If it were installed overhead, Jamal would need to climb a tall, rickety, makeshift ladder in order to turn it back on.

But would the audience be able to clearly see the screen? Fadi had attended a screening in 2016 when members of Hamas’ “Tourism Intelligence” forces stopped the film and demanded the lights be turned on. In order to avoid this scenario, Fadi negotiated directly with the spokesman of the Ministry of Interior in the days before our screening, receiving a special guarantee that the lights could be turned off. Hamas’ condition was that men and women sit separately. It took a follow up visit, and a promise that those invited to our screening were “respectable,” for the Ministry of Interior to agree to allow families to sit together.

On the big day, the team agreed to meet at the cinema hall at 10 a.m. to prepare the final details. I arrived late — the road through Al-Shati refugee camp had been blocked by a crowd of mourners sitting under a tent and drinking bitter coffee. This was the home of Ahmed Omar, the 23-year old who had been killed by Israeli troops at a protest two days earlier. I glimpsed Ahmed’s face on a poster outside the mourning tent as the taxi driver turned around to find a different route. So young. So full of potential life.

It was time for the event to start. Somehow we managed to squeeze everyone into the theater, adding extra chairs to accommodate 300 guests. Welcoming remarks, the Palestinian national anthem, the lights dimmed to black, and the film began.

Still, Fadi and I sat on the edge of our seats. At any moment, Hamas security forces might enter and stop the event — for whatever reason they saw fit. It was not until the closing credits began to roll that we each took a deep breath, shared a grin, and invited one of the film’s protagonists on stage for the Q&A.

I headed back to Erez the next morning, reflecting on what my colleagues and I had accomplished. We had not administered critically needed medical care. We had not delivered crucial fuel for generators, nor food for the 70 percent of Palestinians in Gaza who depend on food aid for survival. We had not created jobs for the 50 percent of the population who are unemployed.

We merely organized a film screening.

If navigating this many hurdles and obstacles is required just to screen a film, what does that say about all other aspects of life in the besieged Gaza Strip?

Jen Marlowe is the Communications Associate for Just Vision and a filmmaker, journalist, author, and human rights activist. Her work includes the play There is a Fieldthe book “The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker” and the film “One Family in Gaza.”