Yalla Gaza: French documentary shows beauty of Palestinian resilience

Yallah Gaza by Roland Nurier was filmed before the war swept devastation over the enclave. Beautiful but flawed, its airing in Paris helps keep Gaza in the minds of an apathetic public.

A scene from the film
A scene from the film

Yalla Gaza: French documentary shows beauty of Palestinian resilience

As Israel’s war continues to rage in the Gaza Strip, displacing more than a million and killing 27,000, pro-Palestine protests around the world have waned.

In a corner of Paris, however, a cinema keeps the conversation alive. Espace Saint-Michel, in the heart of the French capital, has a history of showing films that some might call “leftist”.

It is here that French filmmaker Roland Nurier’s documentary Yallah Gaza is screening.

Its first airing in France was scheduled for 4 October in Lyon, just three days before Hamas attacked southern Israel.

Many wondered whether it would be allowed to screen at all, given the unprecedented levels of support for Israel’s right to self-defence in European capitals, where governments label the Hamas attack as terrorism. Only Turkey seems to dissent.

Concerns that the documentary might be banned emerged against a backdrop of rising antisemitism and anti-Jewish sentiment, the former prohibited by law in some countries.

Supporters of Palestinian rights fear that this could extend to an outright denial of anything that opposed Israeli aggression.

History of support

Nurier has long been a staunch defender of the Palestinian cause and was welcomed into the Espace Saint-Michel for his latest film.

In 2019, he made another, titled The Tank and the Olive Tree, following his tour of the occupied West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip from 2014-17.

Since Nurier was barred from entering Gaza, the filming of Yallah Gaza ('Now Gaza') was delegated to Palestinian director Iyad Alasttal.

Since Nurier was barred from entering Gaza, the filming of Yallah Gaza was delegated to Palestinian director Iyad Alasttal. 

After it was released, the documentary was shown at several film festivals, including in Ramallah in the West Bank and the Jordanian capital of Amman.

In the French city of Lyon, the Collectif 69 Palestine group organised a screening at the Cinema Opera on 4 October.

No one knew, or had any indication of, what might happen in southern Israel three days later, nor how this would change the lives of Gaza's 2.3 million inhabitants forever.

In Lyon, Palestinian activist Mariam Abu Daqqa was in the audience. She appears in the film, along with young men and women from a Palestinian dance troupe who perform routines by Palestinian choreographer Wadih Abu Shahmeh.

Preaching to the crowd

At the screening in Espace Saint-Michel, there were no more than 40 people in the audience, all of them aged 50 and over. No young people were in sight.

Most lingered in their seats as the credits rolled, listening to the closing song:

"Oh, bird in flight, soaring over Palestine; Bring her good mornings and evenings; Greet her and tell her we're coming; Coming to liberate her lands."

With its distinct cultural and political affiliation, this audience gave Nurier's documentary their full attention throughout. Yet it was a far cry from yesteryear.

In days gone by, Parisians with a political interest and pro-Palestinian sympathies were typically people of influence, the great and the good of Paris life.

Today, support for Palestine is far more muted and does not seem to interest the young. Even among this older generation, with their traditional affiliations, those who choose to stay informed and engaged have become a minority.

In days gone by, Parisians with pro-Palestinian sympathies were typically people of influence. Today, support for Palestine is far more muted 

According to one attendee, this was evident in the protests and gatherings held in Parisian streets and squares in recent weeks to condemn the bloody and destructive Israeli aggression on Gaza.

The biggest protests, held under the 'Free Palestine' banner, were over weekends in the latter half of October and November, but soon they dried up.

Mélenchon's army

France has Europe's largest Jewish community as well as Europe's largest Muslim community. Ethnic, racial, and religious tensions are always a worry.

Many of the pro-Palestine demonstrators did not attend for reasons of race, ethnicity, or religion but for political, ideological, and human rights reasons.

A scene from the film

Most appeared to support left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon's La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) movement, which has taken some unorthodox foreign policy positions in recent years.

For instance, it did not endorse the Syrian revolution of 2011-17 against the dictatorial and bloodthirsty regime of Bashar al-Assad, arguing that it was a radical Islamist Sunni uprising that only served the interests of the US and the Gulf states.

One French cinemagoer said his compatriots who demonstrated alongside Arab and Muslim communities in Paris did so after a call to do so from Mélenchon's party.

Yet, he said, this was driven by as much internal political considerations over the Gaza conflict between Mélenchon and current French President Emmanuel Macron.

Sacked for dissent

Outside the Espace Saint-Michel, a French woman explains her disappointment at the French government for supporting Israel and its aggression on Gaza.

A resident of the 17th arrondissement of Paris, she was taken aback by her municipality's display of images of Israeli soldiers captured by Hamas on 7 October on the facades of the city hall.

As the Israeli military wreaks havoc in Gaza, killing thousands of civilians – mostly children and women – that display was dismaying on its own, she said.

Yet it was the municipality dubbing Israeli soldiers "hostages of Hamas terrorism" that really riled her. "These soldiers are not hostages," she said.

In France, intellectuals, artists, and journalists have been banned and stifled, merely for supporting Palestinian rights.

"As long as they remain soldiers in the Israeli army, which is destroying Gaza and committing atrocities against its civilian population, they are prisoners of war."

She told us that the Parisian radio station where she works dismissed her after discussing the Israeli assault on Gaza on her show, instead hiring in a pliable newcomer with little experience in radio or politics.

On Yallah Gaza, she raved about the importance of screening it in the heart of the French capital, and despite its modest audience, the film was a breath of fresh air.

A scene from the film

Intellectuals, artists, dissenters, and journalists who challenge Israel's occupation have been banned, stifled, and excluded merely for supporting the Palestinian right to freedom, justice, and dignity, she said.

Oh bird in flight

Nurier's documentary was filmed and put together before the attacks of 7 October, the response to which has caused unprecedented death and suffering in Gaza.

His works passionately champion the Palestinian cause, painting the Israeli occupier as a colonial and racist oppressor.

Yallah Gaza delves into the lives of Palestinians in the besieged strip as they grapple with the Israeli blockade imposed on them since Hamas assumed power in 2007.

Since then, Israel has waged several destructive wars on the Strip, the latest of which began just under four months ago.

There is perhaps no better time to illustrate the historical and visceral layers of this enduring conflict, so film clubs rushed to screen it as war broke out.

There is perhaps no better time to illustrate the historical and visceral layers of the longstanding Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The action opens with aerial shots from a drone soaring silently over Gaza, capturing a panorama of urban life spanning towns, camps, workshops, and sandy shores.

Accompanying this visual festivity is the melodic voice of a girl singing Ya Tayr Ya Tayer Aala Flastin ('Oh bird in flight, soaring over Palestine') in the Gazan dialect.

The song is said to date back to the 1950s when Lebanese artist Nasri Shamseddine lent his voice to the lyrics of Yousef Al-Hassoun.

Melodic imagery

The film's panoramic shots and fitting title hark back to the visual storytelling we find in the music video of the song Yalla Ala Gaza by rising talents Qasem Al Najjar and Shadi Al Borini, a 2021 production of Falastini TV.

Moving to an upbeat rhythm, the camera covers various corners of Gaza, capturing the daily lives of Gazans with a vibrant and celebratory flair reminiscent of Wadih Al Safi's musical ode to his native Lebanon, Jayin Ya Arz El Jabal.

A scene from the film

Back in the 1960s, long before music videos, Al Safi's song celebrated Lebanon's regions, towns, villages and cities through lyrics only.

In stark contrast to the joyful scenes of Yalla Ala Gaza, Nurier's film captures the devastating destruction and rubble left by Israel's aggression since 2007.

Using panoramic cinematography reminiscent of music videos and postcard aesthetics, the film portrays the epic resilience of Palestinians in Gaza against a suffocating Israeli blockade.

Amidst the debris, we see young Gazans perform sophisticated dances inspired by the dabkeh, the traditional folk dance.

A scene from the film

Through this visual narrative, Nurier aims to showcase the Gazans' determination to resist the prolonged Israeli blockade through civic resistance.

Get real, Roland

The joyous choreography amid the destruction is a powerful cinematic expression of the tragedy of Gaza and its people, yet the film fails to portray the daily grind of Gazans.

Perhaps Nurier felt that recurring scenes and images — a trademark — were alone sufficient to depict the lives of Palestinians in Gaza in an epic, stirring tale that would garner empathy and admiration from viewers.

It does not show how Gazans live, work, build relationships, manage their needs, navigate their affairs, or interact with Hamas, Gaza's ruling party since 2007.

These crucial aspects are entirely absent from the film, which only offers symbolic glimpses of life in Gaza. It prefers to portray heroes of resilience amidst the rubble, further tethering them to a life that is seemingly defined by their steadfastness.

It reduces the people of Gaza to mere visual symbols without delving into their societal dynamics, daily struggles, or historical context.

The film portrays heroes of resilience amidst the rubble, further tethering them to a life that is seemingly defined by their steadfastness.

In adopting this approach, the film somehow resembles Hezbollah's depiction of its Shiite supporters in Lebanon.

Daily clips broadcast on Hezbollah's TV channel portray its supporters as passionately dedicated to the cause, glorifying the party's achievements and resistance without delving into the complexities of their lives.

This aesthetic rapture gives the impression that Gazans have made peace with destruction and misery in a purely 'civilian' resistance that echoes the Rahbani brothers' vision of a typical Lebanese village's melancholic, naive joy.

Through tinted lens

The iconic theatre and cinema of the Rahbani brothers drew inspiration from Fairuz's accompanying angelic voice to capture the romanticism of Lebanese villages.

In the same fashion, Nurier captured Gaza and its people through a symbolic, aesthetic lens, presenting their pain as innocent, peaceful, and devoid of harsh daily realities.

Perhaps he wanted the Western world to see how Gaza suffers at the hands of the oppressive state of Israel, which the West supports and empowers, perhaps even in compensation for Europe's atrocities against Jews.

Getty Images
Israeli army soldiers positioned near the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on October 9, 2023.

In the spirit of the Rahbani-Fairuz folk traditions, Nurier's scenes portray the harmonious coexistence between Christian and Muslim Palestinians through a dialogue between a Muslim sheikh and a Christian priest.

The film highlights the unity and brotherhood that bring people together, beautifully symbolised by their visits to both a mosque and church.

It echoes Farid al-Atrash's song Taa'kheina Hilalan wa Saliba (We Embrace the Crescent and the Cross).

Nurier captured Gaza and its people through a symbolic, aesthetic lens, showing their pain as innocent, peaceful, and devoid of harsh daily realities.

To capture the Palestinians' attachment to their usurped land, homes, and heritage destroyed by Israeli occupation, the film shows how elderly Palestinians still have the keys to their old homes.

A grandfather clad in traditional attire is seen gathering his descendants and telling them about his family home, brandishing the key to it as a symbol of their connection to their heritage and rights.

Taken by force

These representations echo the artistic expressions of the late Palestinian visual artist Ismail Shammout, who depicted such themes in his early paintings.

The symbolic aesthetic monotony of Nurier's film is disrupted by the rich commentaries and testimonies about Gaza, the blockade, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

A scene from the film

These testimonies, all supportive of Palestinian rights and critical of Israel, come from European intellectuals, writers, academics, journalists, and human rights activists.

These include French professor Jean-Pierre Filiu, anti-Zionist Israeli dissident Ronnie Barkan, Le Monde journalist Sylvain Cypel, UNRWA director in Gaza Matthias Schmale, British filmmaker Ken Loach, and French surgeon Christophe Oberlin, who has trained doctors in Gaza for 20 years.

It also includes commentary from Hamas leader and former health minister Basem Naim.

A grey tone, reminiscent of Muslim Brotherhood figures, envelops the space around him, underscoring the solemnity of his words.

In a striking echo of Nasserist rhetoric after the June 1967 defeat, he says: "What is taken by force can only be restored by force."

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