'Gaza Strip': Stones And Martyrs

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 13, 2002

"WE want to beat back the Jews and kill them off," declares Mohammed Hejazi flatly. The illiterate, 13-year-old Palestinian newspaperboy is the chief subject of "Gaza Strip," first-time documentarian James Longley's ruthlessly honest if blindered view of life in the four-mile-wide ribbon of coast on the Mediterranean that is home to 1.2 million Palestinians and 6,000 Israeli settlers.

The boy continues: "I want to be a martyr; better that I go to Paradise. I want to enter Paradise. Better that I leave this life." Regardless of where he ends up in the afterlife, Mohammed may get his wish, dying sooner rather than later -- seeing as his number one recreational activity seems to be confronting Israeli tanks, a dangerous hobby that has already gotten his best friend shot in the head. Mohammed's father even resorted once to tying up his son to keep him out of danger. Still, he persists.

Edited without narration from footage shot over three months in early 2001 (during which time Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister of Israel), Longley's cinema verite film is sometimes harrowing to the point of obscenity, less for the scenes of wounded Palestinians being wheeled into hospitals than for the sentiments of utter hopelessness and ugly rage expressed by Mohammed and other subjects. As a lesson in the degree to which (if not the reasons why) many Palestinians despise the state of Israel, "Gaza Strip" is viscerally, nauseatingly effective.

Its one-sidedness, however, flirts with propaganda. The only on-camera sign of an Israeli presence is an occasional flag seen fluttering in the distance and -- one can only assume -- that country's bullets ricocheting off the facades of Palestinian buildings as school-age children scurry for cover. Against Israeli tanks, gas, guns, shells, bulldozers and bombs, we see Palestinians wielding only rocks. No mention is made of suicide bombers or the historical background that led up to the current stand-off.

Call it unbalanced or merely an expression of one point of view, life in "Gaza Strip" seems to lurch between extremes of the surreal and the outrageous. Scenes of Palestinians driving along the beach in sand up to their wheel wells in order to skirt Israeli-imposed road closures alternate with interviews with victims of Israeli attacks by a new, unspecified form of sweet-smelling gas that causes seizure-like symptoms. There is also an account by a young witness to the explosion of a pair of booby-trapped boxing gloves that killed a small Palestinian boy.

It's no wonder that Mohammed, who scorns Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as much as Sharon, yearns for martyrdom. With official policies in place that, short of mutually assured destruction, guarantee misery on both sides, life seems hardly worth living.

GAZA STRIP (Unrated, 74 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and some scenes of blood and gore. In Arabic and French with subtitles. At Visions Cinema/Bistro/ Lounge.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company