On HBO tonight, you can watch a 14-year-old boy die. When we first see Salem al-Shaer, in the documentary "Death in Gaza," he is being taken from an ambulance, still conscious, still able to raise his head. In the hospital, doctors roll him over, revealing blood-soaked sheets, and find a bullet wound in his back. He was shot, we're told, after throwing stones at an Israeli bulldozer.
"I can't bear it," he says, crying as the doctors implore him not to move. He dies six hours later and is buried, by hand, in a sandy grave in the Gaza Strip. His death is celebrated as another martyrdom in the resistance against Israeli occupation.
It's a waste, an infuriating waste of a child, and an almost unbearable several minutes in this unbearably wrenching film. It might feel voyeuristic, a boy dying as cameraman James Miller moves in close to record it all -- the physical pain of the young man, the emotional pain of his mother, the exhaustion and tempered anger visible in the faces of the doctors -- but for one thing. Miller himself is killed shortly after he filmed this scene, also by an Israeli bullet, also in Gaza. Not showing Salem's death would have turned this into a movie about the movie maker, the risks he took and the consequences he suffered. Showing it, on the other hand, both justifies those risks and gives the title -- "Death in Gaza" -- a broader, sadder, more encompassing meaning.
Miller, a British filmmaker whose previous award-winning work includes "Beneath the Veil" and "Unholy War," went to Gaza in 2003 to film children on both sides of the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis. He was killed on his last day in Gaza, before he could film the other half of the story.
The movie, completed after his death and narrated by reporter Saira Shah, is remarkably evenhanded, obeying all the byzantine rhetorical formulas of "objectivity" that make reporting from this part of the world so difficult. The film acknowledges repeatedly the toll on Israelis taken by Palestinian suicide bombers. It refers to Palestinians who participate in the resistance as "militants" -- neatly between "freedom fighters" and "terrorists." It is starkly critical of the cult of martyrdom that seduces young boys -- some to throw rocks at tanks, others to assist Palestinian fighters, and yet others to strap on explosives and kill themselves to kill others.
But the images overwhelm the careful rhetoric, and there's no faulting the filmmakers for it. Most of the film is shot in Rafah, a hellish combination of prison and slum, dotted by Israeli sniper towers, scarred by armored Israeli tanks destroying houses to get at militant enclaves and smuggling tunnels. The sea, we learn, is only a few miles away, but you can't get there because Israeli settlements stand between the Palestinians and the Mediterranean.
The cult of martyrdom that grips Rafah is brutal to everyone caught up in it. It is a war zone, and, not surprisingly, boys like Ahmed, a 12-year-old, are drawn to warriors as heroes. But the warriors can offer Ahmed no hope of any future -- not that anybody else can, either -- and the militants, in one very powerful scene, come across as manipulative and callous in their use of his aid as a scout and sentry.
Tertullian, the 2nd century Christian writer, once said, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." Such views aren't surprising among groups that live in a world of oppression and hopelessness. The power of this film is such that when men and boys pour out into the streets after Salem's death, declaring that it's a happy day when another martyr has died, one understands their anger, and hears echoes of apocalyptic thinking that transcend religious boundaries.
The death of Miller also takes place on camera, though it's night, and all one sees is the white flag he and his crew are waving at Israeli soldiers. They call out to the soldiers and are answered by gunfire. Miller dies instantly from a bullet to the neck. He was 34. Despite this, the tone of the film isn't angry, which is an astonishing accomplishment, especially given that no one has been held accountable for his death.
The other half of this film one can only imagine. Israeli kids on buses, in pizza parlors and shopping malls and cafes, worried every day that some Palestinian will wander out of the Third World enclave on their borders and leave them dead or forever maimed -- that fear is worth documenting too.
But perhaps it's a good thing to have a movie that, despite its careful tone and balance, is ultimately devoted to Palestinian suffering. American news organizations have presented the conflict in this region primarily as one between democracy and terrorism, which is in part true, but is also a news filter with which Americans can quickly sympathize.
But the conflict is more than that. It is a conflict between prosperity and poverty, and between two peoples who have, for a century at least, been fighting a bare-knuckled battle over land that both claim, a conflict with immense shame on both sides. It is a conflict that Israel now fights with tanks and jet fighters and billions of dollars of assistance from the United States. Which, regardless of who is right, death by death, battle by battle, and in the long run of history, makes it ever more our conflict.
"Death in Gaza" makes clear what is happening on one side of the battle lines, the misery and zealotry. It is not the whole story, which the filmmakers acknowledge. But because the death of boys like Salem is increasingly attributed, throughout the world, to American support of Israel, it is essential that Americans watch this film, even if getting the other half of the story means going elsewhere.
With the U.S. government distracted from the peace process, and increasingly discredited as a force for peace in the region, there's no doubt that the misery will continue, and that other filmmakers will have ample opportunity to bring yet other perspectives to balance this one. For journalists who, like James Miller, have the courage to put themselves in harm's way, this will remain a war of plenty.