Electrical Gaza by Rosalind Nashashibi (IWM Contemporary) – Running until 3 January 2016 at Imperial War Museum, London.
According to the Israeli government, there is no blockade of Gaza, a strip of land 25 miles long and 7 miles wide, inhabited by some 1.8 million Palestinians. (The Israeli government also claims that there is no occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, the other part of what most of the world knows collectively as the Occupied Territories).
Rosalind Nashashibi’s film, Electrical Gaza, on view at IWM London until 3rd January 2016, provides glimpses into Gazan life. It is an 18-minute montage of everyday scenes, starting and all but ending with images of the Rafah Crossing between Egypt and Gaza. The footage shows children playing in alleys and streets, people at the market, men chatting and singing at home and street scenes viewed from vehicles, with an intermittent musical score.
Nashashibi says that she wished to “portray the place as I saw it, but also to find a way to show something of its nature as an alternative universe.”
Notably, the film provides a different perspective from those pictures we see from Gaza under war – the all too familiar footage of rubble, angry, mourning crowds and crying children, often presented by a Western reporter – as seen extensively a year ago, in 2014, during the 51-day onslaught of Gaza by Israel that left some 2,200 Palestinians and 71 Israelis dead.
Gaza, the film shows, is not a bomb site – it does exist between wars and is a lively society of families, friends and commerce operating under extreme conditions.
Without a distinct narrative, the scenes of Electrical Gaza carry symbolic and wider significance because of the desperate living standards in Gaza. The UN says that Gaza could be uninhabitable within five years due to the combined effect of a growing population, regular bombardment and economic and human blockade. It already has the highest unemployment rate in the world of 43%. Half the population receive food aid and 95% of the drinking water is unsafe.
An intriguing aspect of the film are the brief interludes of animation which precede actual footage of, for example, some men sitting in a room talking and then, breaking into song. (Nashashibi’s crew in Gaza of drivers, fixers and translators feature).
The animations sometimes evoke the benign and scripted nature of children’s cartoons. But, when an animated scene of two children playing beneath a tree turns into real footage of the children, the reality of the situation is emphasised. Most of the 100,000 Gazans made homeless by last year’s attack remain without homes, largely due to lack of funds and Israel’s continued blockade of much building materials. This fact is made all the more disturbing considering that 43% of the population of Gaza is aged 14 years old or younger.
On the other hand, an animated seaside street scene showing an infant standing in a road as a car passes, whilst soldiers loiter on the street corner becomes, eventually, more pleasant and peaceable in the real footage. There are no soldiers in the actual footage.
Nashashibi seems to be challenging our assumptions about Gaza. Usually, the ‘mythical’ animated scenes are more benign, sometimes, however, they are more threatening than the actual footage. In one fixed street scene, nothing happens, except a large black spot, like a blind spot, grows.
One of the most compelling scenes for me is that of Palestinian teenagers washing their horses in the sea. The vulnerability of the horses and the initiative of their cleaners depicts what Nashashibi describes as “a strong feeling of autonomy and activism and a corresponding fatalism and despair.”
Gaza is surrounded on two sides by an Israeli built security fence and a southern border with Egypt which is closed to most. No-one is allowed in or out without Israeli or Egyptian permission and imports and exports are severely restricted by israel. The Israeli Navy limits Gazan fisherman to a zone of 3 nautical miles from the coast but even fishermen operating within have been attacked, killed or had their boats destroyed or seized.
Nashashibi’s film of the mundane evokes the profound because, as she says, “Gazans are set apart from the rest of the world and yet know that their situation is in some way central to it.”
The US and British governments continue to provide military support to Israel and have blocked, or in Britain’s case, abstained from key UN votes promoting Palestinian state rights.
Within weeks of the ceasefire that ended the 2014 onslaught, Britain agreed a £4 million arms deal with Israel. The US and British governments emphasise Israel’s right to self-defence and the threat of militant rockets whilst enabling Gaza to be sealed off from the rest of the world and to suffer mass deaths at regular intervals.
“I think of the Gaza Strip as having been put under a kind of enchantment by the world powers,” Nashashibi says. She praises, however, IWM, for allowing “its original remit of nominating war artists and embedding them with the British army to evolve into a new mode of commissioning artists that reflects current warfare.”
Electrical Gaza is on view at IWM London from 1st October 2015 to 3rd January 2016.