In the volatile, complex conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people there is no clear truth or solution. If any filmmaking team was capable of cutting through the rhetoric and glimpsing the raw emotions that fuel the fire it was the folks behind 2001's excellent Taliban documentary Beneath the Veil (which became required viewing after 9/11). However, word that they were filming a piece on the children of the occupied Gaza Strip who grew up surrounded by violence and anger (eventually to be followed by a piece on Israeli children) was soon followed by news of the death of the film's cinematographer and director, daredevil cameraman James Miller. Filming at night in the Gaza Strip, Miller was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier under shadowy pretenses (the soldier claimed self-defense, the filmmakers said there was no danger.) Rather than allow the incomplete footage to gather dust, Miller's co-director Saira Shah finished the film, partly as a tribute to her fallen colleague.
Death in Gaza is one of those films that's just filled with dread. As if the subject matter weren't already teetering on the edge, as a viewer you are constantly aware of the clock ticking towards the director's death. It's hard to watch at times, as the film crew puts itself in harm's way time after time. They follow armed, masked Palestinian militants as they plaster the pitch black streets with posters of the latest "martyrs". They approach nervous Israeli soldiers at a roadblock to try to understand the reasons for completely shutting down traffic. They stand behind Palestinian youth as they pelt Israeli military vehicles with rocks, clearly putting themselves directly in the line of fire should bullets start to fly. It's harrowing to watch, even from the comfort of your own home.
Miller and Saira concentrate on the effect of the Intifada on children. They are extraordinarily good at establishing some sort of bond with the kids they shoot and encouraging them to show the ways in which they are still just regular kids (playing games, palling around) while also showing a hardened, hateful side developed from prolonged exposure to both the occupation and the extremism it fosters. One kid speaks at length about how he believes in kindness. Finally he casually sums it up "I want to be nice to the whole world… apart from our enemies, the Jews."
There are many surprising moments of real youthfulness like that that are tainted by the misery of Gaza: One kid saying of another that "he's not afraid of the tanks but he is afraid of his mother," other kids playing a variation on cowboys and Indians called "Jews and Arabs" where the goal is to die a martyr while taking out as many Jews as possible.
Arguably the most disturbing sequence shows Ahmed, one of the kids profiled in depth in the piece, hanging out with cynical masked militiamen in their bare hideout. Undoubtedly they were just like young Ahmed not long before, but the way they talk about the possibility of Ahmed's death and the fact that there would be a hundred other kids just like him waiting to take his place right in front of him is clearly offensive to a Western sensibility. But, as the film points out, when there is no apparent hope for success, they have turned death itself into victory. The martyr posters (which don't differentiate between innocent bystanders and suicide bombers) don't memorialize the death of Palestinians; They celebrate it.
While the film is almost entirely authentic (scenes of Palestinians gathering bits of flesh of an exploded suspected terrorist for burial or of a young boy dying from a gunshot wound in the hospital are sickeningly real) there are a few moments with the main kids that feel staged. Perhaps that just comes from their initial unease in front of the cameras but moments like a scene showing the kids walking to school and having overly scripted-sounding dialog could have been cut.
Still, the film has the cold air of truth to it. Since Miller died before the crew was able to get the sweeping establishing shots of the area that they would have used to bridge the different sections of the film there is a real in-the-trenches feel to the entire thing. It is truly as close to a POV experience as a documentary can get. By the end of the film, when Miller is shot and killed on camera (although in the dark of night) and the sick irony of the response of the Palestinian militants, the viewer can't help but feel queasy from the way the situation only seems to escalate without hope of resolution. An epilogue involving Ahmed is hopeful but I'd like to revisit the boy in five or ten years and see how it worked out. The long-term ramifications of Israel's withdrawal of Gaza (which occurred after filming) can't really be predicted so right now observations like Miller's are all we can go on.
The full-frame video is good location news quality. There are times when the quality is rough or grainy and there are times when it's very clear and cinematic. It varies by lighting situation. Night scenes are particularly grainy.
The English stereo audio is good but, like the video, it varies with recording environment. Much of the speaking is in Arabic with subtitles. There is also a Spanish audio track.
The special features section is mostly a tribute to Miller. There is an excellent half-hour montage of footage from many of his past films including productions in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Pakistan, El Salvador, and many of the other hotspots for danger across the world. "Remembering James Miller" is a short piece collecting interviews with his colleagues and his widow discussing Miller's life and his methods of working. And the ten-minute "making of" segment also details the impact of Miller's death on the production as his crew took on the difficult task of carrying on without him. A very good collection of pieces to help explain the complicated life of this bold filmmaker.
Death in Gaza doesn't give a one-sided perspective on this multi-faceted issue. If anything, its point of view suggests that children are victims in this conflict – both physically and psychologically – as they have their youth twisted and warped. While the film understandably has the dark cloud of Miller's death hanging over it, it's not a single-minded snuff film. Miller's hope was to show the struggle that children go through and how their lives are shaped by this terrible environment. By showing the horrible pressure from all sides Miller and Shah give a glimpse into the seemingly insurmountable challenges faced by kids barely old enough to be able to be able to make any decisions for themselves. It's a grim forecast.