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May 12, 2005

Interview: James Longley

The simply titled documentary Gaza Strip premiered in the United States in August of 2002, about a year and a half before the sudden surge in popularity of documentary films, and especially of politically themed documentary films, brought on by the War on Terror, War on Iraq, and American presidential election. The work of filmmaker James Longley, who financed, directed, edited, and co-shot the film, it is a raw glimpse into the lives of the 1,300,000 Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip that is as topical now, with Israeli vows of withdrawal from the area, as it was upon its release. Recommended to fans of documentary cinema for its style and to those interested in its subject for its value as a document.

After watching the film, I contacted James Longley and sent him a list of various questions and observations I had about his film. Graciously and promptly, he replied. The following is our exchange, compiled from several emails:

(I am italicized and Mr. Longley is bolded)

Unlike many of the “documentaries” made since the recent popularity of Michael Moore’s activist film, your film actually documents.

My film was made before the Michael Moore film you are probably talking about. "Gaza Strip" was finished in spring 2002 and shot in 2001.

Unlike Moore, you neither appear in your own film nor project your own opinions onto it.

Well -- except that I chose to make a film about that particular subject, which is the most significant way to project your opinion about anything. Just by making a documentary about the Gaza Strip you are already taking a big political step, particularly if you also choose to document only the Palestinians and leave out the supposedly obligatory Israeli viewpoint. (This is weird, don't you think, that films about Palestinians are criticized for leaving out the Israelis, while films about Israelis are never criticized for leaving out the Palestinians ...)

Personally, I don't think that the documentary form is any less subjective than fiction film -- only in documentary you are filming things that are actually happening without your having to write a script or pay actors. But in the end, if the film is going to be at all comprehensible to audiences, you are collecting images and words to tell a story. It's just one story out of millions, and the way you tell it is up to you -- so documentary is a totally subjective form, really. However, I also don't think that fact prevents documentaries from providing a real sense of the world, of objective reality, of truth and all that. It's just that none of those things can be expressed in a truly objective way by people.

Although you choose what is seen and in what order, the people you interview say what they think and you do not manipulate the viewer’s opinion of them through music or mise-en-scene.

I actually am manipulating the viewer, like any filmmaker. It can't be helped. I did make music and put it in the film -- it's everywhere. I took fragments of Bach and Shostakovitch and the sound of people talking, etc -- and warped them into ambient sound beds that are strewn everywhere in the film. When an Israeli IDF jeep appears in one scene, for example, we hear a tortured version of a Bach aria that sounds like a cross between Humphrey Bogart barfing black tar and several monkeys being killed at once. But it's all done in such a way that few people actually notice.

The viewer is free to see what you show and come away with their own thoughts.

That's true enough.

Would the inclusion of an Israeli-Jewish point of view (as many critics suggest) actually make your film more propagandist, as it would offer an inaccurate portrayal of the Gaza Strip?

Maybe. But I guess my point in leaving out the Israelis was that the Palestinians are a valid subject for documentary film by themselves, without an opposing Israeli narrative thrown in to contradict them.

As long as you accept that all films are basically subjective constructions, then you are also forced to admit that filmmakers who insist on having "both sides" of an argument are just as subjective in their construction of the argument that they are pretending to document objectively. So why bother? I wanted to make a film about the Palestinians because I knew less about them -- so that's what I did. I don't believe any of this nonsense about objectivity in media.

Throughout the film, your camera lingers on faces. However, I noticed that as the film progressed you included fewer shots of smiling faces and more shots of serious, or frightened ones. Was this intentional?

Not really -- the film is mostly chronological, and it so happened that the situation grew worse as I was documenting it, so the people became more serious.

I enjoyed your film when it remained true to a naturalistic, unobtrusive style. For example, when you added effects and toyed with editing to mimic a feeling of fear and panic, I felt it caused the film to feel more artificial.

I probably agree with you in retrospect -- but at the time I wanted to
experiment with the medium -- and I just left it in. I think there isn't enough experimentation with the documentary form, though I like a well-made classical style verite film as much as the next guy.

On the topic of artificiality, during many of your interviews with Palestinian children, and in specific with one boy during the scene on the beach, it seemed apparent that they were saying lines and expressing ideas that had they had been taught by their parents or elders. That boy, after finishing his speech, ran off, laughing, to resume playing as if oblivious to what he had just said.

I disagree with you here. The beach was full of people -- and there was a guy standing behind the camera as I finished that interview who said something to the kid that made him laugh. I don't think he was repeating anything his parents told him -- although who knows? I think he said what he thought -- but he was also kind of excited to be filmed by someone in public. If you spend much time in the Gaza Strip you realize that most of the kids there are pretty much like that one -- they're surrounded by an impossible situation -- but they're still just kids and usually they act like it.

I also noticed that many of the younger Palestinians appeared more knowledgeable and better educated than those who were older. For example, the young woman whom you interviewed in a tent and Mohammed Hejazi seemed to have a better, and more logical, grasp on their situation than the woman who told the story about the bulldozers. I saw this as a sign of hope for the future.

This was not something intentional -- it's just a matter of chance who you get to interview and how well they can talk in front of a camera. There are plenty of sharp old people in the Gaza Strip, but I just happen to think that young people are more interesting to follow -- since they have more energy, move around more, and care less that you are filming them. Mohammed Hejazi had a great way of speaking that I think really makes the film -- but I recorded a lot more material of him than actually made the final version. I cut out all kinds of digressions and boring stories, recitations of film plots and the like. Of course, I also cut out a lot of material I wish I could have kept.

Many of the people who watch your film, including me, don’t have any idea where the places you mention in your film are. There is a map of filming locations on the film’s website, but did you consider putting a map in the film?

Yes -- I realize that -- but on the DVD version there's a map, also, for reference -- and I just hate to insert things like maps into a verite film. I mean, what does it matter, really, whether a particular scene is taking place in Khan Yunis or Rafah? It's all the Gaza Strip, in the end, and it doesn'talter the point of the material in any way.

One of the things that struck me the most about your film is the calm way in which people, and most of all children, react to gunfire. I recall several shots of children running for cover and laughing.

Yes -- they are used to being shot at. It's something normal if you live in the Gaza Strip, so they get used to it and learn how to deal with it -- otherwise they'd go crazy.

Whenever the Palestinian rock throwers appeared in your film I was reminded of the platitude, “Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Did you have this saying in mind when you were editing the film? Do you think it applies?

No -- not exactly. The Gaza Strip isn't a glass house. It's a big open-air prison camp. It makes very little difference whether the Palestinian kids throw stones or not -- so why not? They are not behaving as people in a glass house; they are behaving as people who have nothing left to lose.

I had the “glass house” idea after the scene in which the Palestinian woman recalls her experience with the Israeli bulldozers, not after the rock thrower scene. Since the woman was angry at the destruction of her home and the threat to her own life, I assumed that she did have something to lose. Because the rock thrower scene is before the bulldozer scene, I probably made the connection that one led to the other. Bulldozers being bigger rocks.

I suppose -- but in fact one has nothing to do with the other except in symbolic terms. The fact is that the Israelis bulldoze Palestinian houses in the Gaza Strip in order to expand "security areas" around checkpoints and settlements, and the Rafah border zone, etc. -- The bulldozings are very much pre-planned events designed to conform to expanding Israeli settlements and road construction, and not the result of rock-throwing at all. Now that the Israelis plan to evacuate all the Gaza settlements, of course, it would seem that the bulldozing of all those homes serves no ultimate purpose anyway, even from the Israeli point of view. Except, perhaps, that it puts pressure on the Palestinian population and weakens their resolve -- or so an Israeli Army spokesperson once explained it to me in Tel Aviv. But so it goes.

Gaza Strip is available on DVD, and James Longley is currently working on a new documentary film about Iraq.


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