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Gaza Filmmakers Visit Austin to Enjoy Their First Theatrical Exhibition — So What Was the Film?

Two brothers dream of becoming filmmakers. They dream of seeing their own movies projected in front of an audience. But these young men have never even been inside of a movie theater. They have never seen a movie projected on the big screen. They have spent their entire lives in the Gaza Strip, where the only cinemas were destroyed in the 1980s. Despite living in a poverty-stricken country that’s constantly under siege and embroiled in conflict, they do everything they can to study the art of cinema. In a place where finding a DVD can be a challenge, they manage to make a short film of their very own. Now, they’ve been granted the opportunity of a lifetime: if they’re willing to risk life and limb to smuggle themselves out of Gaza and make their way to the United States, their film will be screened in a movie theater, followed by a movie of their choice.

This sounds like the plot of a movie, right? An uplifting adventure story about two artists who embark on a risky journey across the world to achieve their wildest fantasies.

Well, it’s all true. It happened. Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News and Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League learned of Ahmed and Mohammed Abu Nasser (or as they credit themselves on their work, Tarzan and Arab), sympathized with their plight, and began the process of untangling miles of bureaucratic red tape to help the 23-year-old twins see their first movie in a theater. Actually, as Tim made sure to point out, it was his assistant Carrie Matherly who did the heavy lifting of getting the brothers to Austin, TX safe and sound.

It got sticky at times, but Tarzan and Arab secured travel out of Cairo, arrived in Austin and screened their short film Colorful Journey for a sold-out audience. They followed their short with one of their favorite films from one of their favorite directors: Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers.

Colorful Journey is a brief, expressionistic film that’s more concerned with mood than story, following a soldier in the middle of a war zone as he finds himself stranded and alone…then things get weird. While it lacks polish, the short more than makes up for that in sheer ambition, taking full advantage of its location to transport us to a frightening world that’s constantly at war with itself as well as outside forces. It was a perfect appetizer for Cries and Whispers, an infamously dark and emotionally brutal drama that asks for your patience and your full attention, delivering a devastating gut punch to your very soul.

Although the film selection was bleak, it was ultimately a moving and uplifting evening. It’s rare to see someone’s dreams come true before your very eyes, so it’s especially heartwarming when you see two dreams simultaneously come to fruition. The extended standing ovation the brothers received at the conclusion of the screening would have been the perfect heartwarming conclusion if this was a movie.

The day after the screening, was able to sit down with Tarzan and Arab. They seem overwhelmed, overjoyed, and considering how much they’re willing to share, ecstatic to be talking about movies.

How are you guys enjoying Austin so far?

Arab: It’s great. As we said yesterday at the screening, Austin is like paradise.

In America, we constantly have access to thousands of movies. Can you talk about what it’s like being a cinephile in Gaza, where it’s much harder to find movies?

Arab: Gaza is a conflict zone. It’s under embargo. There’s no control. For most people who live in Gaza, their goal for the day is how they’re going to feed themselves. It’s “I can either feed my kid or go to the movie theater. How can you be talking about cinema when there’s wars, when there’s the embargo.” But there are people in Gaza who have real love for the cinema, but they aren’t able to go to the movies. There’s no time and it’s expensive. At the same time, Gaza itself is a theater. All of the events, all of the action there, it’s cinema. People there are the heroes, they’re the actors, they’re the directors and they’re the audience. Like with everything else in Gaza, whoever has a goal and works toward it…they’re going to get to it. There’s an expression from Nelson Mandela: if your goal is on a mountain, you’ll have to cross every obstacle to get to it and then you have to go down and climb the next mountain. This expression gives us the idea that even though we’re living in Gaza and it’s hard in Gaza, we’re going to get to our goal.

And we’ve sort of made it. Since we’ve been small, we’ve had this idea of movie culture. We love everything related to cinema. If we couldn’t get a hold of something, we’d try to watch it on TV. We learned everything from movies. We learned that the end of a thief isn’t good and that if someone is honest, they live a good and successful life. You can learn anything from the cinema. There is nothing that hasn’t been told, no story that hasn’t been told in movies.

Tarzan: We didn’t let any film that was shown on TV get by us. We used to play hooky from school so we could go see a movie. That’s why our English is bad! We didn’t care to study it. We just wanted to go home and watch TV. If we couldn’t miss school, we would talk it over and decide who was going to stay home and watch the movie so he could tell the other about it. Sometimes, so people wouldn’t know that we were missing school, we’d have to go hide out in the destroyed movie theater and wait there until school was over and we could go home. There was always a question I was asking him or he was asking me: do you think there will be a day where we will have our own movie poster on the wall of a cinema? We’d imagine what it would be like to be directors and have our poster on one side of the cinema and the movie showing on a screen, what it would feel like for people to come watch our movie at the cinema.

Arab: We always had the memoirs of directors and books about filmmaking. We were always on the internet searching for films and if we couldn’t find them there, we’d give a list of movies to a friend who was abroad and ask them to bring those movies to us. We wanted to watch as many movies as we could. We wanted to have a film culture. We didn’t want to be just movie film viewers, just movie watchers, we wanted to think about why a director did this and wonder if it would have been better if he’d done that. So, when we ended our studies, we knew that we had to study film. We used to dream of going to Hollywood to study film and people always laughed at us: “What are you talking about? Hollywood!”

Hopefully the day will come when we can study in Hollywood. We couldn’t study there because of our economic situation…not everyone can go to Hollywood to make movies, but that didn’t kill our aspirations. We decided to study visual arts. Our gift, our specialty, has been painting. Our time spent learning these visual arts have helped us in cinema. We had encouragement from our family and our mother. Our father is an artist, so he was always pushing us to do things like this. Who really pushed us toward cinema was our friend Haleel. He’s the one person who works on films in Gaza. If not for him, we wouldn’t be sitting here in Austin. He was always saying “You two are movies. If you you two stop working on cinema and just start hanging around, I’m not going to talk to you.” He’s older than us, forty three years old, but we’re always together. We’re always asking him questions because he’s studied film and he tells us the rules.

Tarzan: We have background, we have the pictures that we’ve seen in movies, but in order for us to work properly, we needed to know these rules. He gave us these rules. We never worried that we were going to be small filmmakers. We always had faith that we would be giant successes. We knew we were never going to fail. Failure doesn’t help anybody do anything.

Arab: And now we’re in Austin!

As difficult as it is to find a movie in Gaza, it must be much harder to make a movie in Gaza? How do make a movie there? How do you find a camera? How do you find equipment?

Tarzan: There’s a news market in Gaza, it’s a commercial market. There’s always stuff going on. Gaza has more news cameras in it than any other country! We would use these cameras to make our work. Everything you get from abroad is going to be expensive, with some production stuff costing thousands of dollars a day. The cameras we have in Gaza are very modest and they cost about $ 700 a day…that’s the salary of an employee for an entire month!

Arab: Despite the shortage or resources, you’re forced to create something. The picture isn’t going to be very good. The resolution isn’t going to be very good. Something else is going to have to please the viewer. Your framing. Your cinematography. Your camera movement. Something is going to make up for these problems. We and Haleel made a film that was accepted into Cannes, but we didn’t make anything from it. Haleel had to sell his wife’s jewelry in order to make the production. You can’t sit around and wait. You have to work. If you sit back and try to wait for something to come to you, you’re never going to make anything. You have to make your own equipment and make your own opportunities. If you told us we couldn’t make a film, I’d spend twenty four hours just writing a script!

What was it like seeing a movie on the big screen for the first time? Was it everything you imagined?

Arab: It exceeded all of our expectations. In Cries and Whispers, every frame is like a painting. Watching on a big wall, not a little screen, but a big wall…sometimes, you’re just seeing a big wall of red and it’s uncomfortable, but you’re so affected by it. You’re watching these huge characters and you’re watching these close-ups and they’re so big that you don’t get bored watching them. The action, the acting, the direction, the sounds…everything. Cinema is magical.

Were you worried about picking Cries and Whispers as the film to screen? How did you think the audience would react?

Arab: We were worried that the audience wouldn’t be able to take the film. Of the five we put on a list [for Tim], we were surprised this one got chosen. We were worried that people would read something into our personalities because the film has its moments of physical and emotional violence. But the Texas audience was really understanding. It was the opposite of what we were expecting!

When you were asked which films you wanted to see in the theater, you supplied a list of films by directors famous for making difficult films that dare to ask big questions. What do you see in filmmakers like Bergman and Tarkovsky?

Tarzan: Even though these films can be difficult, they’re milestones in cinematic history and these directors, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Ingmar Bergman and others, are among the greatest. Nobody can deny that. We like to watch these kinds of movies instead of easier films. We really don’t like to watch easy films.These films are close to our heart. Despite the fact that they’re not always easy to watch, we like films that address the spirit.

Arab: These films present a true perspective. They represent the director’s take on things. Making a film like that is a courageous act. These are films that may not have succeeded, in fact, most of our favorite films weren’t huge successes. Tarkovsky, no matter how much he worked, only made eight or nine movies. He had his vision and he stuck to it. He never yielded to the pressure of the people who gave him money. He’d say “If you don’t want to approve the script I’m writing, go to hell!” These kinds of directors are real directors.

Right now, you’re trying to find funding for the feature version of your short film. How do you plan to expand it?

Arab: We want to tell a new story. It’s a love story. Our dream is a make a love movie were you really feel the emotions, where it’s also funny and it’ll make you laugh.  It’s a simple film, but we’re going to do anything we can to make this film before we die.

Of your experience traveling to America, what is one thing you can bring home to share with your neighbors and fellow artists?

Tarzan: A camera!

(They laugh. Our translator clarifies the question.)

Tarzan: The idea that every place has a story. Every place is different. You can’t make an Austin film in Gaza! We’ll bring back a renewed drive, an impetus to work. We’re going to go back to Gaza knowing that we’re being supported, that we’re being pushed to work.

What message do you ultimately want to send with your films? What impact do you want to have on your community?

Tarzan: We want to talk about our reality in Gaza. We want to tell the stories of love and war, the stories that we see in the world. The best way to address people is through cinema. Through other arts, of course, but especially through cinema. There’s a phrase from Bergman that I really like. It goes “Film is like dreams and music. It enters directly into our feelings and opens up all of the closed spaces inside of people.” The Lumiere brothers, the French pioneers of cinema, said that film was the best way to protect against death after he saw his first film projected in a cinema. The world that we live in is a beautiful world, so why can’t we talk about the beauty of the world instead of politics and crime. Let’s talk about the beauty of the world. I hope we can, someday.

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