The damning statistics that introduce Tears of Gaza, a searing, 81-minute documentary by the Norwegian director Vibeke Lokkeberg, include the following: On Dec. 27, 2008, Israel began a 22-day-long rocket attack on densely populated Gaza, an area inhabited mostly by civilians. Of the 1,387 people killed, 773 were unarmed, and most were women and children; 257 were under 16. A total of 5,500 were wounded, of whom 1,800 required long-term care. And 20,000 buildings were destroyed.
I use the word damning because to start off a film with such a horrifying litany of numbers would seem to be an indictment in and of itself. Which it is. But Lokkeberg makes another deliberate, critical choice—a choice not to mention Israel or its stated objective for the offensive we watch, which was an attempt to quash rocket attacks by Hamas on civilian areas of southern Israel. To mention Israel, she knows, would have meant attaching a rationale to something that, as portrayed in her film, goes beyond political considerations, justifications or sanity.
“Tears” is an antiwar film of an almost abstract nature, a profile of political mayhem that transcends politics, and a distillation, thanks largely to Israel, of state-of-the-art terrorism. The film is almost purely observational; it shows footage of scenes from which American politicians and established media would run in terror. Still, this film is not just a condemnation of Israeli military overkill. It is a howl against the character of modern warfare itself and the notion among supposedly advanced nations that horrific violence meted out with an utter lack of discrimination, and from long range, is somehow an acceptable expression of national will.
Every film involves a series of choices, of course, about which footage to include, angle to shoot from, images to juxtapose to imply meaning. The “montage theory,” developed during the early days of cinema, was based on the tendency of the human mind to make connections where they may or may not exist. “Tears of Gaza” may be a creation of editing like any other movie, but there is little question of implied connections here. When the corpses of ash-coated children are dragged out of the rubble of one more blasted Gaza apartment house, there is not a lot of choice being made by the director or by the cinematographers, who in this case seemed to be everywhere violence was happening. Either that, or violence was simply happening everywhere.
Among the choices Lokkeberg did make was to interview this child rather than that in order to drive home the point that yet another generation of vengeful children has been created in the moral morass of the Middle East. The three children on whom she focuses are introduced without any of their history attached, so their worldview comes across with an unmitigated bias. Yahya, 12, wants to be a doctor, so he can heal victims of Israeli violence; Amira, 14, wants to be a lawyer, so she can take Israel to court; Rasmia, 11, has no plans, life being too hard now to think about the future. What the viewer has trouble thinking about is a future in which reconciliation could be possible with these children, all of whom use the word “murder” to describe what Western media would call “casualties.”
Children are, inevitably, the focus of the viewers’ sympathies. With nothing else to do and nowhere to go, they sit and watch TV programming that seems to consist of Israeli propaganda, or cheesy Arab pop songs (about “never forgetting”), or Palestinian propaganda that is especially effective, given that Israeli bombs are raining on the children’s homes or setting fire to their neighbors (the use of phosphorus bombs, the fallout from which burns hotter when doused with water, seems a particularly cruel Israeli tactic). Part of the hellishness that Lokkeberg captures has to do with the utter randomness of the killing.
The term “post-apocalyptic” is overused with regard to contemporary cinema, but the situation in Gaza does seem like a disaster of biblical proportions. It may not have been Lokkeberg’s intention to critique the violence-as-entertainment that permeates mainstream media, but audiences may find it difficult to watch the kind of bloodletting portrayed in, say, “The Expendables 2,” without feeling a little ridiculous. In Hollywood, violence has an objective, even if it is merely the amusement of the easily entertained. The violence of the Gaza campaign was not strategic, as far as one can tell. It was political, even symbolic, intended to crush wills, intimidate a population and exorcise Israeli anger.
Lokkeberg’s cinematographers, who include Yosuf Abu Shreah and Saed al Sabaa, seem to be in the thick of things, capturing both the kinetic and the pathetic. A man tries to put out a furious, bomb-fueled fire with a garden hose; wailing women mourn dead children who lie under slabs of collapsed concrete. One shot on a clear morning that seems to have been intended as a portrait of the minaret at its center is interrupted by a falling missile that abruptly sends the city—and the film—into chaos. The action is utterly gripping. How the photographers got the footage and then brought it out of the country is a mystery, considering the scrutiny given the press at the time.
The most poignant scenes emerge in the aftermath of the bombings: a man, whose burn-scarred daughter plays on his lap, re-lives the horror of the previous night, revealing only in increments that everyone else in his family is dead. In a demented version of a Madonna and child portrait, a woman charges into an emergency room holding a child; her own head is wrapped in gauze, and her daughter’s head and eyes are swaddled in bandages.
The girl we meet at the beginning of the film, reappears at its end. Amira stands at the edge of the sea (there being no place else to go, Lokkeberg suggests), leaning on a crutch. She has lost her brothers, she says, and her father. Still, the fact that she is able to shed a tear is, at this point in her story, the most encouraging thing that can happen.