In Focus | Peter Keough

In Focus: Eyes on Gaza at the MFA’s Boston Palestine Film Festival

A scene from Gary Keane and Andrew McConnell’s “Gaza”
A scene from Gary Keane and Andrew McConnell’s “Gaza”Andrew McConnell

For seven decades the plight of Palestinians has periodically erupted into violence, which brings it to the attention of the international media. Recently the world’s focus has turned to such other hot spots in the region as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. But the suffering and frustrations of Palestinians continue unabated, as seen at the Museum of Fine Arts in the documentaries in the Boston Palestine Film Festival (Oct. 18-27).

Several of the films take as their subject the tiny wedge of suffering that is the Gaza Strip, where nearly 2 million people are jammed into an area roughly 25 miles long and 7 miles wide that is cut off from the rest of the world by closed borders with Israel and Egypt. After Gaza elected leaders from the jihadist group Hamas in 2007 the Israelis imposed a blockade and launched attacks in response to missile bombardments and other provocations. One such operation, the 2008-09 invasion code-named Cast Lead, is the subject of Stefano Savona’s subtly structured, ultimately devastating 2018 film, “Samouni Road” (Oct. 24 at 7:30 p.m.).


The documentary opens as Amal Samouni, a young girl, draws a circle in the sand of a vacant lot to show where an ancient sycamore tree once stood. Nearby are ruins, tents, and half-finished reconstruction. She speaks affectionately about her father and younger brother, referring to them in the past tense. Her brother’s wedding is coming soon, but she and other family members seem more numb than festive. Flashbacks in the form of dreamlike, black-and-white scratchboard animation show happier times, scenes of running in the rain and harvesting olives, and then the sky is ripped by the roar of fighter jets.

As the desultory camera tours the neighborhood and engages with others in the family and the community, the animated flashbacks recur like repressed memories, stopping short before they arrive at a terrible revelation. Finally they erupt into scenes of panic, flight, and slaughter, merging with CGI re-creations of a drone’s-eye view of what happens. From high above, people can be seen outside a building and are misidentified as terrorists. A barrage of missiles destroys the building and kills most of those seeking shelter inside, among them 29 members of the Samouni family.


The little girl was one of the survivors. For three days she and other wounded children lay in the rubble with the dead before the Red Cross was allowed to rescue them. She still has shrapnel in her skull.

Though the bride and groom had first expressed doubts after the massacre about bringing children into a world where such things happen, they change their minds. The wedding takes place a year later, a joyous celebration darkened by grief.

Gary Keane and Andrew McConnell’s “Gaza” (Oct. 23 at 8 p.m., followed by a discussion with filmmaker Ahmed Mansour) looks at the subject from a broader perspective, telling the stories of a disparate group of inhabitants.

They include a 14-year-old boy who lives in a three-room house with his father, his father’s three wives, and 40 siblings and step-siblings (his father says he thought of taking a fourth wife but decided that he should stop because “the situation is pretty bad”). Uninterested in school, the boy dreams of becoming a fisherman. But it doesn’t seem like much of a future because no vessels are allowed beyond a 3-mile limit and few fish remain in those waters.


There’s a teenage girl from a well-to-do family who plays the cello. She hopes that one day she might be permitted to travel to a country where she can develop her talent or maybe study international law or political science. Meanwhile she goes to the beach to breathe the sea air because it makes her think of freedom.

And there’s a young man who once aspired to be a photojournalist but quit, because he was afraid to pursue it after seeing his friends get killed. He also has found refuge by the sea, where he works as a lifeguard.

Keane and McConnell record the violence that has broken out at the border as hundreds of young men burn tires and throw rocks at the Israeli soldiers guarding it. The soldiers discharge tear gas and fire live rounds. Many of the young men are injured, and some are killed. They also film the ranks of Hamas fighters marching with guns and banners, vowing revenge.

Like many of their subjects, the filmmakers are also drawn to the shore. Their images of waves and surf are majestic and serene, a cruel irony because the sea is just one more wall of the Gaza prison.

One of their subjects, however, is not infatuated with the sea, a young man who finds release and hope in performing rap music. He’s seen in close-up while recording in a studio, and a cut is made to a shot in which it can be seen that he’s in a wheelchair — he had been shot by soldiers when he was 16. “Without music,” he says, “life would be impossible.”


Go to www.mfa.org/series/boston-palestine-film-festival?page=0.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.