Gaza’s cinema experience set to return after years-long intermission

Theatre manager Tariq al-Shawa shifts furniture at the theatre as it is readied for reopening as a cinema (Majd Mohamad)

Nagham Mohanna & Rosie Scammell

The National  /  June 3, 2022

Film lovers have been able to watch only outdoor screenings since the early 2000s.

Determined to bring the silver screen to Gaza, filmmakers are transforming a neglected theatre into the Palestinian enclave’s only working cinema.

“No cinema exists in Gaza,” said filmmaker Abed al-Rahman Hussein. “Not in terms of screenings, nor in terms of the industry either.”

After years showing films in the rubble of bomb sites and on Gaza’s streets, he and fellow cinephiles believe they have eventually found a permanent home.

Dusty footprints mark the wooden floor of the disused theatre, which opened in the late 1990s but was abandoned just a few years later.

A torn screen hangs from the ceiling, while cobwebs are gathering on the old Bauer projector.

“Ten cinemas existed [in Gaza] from the 1930s to the 1980s, until there was a revolt on the cinemas,” said Hussein.

“A revolt to change culture, in which anything related to cinema was haram [forbidden in Islam], prohibited, shunned.”

Ten cinemas existed [in Gaza] from the 1930s to the 1980s, until there was a revolt on the cinemas

Abed al-Rahman Hussein, filmmaker

Gaza saw a brief revival of cultural spaces in the 1990s, when the now-empty theatre was opened, before being abandoned in 2006 with the outbreak of fighting between Palestinian factions.

Gaza has since been ruled by Islamist group Hamas, while Israel has imposed a blockade on the territory which prevents the majority of residents from leaving.

Muntaser al-Sabaa, the co-ordinator of the new cinema project, said renovating the theatre represented a “huge challenge” but the team was well-prepared.

“We know everything about the history of cinema here in Palestine,” he said, recounting how each cinema specialized in a certain genre and how films were brought to Gaza’s refugee camps.

As cinemas have gathered dust in recent years, Mr Al-Sabaa and other film enthusiasts have been working to bring movies to Gazans.

If there are no cinema halls, we will screen in the street until we have cinema halls

Muntaser al-Sabaa, cinema restoration co-ordinator

“If there are no cinema halls, we will screen in the street until we have cinema halls,” he said, recalling their failed attempt to reopen one venue more than two years ago.

Filmmakers began holding a Red Carpet Human Rights Film Festival in 2015, initially with screenings amid the rubble of buildings destroyed during the war with Israel the previous year.

Led by Hussein, the annual festival gained approval from the authorities in 2019 to move from the streets to the disused Amer Cinema in Gaza city.

“There were some small problems, related to the owners of the place, and some threats from some extremists,” Hussein said.

Officials ultimately banned the festival from taking place inside the cinema, prompting the organizers to host all screenings outside once more.

Months later, the coronavirus pandemic arrived and the festival was stopped, but the filmmakers stayed busy.

Officials gave them the go-ahead in October to restore the theatre, which is part of the Holst cultural centre near Gaza’s historic quarter.

The theatre smells of fresh paint, and the seats are being re-upholstered.

“If a lot of people start believing again in this idea, if a lot of people benefit from this industry, that means that one day we will reach our goal,” Al-Sabaa said.

The filmmakers said they were awarded funding from the A.M. Qattan Foundation, a cultural organization, and the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation.

Within weeks they hope to start screening family films, while also hosting performances such as puppet shows.

Thousands of people have attended festivals and one-off screenings in recent years, many of whom have never been inside a cinema.

Farrah Jaber, who works in a mall, said she dreamt of going to the cinema and sharing popcorn with her friends.

When I watch a scene in a movie where characters are watching a movie, in the cinema, I feel jealous and want to live this experience too

Farrah Jaber, 23-year-old Gaza resident

“When I watch a scene in a movie where characters are watching a movie, in the cinema, I feel jealous and want to live this experience too,” the 23-year-old told The National.

With most of Gaza’s two million residents unable to leave the territory, Al-Sabaa sees cinema as a way of showing Palestinians the world beyond its borders.

“That’s what we are seeking,” he said, of his desire to offer residents a cultural experience which has been inaccessible for years. “Opening this kind of window, and making them sit and see what we mean when we say a normal life.”

Nagham Mohanna – Gaza City

Rosie Scammell – correspondent, Jerusalem