Gaza's open-air cinema offers temporary escape from blockade

Gaza's open-air cinema offers temporary escape from blockade
5 min read
21 September, 2023
Gazans face little respite from the Israeli blockade. To ease their strife and offer some semblance of normality, a local cooperative has set up the besieged enclave's first open-air cinema, screening Palestinian films and documentaries to all ages.

On Gaza’s shoreline, children find relief by watching cinema. Organised by the Cooperative Cafe, the initiative, also called "The Sea Is Ours" emphasises the importance of preserving public space in Gaza by melding art and awareness. 

Cooperative Cafe is run in collaboration with the Gaza municipality and offers programmes on storytelling, satire, stand-up comedy, and recycling. The scheme was built without external funding and used 350 tonnes of solid waste from council storage by repurposing car tires, broken tiles and damaged electric poles.

Furthermore, the cooperative offers youth events where in-kind donations are accepted as payment. As part of their payment, they can volunteer for an hour at the cooperative or clean part of the beach. 

"Our children are confined by the blockade; they cannot travel. They don't have the luxury of learning about the world. Even travelling to other cities in Palestine is impossible"

"People love it here, they keep coming because it is simple and comfortable. They can escape from their daily suffering and cheer themselves up," Ali Muhanna, a theatre director and founder of the cooperative, told The New Arab. Using simple equipment, Ali and his team set up Gaza's first open-air cinema. The Gaza Center for Culture and Arts provided them with a sound system, the rest of the materials were created using materials they had recycled. 

"The cinema is amazing, I love the feeling of being by the sea, the chilly breeze and starry nights whilst watching a film," Nour Mannaa, 22, explained with a smile on her face. 

Nour is unable to watch movies much at home because of the electricity shortage. So she comes on the weekend with her family to the sea where they watch films. "I saw a big cinema when I travelled to Egypt. One day, I hope we get to see a big cinema screen in Gaza like the one there," Nour told The New Arab

Necessity is the mother of invention. For the cooperative, simple equipment makes the difference
Necessity is the mother of invention. For the cooperative, simple equipment makes the difference

During the first round of movies, the cooperative screened a total of 15 films that received financial backing from the Ministry of Culture in Gaza as a recognition. Most of these were documentaries, which featured the work of Palestinian directors and actors, while the remaining movies were animated films.

Ali's decision to fund the second round of cinema showings was motivated by the enthusiastic attendance of children and their families. The showings occur exclusively on Thursdays and Fridays, and Ali takes great care in selecting movies that align with the cultural and moral values of his community.

To ensure that the films are suitable for all, Ali chooses only those that he himself would feel comfortable watching with his own family. Additionally, he has gone the extra mile by presenting several documentaries that uncover lesser-known Palestinian stories.

For instance, one documentary provided a compelling portrayal of the life of Palestinian poet Muin Bseiso, told from the perspectives of his friends and wife. Ali firmly believes in the cinema's ability to introduce people to important stories, such as Bseiso's, and feels that it plays a crucial role in doing so.

Several movies were shown at the event, including Al-Saada which explored the city of Jaffa in Palestine. Ali Muhanna, who hails from Al-Masmia, reflected on the life of Rafeeq Al-Mashharawi in Jaffa, and how he was later expelled to Gaza, as depicted in the film.

Another movie, Al-Horoub, showcased the resilience of Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons, while Atfal Arna told the story of Zakaria Al-Zubedi, a theatre actor from Jenin, and his friends, highlighting the challenges they faced after the Israeli forces destroyed the Al-Hurya theatre in Jenin.

“The story of Zakaria Al-Zubedi proves that Palestinians love life and are not inherently violent. The oppressive occupation has subjected us to oppressions that turned us into a rough sea,” explained Ali.

Ali prepares for another sold-out event
Ali prepares for another sold-out event

Ali Muhanna emphasised that these movies have nothing to do with politics and added that as a Palestinian refugee from Al-Masmiya village, he has the right to show movies about his cause.

Children find entertainment in animated movies and some documentary films provide awareness about the Palestinian cause and history, according to Ali. Children rush to secure seats as soon as they hear the sound of a show, even if they are still wet from swimming in the sea.

Families come from their lounging spots to join the cinema with snacks and ice cream. Menna Al-Yaqoubi, who is 11 years old, said that she was over the moon when she saw the cinema for the first time.

She comes to the Cooperative every Friday with her family, especially to watch a movie. Menna immediately secures seats next to her friend Sahar once she knows that the show has started. She particularly enjoyed the movie Atfal Al-Arbejeh because "it shows children defending themselves against soldiers," she tells The New Arab.

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This initiative is also special for the elders of Gaza, as it takes them back to a time when cinema was a common source of entertainment in the city.

Before the first Palestinian uprising in 1987, there were four cinema theatres within one square kilometre in the centre of Gaza City.

Ebrahim Esam, a 44-year-old cinema director who witnessed the bustling cinema industry of Gaza, was among the audience at the open-air cinema.

He reminisced about the time when dozens of people filled the streets of Gaza City every weekend night. Ebrahim was impressed by the show and hoped that such days would return. 

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Ebrahim also reflected on the importance of cinema for the children of Gaza. "Our children are confined by the blockade; they cannot travel. They don't have the luxury of learning about the world. Even travelling to other cities in Palestine is impossible."

He believes that cinema has become a vital tool for children to learn about the world. Ali Muhanna, the founder of the open-air cinema, wishes to see the shores of Gaza filled with cinemas. However, he fears that his long-term plans may be destroyed by Israeli aggression.

Hamza Salha is a Palestinian journalist based in Gaza and a writer for We Are Not Numbers

Follow him on Twitter: @7amzatik