A group of women gossiping in a hair salon hardly makes for gripping drama except, perhaps, if the salon is in Sderot, Israel, and the women are reminiscing about life before an Israeli military blockade stopped the Palestinian men who used to commute from their homes in Gaza. "You remember Gingi the redhead?" asks one woman, as she sits having her hair blow-dried. "He used to do all the roofs. On Friday nights we'd cook couscous and invite him for dinner. We weren't scared."
In the new French-made multimedia documentary Gaza-Sderot: Life in Spite of Everything, moments like this add to the eerie feeling that we are eavesdropping on doomed people. That sense is all the more acute because the audience knows how the story will soon turn out. The documentary was shot by two crews one in Sderot and one in Gaza between October and December last year, ending just four days before Israel unleashed on Gaza its fiercest bombing campaign in decades. The attack left an estimated 1,300 Palestinians dead and sent residents in nearby Sderot scrambling into underground shelters. But the subjects in Gaza-Sderot remain blissfully unaware of the looming disaster; there is little talk of politics at all. Instead, people go about their humdrum lives: a slender young man frets over his mediocre boxing skills in a Sderot sports club; friends in Gaza play music around a wood fire; a woman shops for dinner in the Sderot market; a group of Gazan girls chat after a volleyball game about power outages. Says one girl: "We'll be living on solar power next year."
But the film is not concerned with what will happen in the future. That makes it a blast of fresh air after the cacophony of talking heads that dominate news coverage from the Middle East. "As the project went on, the stories became more and more subtle and less and less propaganda," says executive producer Serge Gordey in Paris. "People were not saying the same mantra over and over." The documentary, which will screen at the South-by-Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, on March 17, as well as on television networks in Israel, Canada, the Netherlands and Sweden in the coming months, breaks the mold in another way, too. Though funded by the French-German television channel Arte, Gaza-Sderot was created for the Internet, reversing the typical order in which films show on television and are then posted online. While filming, the two crews uploaded daily stories of about five minutes each on the production's website ( http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv), as well as long interviews with all the main subjects. The 52-minute documentary was edited from these hours of video postings.
Just as the communities along the border of Gaza and Israel are divided by a wall, the web page is sliced down the middle by a red dotted line; the people on each side remain unaware, and sometimes uninterested, in what is happening on the other. Inevitably, there are strong echoes between the two communities, especially because Sderot's Jews are largely immigrants from North African countries that are culturally close to Gaza. At times it is hard to distinguish which side is which, as when a Moroccan wedding party in Sderot melts into a wedding party in Gaza City with precisely the same Eastern ballads, musical instruments, traditional dress and food. And in Sderot, friends chat about how in past years they had their teeth checked by Gaza's dentists, who made house calls in Sderot. The producers admit they hoped such connections would reestablish empathy between enemies. "People were watching the other side on the Internet on a daily basis," says Arik Bernstein, head of Alma Films in Tel Aviv, which produced the Sderot stories. "It was an eye-opener for both sides."
But making peace is another matter. As the bombs fell on Gaza, the project's Palestinian producer, Yousef Atwa, wrote on the site's blog: "It is hardly possible to take it anymore," and let viewers know that one of the main Gaza characters, an ambulance driver called Abu Khalil, "has a broken heart" after losing a colleague in the war. On the other side, the Israeli line producer Avi Abramov wrote on the blog after the production ended that he had been called up for military duty. "This situation is absurd," he wrote. "I've just spent three months working on a project where I felt the door opening… Now this illusion is over." What remains is a fine film and a new way of documenting a place we hear about often, but never really know.