Despite several documentaries about the Gaza Strip, the territory remains one of the least understood and visited crisis zones, bombarded by Israeli rockets and torn apart inside and out by propaganda wars that deny any sense of individuality to the 1.8 million people living there. When glimpsed in news reports, the images usually consist of explosions seen from afar, edited together with screaming women and weeping men that convey a sense of misery detached from tangible reality. “The Gaza Surf Club” was one of the few films to show a different picture, and now there’s Italian director Stefano Savona’s trenchant “Samouni Road.”
Destined to become a touchstone in the cinematic representation of the Strip, the documentary combines live action, superb scratchboard animation overseen by Stefano Massi, and recreated drone footage to capture the lives of an extended farming family before and after the 2009 Israeli invasion that left 29 people dead and their lands a devastated wasteland. While the film could benefit from a bit of trimming early on, its success at showing real lives unfathomably impacted by barbarism is beyond dispute; the accolades sure to accrue will drown out the few but noisy voices from all sides unable to see beyond their own fanatical propaganda.
Savona is best known on the festival circuit for his 2011 observational “Tahrir, Liberation Square,” one of the scarce documentaries to insert a prescient note of wariness amid the euphoria first accompanying the Arab Spring. With “Samouni Road,” he’s wisely taken his time, ruminating on footage he shot in 2009-’10 and commissioning Massi and others to give life to moments he couldn’t have caught with his camera. This remarkable combination, well-edited by Luc Forveille, allows the Samouni family to share their lives, making three-dimensional portraits of people for whom unspeakable tragedy is but one of several facets of their existence.
Although young Amal Samouni says at the start, “I can’t remember any stories,” the problem is less her memory, undeniably traumatized, than her understanding of what constitutes a story. In truth, she has many to tell, starting with the sycamore tree blown out of existence in a now empty lot in the Zeitoun district of Gaza City. The time is 2010, on the eve of her older brother Faraj’s wedding and a year after Israeli soldiers massacred her father, three uncles, and members of her extended family, mostly women and children. She herself still has shrapnel lodged in her skull from when rockets were launched at her home after ground troops had already shot up those inside. That information comes later, during the film’s chilling second half; the earlier segments give life, thanks to the mix of animation with footage of the survivors one year on, to the period before, when four brothers did their utmost to create a normal life for their families on tracts of land boasting orchards and fields of vegetables.
The animated passages have a dreamlike reality to them, alive with the pigeons raised by Abou Salah as they fly around the mosque where Amal’s father Ateyah Samouni acted as imam after losing his job across the Israeli border when the checkpoint was closed. Were the brothers really so naïve as to think that previous positive work experience with everyday Israelis would protect them from the army? Savona begins the most gut-wrenching section with Massi’s terrifying recreation of the Koranic story of Ababil, in which the elephant-mounted army of Abraha (here depicted as armor-clad behemoths) were defeated by birds who dropped clay-baked stones onto the invaders.
No such winged saviors were on hand in January 2009, when Israeli soldiers stormed the Samouni compound during the military incursion and blasted a round of ammunition through the threshold. At this point Savona uses recreated drone footage derived from survivor accounts as well as an internal Israeli army investigation into what’s now labeled the Zeitoun District Massacre. With crosshairs at the center of the frame, the black-and-white images show buildings in grey and figures as ghostly white silhouettes against whom rockets are launched on orders of a commander who believed that planks of wood were a missile launcher. Even when a soldier says the civilians are carrying children, his superior continues to insist he fire.
The horror of this sequence is almost numbing in its intensity, making the sudden shift to color footage shot by the director shortly after the bombing even more of a disorienting jolt: We almost feel like the besmirched white goose wandering about the rubble-strewn terrain, blasted of all familiarity. Savona returned one year later when he learned of Faraj’s impending marriage; it was the right move because it allows him to show that some life, even traumatized, continues as the few remaining family members replant their fields and try to carry on. Only now does he also show how competing parties like Hamas and Fatah try to use the massacre for their own propagandistic gain.
It is of course impossible not to inject some politics, though there’s a case to be made that truth is above politics. For Savona, truth lies in the twisted metal rods of the bombed-out buildings and, even more, the haunted eyes of Amal’s wounded gaze. Faraj’s fiancée wonders if she has a right to get married — wouldn’t it be better to spare their own children the sorrow of seeing loved ones massacred? In the end she lets herself be persuaded by her groom’s admonition to trust in God, but perhaps more potent than any belief in a higher being is the desire for a happy life, a life with a future. Resiliency is indeed the most wondrous of human qualities.