For residents in the Gaza Strip, sieges, bombings, and blockades aren’t anything out of the ordinary. Directors Philip Gnadt and Mickey Yamine’s documentary film, Gaza Surf Club, shows us that amidst dire circumstances, hope blossoms in strange ways. Gnadt and Yamine introduce us to three people who surf as an escape from the pressures of living in an occupied region.
Gaza Surf Club explores the lives of the men — and a few women — who against all odds, take to surfing. For many coastal residents around the globe, surfing isn’t a sport or a hobby; it’s a way of life. For those living in the Gaza Strip, the region’s economic, political, and religious forces prevent the pastime from gaining traction. In the Gaza Strip, an actual surfboard is as rare as a precious jewel. Men scavenge doors from the bombed-out rubble and then shave them down into “surf-able” boards. One man even jokes that he would rather replace one of his children than his surfboard. To be fair, I’m not entirely sure that he’s kidding.
Gaza Surf Club homes in on three individuals with indomitable spirits: Abu Jayab, a local surfing pioneer, Sabah, a young girl on the verge of womanhood, and Ibrahim, a young man who wants to help local surf culture grow. The film follows them through their daily lives, offering a first-hand look at the obstacles impeding their modest desires.
Palestinian parents often stand in the way of their kids riding the waves, and as bad as young men have it, the region’s young women face an even steeper uphill battle. 15-year old Sabah is on the verge of womanhood. She recounts a story of how her hijab strangled her as she swam in the ocean. Soaking wet hijabs won’t be an issue for her for much longer, as the moment Sabah is considered a woman, swimming becomes an immodest act. Soon, all she will have to look forward to is sitting on the beach, watching her siblings frolic in the water.
The film spends the most time following 23-year old Ibrahim. Ibrahim dreams of going to Hawaii, learning about surfing culture, and bringing his knowledge back home for the titular Gaza Surf Club. That sounds great in theory, but Ibrahim’s story doesn’t make for the film’s most absorbing watch. Sabah is the film’s most compelling personality, the one with the most intriguing story. It would be far more interesting to explore how Sabah makes sense of a life where her passions are unattainable. Without giving too much away, the film’s shining moment features Sabah, the beach, and a flock of young girls.
Gaza Surf Club is one pretty film. Certain images are so crisp and vibrant that they may as well be lifted from a postcard. Cinematographer Niclas Reed Middleton loads the film with stunning shot after stunning shot. Seeing how Middleton captures golden sun rays beaming over top of breaking waves is a thing of beauty. The film’s imagery is powerful, even when it’s not pleasing. Shots of Hawaiian beaches lined with palm trees are counterbalanced by collapsed buildings, ragged living quarters, and war-ravaged streets.
A lot of modern documentaries feel like you are watching the subject’s personal highlight reel; it’s strange how often amazing things happen whenever the cameras role. Gaza Surf Club takes an alternative approach. The film feels akin to following ordinary days in these people’s daily lives, and the slow and measured pace contributes to the movie’s intimate feel.
Middleton’s camera often zooms in on people enjoying simple pleasures, like men huddling around a fire drinking small cups of tea. The camera made me feel as though I were peering over someone’s shoulder, sneaking a peek into the group’s private space. While this restrained approach isn’t the most exciting documentary style, it feels the most honest.
If you’re generally ho-hum about documentaries, Gaza Surf Club may not be the movie for you. The film’s slow pacing will surely have you twiddling your thumbs and checking your watch. If documentaries are your kind of thing, the film’s unique tale of hope in the face of adversity will be right up your alley. Gaza Surf Club‘s earnest cast, inspiring story, and gorgeous cinematography makes it worthy of a spot on your watch-list.