When “Tears of Gaza” opened in Manhattan last week, the New York Times’ Jeannette Catsoulis rightly described it as “less a documentary than a collage of suffering.” With the exception of a few quick facts and figures in the introductory frames, the film provides no political or historical context for the brutality that wracked the area in 2008 and 2009. Instead, the Palestinian-shot footage catapults the viewer straight into bloody, war-torn Gaza, and never once looks back.
Catsoulis aptly—and, I think, approvingly—calls this “a method that spits on context.” The film, she says, “forces us to ask a single, electric question: Amid this much horror, does context even matter?” After watching the movie and participating in the post-screening Q&A with director Vibeke Lokkeberg and producer Terje Kristiansen, I’ve got an answer: Yes.
The intimate audience of 25 who gathered at Cinema Village Friday was mostly grey hairs, and mostly—if the chorus of oy veys emanating from the row behind me was any indication—very left-leaning Jews. Despite the raw, graphic, often stomach-turning nature of the footage (think badly burned babies and tiny bodies grey with ash), they reacted glowingly to the film, sympathizing with the plight of the Palestinians and condemning their Israeli oppressors.
Brigitte Lewis, a German expat who lived in Europe during the Holocaust, said the film gave her goosebumps. “There’s a collective guilt about what the Germans did [to the Jews], and I have it,” she explained. “But I keep saying ‘Never Again,’ and it applies to…not just one side. To me, it’s particularly horrifying to think that, if you have gone through the Holocaust, that you would then want to do that again to another group of people.”
Then something funny happened: Martin Feinberg, president of Winner Media, entered the theater and took a seat. He’d actually come to see a different movie altogether but, since he was early for it, thought he might as well catch the tail-end of this one. He listened for a moment before asking, apparently out of sheer curiosity, “Did your film show Israel’s justification for doing all this?” Then all hell broke loose.
The audience, to put it simply, pounced. “You are wasting everybody’s time here,” one woman said. “It’s amazing that you even have the balls to ask that!” another woman added. Of course, part of what was annoying these moviegoers was the fact that Feinberg had waltzed in and, without even seeing the film, thought it reasonable to ask a question that basically required the entire movie to be explained to him. But the barbed tone of their reprimands, their raised voices, made clear there was something else going on here. They didn’t just dislike the way he was asking his question; they disliked the question itself. They disliked the suggestion that, amid this much horror, context might actually be a very valuable thing to have.
So I put the question to the director: “Do you think anything is lost when context is omitted?” “No,” Lokkeberg replied roundly. “On the contrary.”
The point of the film, she explained, is “to mobilize you emotionally, so you get an experience of war.” The audience murmured approvingly at this. According to one woman, the film’s apolitical nature was “refreshing.” A young man said it was “much more effective,” because it showed everyday life instead of “bombarding you with information” like most traditional documentaries.
“This film is not about politics,” Kristiansen, the producer, affirmed. “It’s about humanity. That’s why we did not put this in a political context. This is about all wars.”
Which would be great, I thought—except that it’s not. It’s about one particular war, and the particular people who are implicated in that. And, while I understand the reasons for wanting to engage the emotions instead of the intellect, I believe something is lost when context is omitted.
First, reducing Gazans to the lowest common denominator of generic wartime suffering actually demeans and dishonors their particular experience. Using their pain as a means to some greater end—to further your own project—is problematic even if it’s a good project, like peacebuilding. It’s problematic for the same reason that charity campaigns aimed at helping “starving children in Africa” writ large are problematic: they rob their subjects of particularity.
Instead of reducing subjects to generic versions of themselves, artists do better to show what Martha Nussbaum has called “a respect for the irreducibly particular character of a concrete moral context and the agents who are its components; a determination to scrutinize all aspects of this particular with intensely focused perception; a determination to care for it as a whole.” At best, the artist gives us a fine-grained picture of her subjects, a picture that allows us to see them aright. At worst, she hampers our understanding of these subjects by providing a coarse picture that, because it’s painted with too broad a brush, obscures the agents in question.
Which leads me to the other problem with “the method that spits on context”: it doesn’t actually help us make inroads into peace. To get clear on why, I had only to join the audience members who huddled together outside the theatre, post-Q&A, to continue discussing the film.
I was standing in a circle with Lokkeberg and her fans when Kristiansen emerged from the theatre, bearing the wide grin of a storyteller who’s got an especially good yarn up his sleeve. He explained that Feinberg had buttonholed him inside, intent on reiterating the importance of context. According to Kristiansen, Feinberg asked him, “Do you know what happened 2,000 years ago?” Kristiansen’s reply: “No! I don’t want to know!” At this, the circle of moviegoers broke into laughter. Lokkeberg and Kristiansen laughed as well. “That’s all that interests him!” Lokkeberg mocked. “His Torah, his Bible!” And everyone laughed again.
But not me. Because that response—that “no, I don’t want to know”—is exactly the problem.
It’s not just that, if we really want to understand people, we need to understand their history and politics, texts and traditions. It’s that, when we ignore these particulars, we reduce people to a vague and homogenous victimhood that impairs our ability to think of them as anything other than victims and hinders possibilities for true solidarity. We impoverish our perception, flatten the discussion, and promote, among other things, the clobbering of the Feinsteins of the world. None of which, you’ll notice, actually helps make inroads into peace.
So, Jeannette Catsoulis, in answer to your electric question: yes, context does matter. It matters even—especially—amid this much horror.