I know I'm always raving about documentaries needing to give up stodgy old notions of fairness, truth, and objectivity. Who doesn't prefer Michael Moore's frankly biased, polemical Bowling for Columbine to Ken Burns and his feel-good reassurance of How Things Came to Be the Way They Are? Even so, Gaza Strip (running Thursday, Jan. 30 through Sunday, Feb. 2 at the Little Theatre) gives one pause. This 74-minute documentary forgoes any pretense of evenhandedness by limiting its focus to the miserable Palestinian inhabitants of the 112-square-mile Gaza Strip effectively controlled by Israel since 1967. And they are miserable. There's no disputing that. But the movie admits nothing beyond their (literally) narrow world and perspective.
"Fuck them all," says 13-year-old Mohammed of the Israeli politicians (Barak and Sharon) who seem to control his life. "This is our land." The illiterate newspaper boy is the most prominent of several subjects American director James Longley filmed in 2001 (during the midst of the second Intifada). Everyone profiled, from small children to old grannies, speaks of peace and retribution in the same breath. Sure, we can get along with Israel, they say, but it's us or them, life or death. One side is going to get pushed into the sea, and it's not going to be ours.
Longley waves the bloody shirt (literally) of Palestinian suffering; we see the dead, mangled children and frenzied funeral-procession chanting—just like on CNN every night, with no attempt at deeper understanding. Israeli rockets and bulldozers level apartment blocks while Palestinian men loiter inside hospital ERs as a form of entertainment. (One casualty gets hauled in holding his cell phone.) The entire system of rock-throwing provocation and camera-ready grief is sick and overdetermined. Little Mohammed is little more than a puppet, a robot programmed to weep for his slain buddies and mumble rote phrases about wanting to be a martyr. (How small do they make those suicide bomber belts, anyway?)
Meanwhile (let's open The New York Times for a sec), unsuspecting bus riders and cafe patrons have their entrails scattered across Tel Aviv and Haifa. Schoolchildren's brains and yarmulkes are spattered on the pavement. You can be the most liberal, Labor-voting, Peace Now-supporting Israeli citizen imaginable and still be mown down by Hamas or Hezbollah. But in place of those atrocities, Longley gives us images of saucer-eyed Palestinian children playing tag (oooh, how innocent, how cute!).
It's victimology, plain and simple, but Longley fails to grasp who's making a victim out of whom. Yes, Israel's policies toward the Gaza Strip and West Bank are reprehensible, but blame runs in both directions on what the Times' Thomas L. Friedman calls the Arab Street. Little Mohammed parrots defiant phrases without any idea what they mean. "We want weapons. We don't want food," he insists. And what about education? Or women's rights? Or a secular multiparty government for Palestine?
I RESPECT A MAN making a strong, slanted argument—provided the counterargument needs the stuffing knocked out of it. But, unlike the case of Moore and Columbine (where NRA members are not being blown up by suicide bombers), Longley's view is too selective and manipulative to have any moral authority. It's not a matter of bias but of blood: Charlton Heston doesn't really need a handgun to be safe, so I'm all for beating up on the guy (which is why Columbine made my 10-best list). Israel, however, needs a peaceful, democratic Palestine to be safe.
Longley shows the quotidian suffering of the Gaza Strip, which is admirable, yet there's no historical context. Egypt first seized the unhappy enclave in 1948; since then, like the rest of the Palestinian cause, it's been a political football for the self-interest of powerful Arab states, a useful distraction from their own internal problems.
But as we're about to inflame the rest of the Arab world by invading Iraq, I genuinely care about the reaction of Mohammed, now 15, a nihilist wearing a Nike baseball cap. And I wonder if he can read the headlines.