The War Around Us recently nabbed the best feature documentary award at the Newport Beach Film Festival. It profiles the 2008-2009 Gaza invasion through the eyes of two young Al-Jazeera English correspondents, Ayman Mohyeldin and Sherine Tadros. Together, their experiences offer a glimpse into the Israeli incursion on the 25-by-7-mile Gaza strip, which killed nearly 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis (four from friendly fire).
But the film isn't about statistics, said director Abdallah Omeish. A montage of raw footage from the war--images of carnage, decimated buildings, and persistent bomb blasts--is interspersed between candid, emotional interviews with both journalists as they share what it was like being the sole Western news reporters on the ground.
OC Weekly: Why did you decide to profile Operation Cast Lead through the eyes of two journalists?
Abdallah Omeish: The reason for portraying it through the eyes of the journalists is because they were there. If you show it through the eyes of Palestinians or Israelis, it could be portrayed as propaganda. If you have western journalists, then it no longer becomes a religious issue or a racial issue; it becomes a fact and a human story because it's about people who witnessed what happened. They were the only two western journalists [in Gaza at the time], so there wasn't any room to argue what they saw. I did not want to make it about statistics like this is how many buildings got blown up up and this is many people died on the Israeli side. My main reason for doing so was to show that every single life is precious whether it's one or 2,000. You see the consequences of what happened when the father comes to look at his daughter in the fridge. Palestinians are very often portrayed as barbaric. But at the end of day it's the innocent life that pays the price, and then for what? In making this film, I personlly wanted to honor those who died, because no life, not a single one, should go in vain. Unfortunately Operation Cast Lead was put on the back burner and forgotten, and I wanted people to not forget what happened. That was a big motivation for me--to not forget those who died.
What inspired you to make this film?
The biggest thing that drove me was that I felt helpless. I felt so helpless and that was the worst feeling. There was an image I saw during the war that broke my heart. It was of a father looking at his dead children, and I felt at that moment that I needed to do something. I got in touch with Ayman. We later brought in Sherine, who was really the heart of the film. Ayman was a lot stronger, and the audience might not be able to connect to him in some ways because of how strong he is. Sherine was the rookie, who was experiencing this for the first time, which is probably similar to the audience. They can understand why she's crying all the time. Ayman and Sherine were a team; you had the yin and yang of the situation. You had the professional and the rookie, the guy and the girl, and having that combination in the story can connect the story for people. There's nothing more powerful than having witnesses tell the story; that can resonate and impact people more than anything else. If you hear it from a witness, you can't deny it. They were there, and no other western journalists were. They felt it and they experienced it. You may not like it, agree with it or want to hear it, but you can't deny what happened.
You co-directed the 2006 documentary on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict called Occupation 101. How was making this documentary different?
Occupation 101 was much more historical and factual. The War Around Us is a lot more character driven; it's more of a human story. I didn't want to delve into who's right and who's wrong or focus on statistics and how many people died. I wanted to focus on the human aspect, because that is a universal issue. A human story can touch people all over, whereas if a factual or historical film can be miscontrued as biased. If I give a human story, then you, as a human with a heart, will connect.
The film mostly consists of raw footage. What was the process of gathering it all together?
I told Al-Jazeera that I wanted all the footage of the war. The difficult part was choosing how to tell the story. That was probably one of the hardest decisions to make. How do we tell this story and keep it interesting and keep people informed? We decided its on the inside. I wanted to personalize it and hone in on whats happening inside to give the audience a sense of being there and a glimpse into how the journalists felt. That's why there are scenes of raw footage. Honestly, we had to step it down. The film was originally an hour and a half, and we had to take out a good 20 minutes of it because it was too much. We didn't want people to become desensitized. We wanted them to come out feeling open, not closed. There was originally a lot of harder footage in there. I mean children with sniper wounds in their chests and being shot point blank in the chest. But it doesn't matter how they died - the fact is they died.
What has the response to the film been like?
It has been beyond my expectations. I was working on this film so much that I had no idea how it was going to turn out. One thing people have told me is that it shows humanity, and that was my main goal. A lot of people have reacted in a way where they didn't know that it happened, which shows you where our media stands today. During this important time of elections, none of these images were on American television, but it happened. It tells you how we continue to support something like that and the damage that it's causing. I'm sure there will be negative response, but so far it's been overwhelmingly positive.
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