Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Growing Understanding


With early winter storms headed our way last week, and darkness now falling well before six p.m., nature is telling us it’s time for us to do our growing – growing ourselves, that is – indoors. Film is a great way to teach history, and the arrival of the annual Boston Palestine Film Festival coincides with the coming of the “dark age” of the New England calendar. So we found ourselves standing on the street beside the tracks of Boston’s “Green Line” at 10 p.m. Thursday night with the freezing rain beginning to show white mush in the middle of the always-intimidating “winter mix.”
The film, however, was worth a little cold weather suffering. A lot of the films in the Palestine Film Festival are documentaries, often preceded by a couple of shorts, and many are prize winters at other festivals. The quality is uniformly excellent, and the series is hosted by the Museum of Fine Arts and some other sites, such as local town libraries and a few awkward venues at Harvard.
We saw “Gaza Hospital” Thursday night, a documentary about the volunteer-run hospital that saved lives during the war-torn 80s in Beirut. No voice-over, no narration verbally or in titles, no overt filmmaker’s point of view. The characters, people who were there, sometimes in archival footage, much of it in return visits to the scene in the 90s or later, and some contemporary footage shot in the sites where the Gaza Hospital stood, tell their stories in factual and remarkably restrained fashion. They say things like “it’s been 25 years since my son disappeared.”
Despite two visits to Beirut (where, as you may know, our daughter lives), I had never heard of Gaza Hospital. The film “Gaza Hospital” concentrates on the war-torn, calamitous 80s in Lebanon. I know of no useful, brief written histories of the period (though then-correspondent Thomas Friedman wrote a well-received book called from “From Beirut to Jerusalem”) and am not knowledgeable enough to provide one. But an abstract of the events that form the film’s background goes something like this:
During the horrendous Lebanese civil war (begun around 1975), Beirut was plunged into deeper disaster when Israel invaded the country in order to attack Palestinian military organizations, which held power in parts of Lebanon, including parts of the city, because they were better armed and organized than the Lebanese factions. We see the Palestinian fighters leaving Beirut in the face of the Israeli invasion. We Israeli bombs falling on pieces of the Beirut shoreline where Anne and I have walked, and then we see the burn victims coming to the volunteer-run, bare-bones Gaza Hospital. Its surgeons include an Asian female volunteer, who worked in London and knew nothing of the region until recruited into the humanitarian effort. Other volunteers include a Jewish American nurse.
The hospital appears to be located between or as part of two Palestinian refugee camps, created in the wake of the Israeli takeover of Palestine in 1948. Sometimes the hospital has no water, often no electricity. But care is provided free to all who seek it. Fighters and civilian victims from all factions are brought there. Refugees from the civil war street fighting in Beirut’s neigborhoods or other parts of the country, their numbers intensified by the Isreaeli invasion, live in the upper stories of the fortress-like cement block building which serves as the hospital.
After the Palestinian fighters left Beirut, the refugees in the camps of Sabra and Shatila were left behind, in the words of one as “hostages.” After the assassination of the leader of the right-wing Christian faction, who’s about to become the country’s president (Bashir Gemayal) in a country whose constitution requires the president be a Christian, the rightwing Lebanese Phalangist faction seeks revenge. Because right-wing factions blamed the civil war and everything bad happening in the country on the Palestinian presence in their country, Phalangist troops entered the camps of Sabra and Shatila massacred hundreds of civilians, whole families, etc. as Israeli troops look on. (One estimate placed the death toll at more than 3,000. The massacre is well documented; Wikipedia has a summary.)
Gaza Hospital’s volunteer staff, including many internationals, are forcibly evacuated from the hospital, threatened with death before being released, and the patients remaining behind are killed.
After all this, somehow the effort and resources are found to rebuild the hospital.
The civil war continues. The Palestinian camps, once again home to refugees, fall under siege, incredibly enough, by another Lebanese faction, Amal, a Shiite group backed by Syria, which seeks to fill the power vacuum in the city. Food is cut off, and the inhabitants begin to starve, but they fight back in what became known as “The War of the Camps.” By the time the siege is lifted, Gaza Hospital has been largely destroyed, its cement block interiors filled with rubble.
The refugees say they will rebuild it once again. But I don’t know what’s there now, since in the film’s later shots returning international volunteers walk through a hell of torn-up walls and piles of broken cement and trash.
People still live in the camps. They sing, dance a little, remember their martyrs. A Palestinian refugee who has lived there since 1948 restores his shop’s electric sign and goes back to business as a barber. His thirteen-year old son was shot to death by snipers during the siege.
We saw two other documentaries at the Boston Palestine Film Festival. “The Kingdom of Women” tells the story of the women who rebuilt their refugee village in southern Lebanon after it was destroyed in the Israeli invasion and the men were detained by Israel. “We Were Communists” is the story of four men now in their forties who were teens when they joined the Communist Party, generally because their fathers had jointed it as the social justice party for all elements of society, and found themselves fighting to resist, first, the Israeli invasion and then to oppose any other Lebanese faction that their leaders told them to fight. Twenty-five years later they think Lebanon still has a long way to go to get beyond factionalism.
There were at least a dozen other films I would have liked to see. The Boston Palestine Film Festival deserves more coverage than it gets from local news media, particularly the major players such as the Globe, a point that has to be made by somebody other than me since I’m guilty of association there. The films presented there are certainly worthy of a look by anyone who cares about our country’s continued involvement in the Middle East.