Sundance Interview: Andrew McConnell and Mick Mahon Discuss Hope, Humanity, and Their Documentary ‘Gaza’

2019 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: On the western coast of Israel, along the Mediterranean Sea, lies a 25 mile strip of territory called Gaza. Years of war and conflict have torn this place apart as political strife has caused the world to give up on the people there.

Andrew McConnell, a photographer from Ireland, made his first trip to Gaza in 2010 after hearing about the Gaza surfing community. That first trip about a curious group of surfers ultimately led to a nearly decade-long journey to bring about the new documentary, “Gaza.”

The film premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival in the World Documentary Competition. It ultimately did not win, and left the festival without a distribution plan. Some have called the film propaganda, arguing that it doesn’t show both sides of the conflict. But “Gaza” isn’t about political factions or placing blame. It is about the people at the heart of endless war.

Last week, I sat down with director and cinematographer Andrew McConnell and editor Mick Mahon to talk about the film. For them, this is not about propaganda. This is about showing the world the cost of complacency and bringing to light a humanitarian crisis that needs to be solved.

Karen Peterson/AwardsCircuit: How has your experience been so far at Sundance?

Andrew McConnell: It’s been fantastic. We’re sort of just gearing up now for tomorrow. It’s all been building up toward tomorrow, so we really want to get it out and see how people react. It’s exciting.

KP: I watched it today. It’s such a powerful film.

AM: Thanks. We think so too.

KP: How was it that you first decided to make this film?

AM: I first went to Gaza in 2010 because I’d heard about this group of surfers that were in the strip and surfing the Mediterranean. And I thought this was a fantastic story. A complete surprise coming out of a place like Gaza, where the narrative is only conflict. I went there and I’m originally a stills photographer, so I went and did a photo essay on them. It was really successful. People were as surprised as I was, and it was really well received. Published widely around the world.

And coincidentally, two years later, 2012, Garry [Keane] contacted me, co-director. He was working on a documentary about Irish photographers and we got talking, and he asked me what I was working on. I told him, “I’ve just done this story in Gaza and I’m thinking about going back to do a short film.” Very quickly, the documentary he was working on fell away and we continued this conversation about filming “Gaza.” It was born out of this group of surfers. In the end, we expanded it and it went way beyond over the years. It went way beyond surfing and actually the surfers play a very small part in the film now. It became much wider and broader and we decided if we’re going to do this, why not tell the story of this place. Because it’s never properly been done.

KP: That’s very true. It hasn’t really. Why do you think that is?

AM: Everybody thinks they know what Gaza is, because it’s reported so widely. So nobody actually stops to think, “I don’t actually know much more than there’s a conflict every few years.” It’s so familiar, and yet it’s deceptively familiar because it’s not. People have a very one-dimensional view of the place. And so what’s very unique in the world is a case you think you’re familiar with, yet if you pause for a moment and stop, you realize you actually know nothing about the place.

KP: What was something that really surprised you when you went there the first time?

AM: The vibrancy of the place. How alive Gaza is. Everything is on the streets. It’s loud, it’s boisterous. The Palestinians of Gaza are just incredible characters on every corner, you know? The welcome was probably my biggest surprise. Everywhere you went, you were welcomed and people were so intrigued about you and why you were there. And also, really happy to see foreigners in the place. The sense of isolation was overwhelming too. The fact that someone had come to the Gaza strip for them, they were really appreciative.

KP: What was the process of getting the film made, as far as getting permits and being able to actually go in and shoot footage?

AM: First, I went in first by myself, self-funded, in 2014 to begin some filming. So I did that, and the idea was, the surfers I already knew and we expanded to people who lived by the sea. The sea was a focal point at first. We met the little kid, Ahmed. We met Abu Amir, the fisherman. But in the process of that, war started completely out of the blue, so I ended up documenting that for almost the duration of the war, fifty days. By the end, I came out of Gaza with over a hundred hours of footage. And this war just took over a lot. I went back home to Ireland, met Garry, and Garry has worked with Mick [Mahon] a lot as an editor over the years, and so the three of us sat down with this footage and then went about deciding what we could do with this.

Mick Mahon: It was extraordinary, actually, because I hadn’t met Andrew, and then Garry had approached me and said there’s a very interesting project. I’d like you to have a look at some of this material. And we sat down and viewed – we couldn’t possibly have viewed a hundred hours – but we skimmed through it and I’d never seen anything quite like what I’d seen in this material. And it was extremely hardcore material. War, destruction, pain, suffering.

We just didn’t quite know how to handle this material, because you couldn’t really present the film that was just based on this set of rushes. So we ended up cutting a promo, which we used for funding purposes, and it was around then that we actually met up as a trio, so to speak, and started to formulate a bigger plan for this material. As it turns out, having seen the film, you see that we have about a hundred hours of war material and it amounts to about seven minutes in the finished film. There’s an intensity to that material and we didn’t want to deliver it up right at the beginning.

So process-wise, I think we cut that promo and we were naively, maybe, hopeful that this would be funded straight away. As you probably know, film funding is a complicated process. At that point, Brendan Byrne, our producer, came on board and he was able to put together the nuts and bolts of the financing. So that enabled us to cut another promo. On a film like this, time is actually an asset. If we had gone ahead and made a surfing film, I think the fact that it took six years from first frame to last – that’s how long it took in terms of filming – was to the benefit of the film in the long run.

Despite the frustrations, and there were many over the years. There were times when we felt this was not going to happen at all because the world’s media took their eye off Gaza. And suddenly there were other conflict zones that were more current. Syria, etc. Do people care about Gaza anymore? That came to our minds as well. So, for me as an editor, it was just about storytelling, ultimately. Andrew had already established these relationships with some of these people and then the war happened and that reflected away from the character driven stuff, so we knew we needed to develop characters and storylines after the fact and build to this war, and dispense with timelines. You know, we don’t put dates on the screen to identify where you are because we didn’t feel that mattered. It’s more there’s a cycle of conflict they’re either preparing for, experiencing, or recovering from. A conflict of some kind. So it becomes this kind of universal conflict, so to speak. It was challenging from that point of view.

KP: Have you been into Gaza yourself?

MM: Yeah, I went in. Basically, we decided that there was going to be one last batch of filming and that was in April? May? Of last year?

AM: April we went in, last year.

MM: Yeah.

AM: With a proper crew for the first and last time.

KP: Those scenes from last year were so riveting.

MM: It gave us another timeline to operate within the storytelling. So we had the 2014 war and we had the 2018 border protests. These were two very strong strands. So we figured that we could in some way align these two timelines and then inter-cut the normal, day to day lives of people around that. As the process evolved, the inter-cutting of the war and the border protests just felt too intense, really. It was too much too soon in the film, and we had nowhere to go by having war and conflict in the first ten minutes. It got pushed further and further down the film. And we feel that it’s in the right place now. Because we feel you’ve gotten to know these people, so when this conflict begins, any one of them could be mired in this catastrophe.

KP: Yeah, and you really care about these people.

MM: And you care about them, and there’s an emotional payoff in that. So I went in and the decision was, let’s cut on site as you would a drama. So we were doing dailies. We were doing assemblies every day so that the guys could see what we were getting. We could steer it to a certain extent from the edit. And we could see if there was a red herring, character-wise, we could drop it and focus on something else. I mean, the team had great Gazan assistants, translators, sub-titling the material, because obviously Arabic is not a language I’m familiar with. So we needed a lot of assistance in that.

To be there, from an editorial point of view, it’s a place that sort of goes into your skin. We came out of there, I felt personally from a storytelling point of view, I was better equipped, having spent four weeks in this place, to tell that story. And it was during that time when the border protests were at their peak, really, but it’s an ongoing thing, you know?

AM: I think it was invaluable to have Mick there and see the place on the ground. Because the editor is such a huge part of this film and how it was structured, and how the story was told.

KP: And including the footage from last year, too, is something that is current enough that people remember seeing the footage.

MM: Yeah, it feels very recent.

KP: Yes, and hopefully for audiences finding this, they’ll be able to feel a little more connected to it.

MM: Sure. Because if the film had just been about the 2014 conflict, it would have felt like a missed opportunity. That was a ship that had sailed already. Why are you making a film about something that happened four years ago?

AM: It gives it an extra relevance that it’s so current. So the timing for us to be there.

MM: But it was a real palpable sense, wasn’t it? Being there. Another war could have started, because there’s a lot of anger. Particularly after, was it the 14th of May? Thirteenth of May?

AM: Fourteenth of May.

MM: Fourteenth of May, where there was a lot of casualties at the border, all tied in with the embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, caused a huge amount of upset in Gaza. And that was kind of the trigger for this mass protest to a certain extent. But it gathered a currency that it wouldn’t have had otherwise we felt, you know? But we were there feeling this war could start tomorrow. It has that volatility.

KP: Did you ever feel like you were in any danger? Or were you pretty protected?

AM: During the 2014 war, it was extremely dangerous. You never knew where an attack would come from. Attacks were indiscriminate. Schools were bombed. Ambulances got attacked. There were thousands of air strikes. There was serious risk there. We tried to minimize it as much as possible, but you never knew.

KP: Did you ever consider leaving and coming back later?

AM: No. If we were going to tell the story of Gaza, you couldn’t not be there and document that. It was fundamental to telling the story of the place.

MM: It’s also part of Andrew’s ability as a cameraman, filming a documentary for the first time with a background in stills. His instinct is to put yourself right in the center of what’s going on. So we have, for example, there’s one scene in the film where there’s an airstrike and the building is hit and there’s people running toward the camera, away from this, but Andrew’s going towards it. But that’s his natural instinct, and that’s why the material was so incredible, as an editor, to see. And fearless.

KP: It really is incredible footage. How did you decide which stories you wanted to focus on and which of the people you really wanted to show?

AM: It just happens naturally. Some people just rise to the fore, and they’re so compelling that you know instinctively that we must follow these characters. These people just work and they’re so… Like little Ahmed.

MM: He was there from the start.

AM: Yeah, from the very start. And even though he doesn’t say much, there’s something about the kid. You read so much just in the face, even. And yet, he contrasts beautifully against someone like Karma, another youngster in the film, who is mostly from an affluent family and much more articulate. And really articulates her feelings as a young person and a female growing up somewhere like Gaza. So they really sort themselves out. A few debates here and there about does this person work or not? Because there were some characters dropped. But the strong ones, they —

MM: There were some that we would call B List in terms of priority and we had quite a few of them. Funny enough, the older fisherman, Abu Amir, he wasn’t really factored in until quite late. Until the last portion of the edit. And then it just became such an important part of the story. The fisherman whose son is released from prison. So, you know, characters need to fight for their place, but we wanted to have a fair variety of backgrounds and different types of people. And we also wanted to create a sense that you never spent too long with any one of them, and that you’d return to some and not to others. So we have this tailor character who only came into it on that last bit of filming and we felt that this is the Wise Old Man. Rather than having a historian or an expert give you context, let it come out in a more natural, conversational way. Old guys playing cards in a cafe. So these were little golden nuggets that came in late in the process.

Our taxi driver, Ahmed, he was there from the second phase, as we called it. So we always knew that he would be the every man. And he would almost be like a tour guide who would bring you through the strip. Originally, we planned to do some drone shooting and make more of the car, but then it felt odd being outside of it. We said let’s be in this guy’s world, and to be doing that high angle, I don’t think that would have worked, actually. And visually. I think we achieved a balance of character, and I think by the time you come to the conflict, the heavy end of the film, you really can empathize with the plight of the people.

KP: One thing that really struck me was that you didn’t just focus on these young kids or these older people. It was such a nice blend. You have men and women. It does help give a rounded view of what the people are like and what life is like there. Was there any story that you wanted to include that you had to cut?

MM: The surfers were the biggest one, to be honest with you. Because they were the springboard for the whole project.

AM: That’s the irony, you know? They sort of launched me into Gaza. They brought me to Gaza, and in the end, there’s not a lot of surfing in the final.

MM: There was also another documentary about the Gaza Surf Club, with some of our characters featured in that film. We felt it would be maybe not a good idea to repeat what another filmmaker had done in terms of character.

AM: But we have Mahmoud, Moody, he’s one of the main characters, so we see him in the barber shop.

MM: The emphasis is taken off the surfing and more onto other aspects of his life.

AM: Yeah, you have to because in the end, we realized quite quickly that this was a story of Gaza. It wasn’t quite one particular character or group of individuals.

MM: But it’s interesting to see how from one idea or a set of ideas, the evolution that can take place over time, you know? And it’s also about not being precious in an edit. Being bold enough to be able to put something to one side. Someone like Maha, for instance, there early on who didn’t make it simply because there was no development within the character. A Palestinian artist. Would have been a very interesting visual, but just in terms of the beats within the narrative, it just didn’t deliver. So that was one that was sidelined for instance. But by and large, we tried to feature as many as we could.

For example, there’s a little girl called Shadid, who, for me is one of the more powerful moments. This is the little girl who’s on the gurney wearing the purple t-shirt. There was a lot more material shot with her, but we felt she worked just as that visual metaphor for survival in the face of terrible circumstances. And then brought a lot of heart in the film. It was quite late on the significance of her, because originally it was just a hospital scene, and then we started to include some other visual elements and we just felt it was one of the most memorable moments in the film, from my point of view and from the feedback we’ve been getting.

KP: Is there still hope in Gaza? Do the people still have a sense of hope that things will eventually get better?

AM: I think it’s changed over the years. When I first started going there, there was much more sense of hope. The blockade was only three years old at that time when I first went. And there was a sense that this won’t last much longer. And that galvanized people. There was a spirit to fight back against this. But more recently, last year, it’s been twelve years now. I think there’s less and less hope in Gaza every year. They realize this isn’t going to go away, and there’s a lack of faith in their politicians. There’s no strong leadership anymore, they don’t have any faith in their leadership to solve this problem. And so I see there’s a psychological toll from that. It’s much more palpable now. So I sense hope is much less, in much shorter supply in Gaza.

KP: What do you think can be done?

AM: The international community has washed its hands of Gaza. There’s sort of a sense that this is unsolvable and they’ve walked away. Now there are other things in the world much more immediate and distracting for people. Where’s the impetus to really step in and try to solve this? That’s a huge problem. The blockade is causing a humanitarian disaster in Gaza, and if it’s not addressed soon, I think the place is really… The suffering in there is appalling.

MM: Didn’t the UN come to some conclusion that by 2020 the strip could be actually uninhabitable. Unlivable.

AM: Yes, in terms of even —

MM: Just basic services.

AM: The water table is polluted. Electricity is, there’s less and less electricity now. Unemployment increases every year.

MM: It’s an environmental disaster.

AM: And not being able to leave. The economy is dead in the water. There’s very little positive, really, to talk about. And if the international community isn’t going to step in, nobody is. There’s no inclination from the Israeli side, it seems, to change the status quo. And Hamas are fresh out of ideas. Their problems are all now between them and Fatah, and who knows if there ever will be reconciliation there. So the people are left…isolated. Abandoned.

MM: Yeah. It is that sense of abandonment and you know, that feeling of lack of care internationally. And it’s justified. It’s a justifiable feeling, you know?

KP: What do you hope will happen with “Gaza?” What do you hope people will take from it and do?

AM: I hope they’ll take greater insight into what the reality of Gaza is. They’ll get a true sense of the life of Palestinians inside Gaza. And, importantly, crucially, come to an understanding that the blockade has caused terrible suffering. It’s the collective punishment of an entire population and it is inhumane and that it must end.

MM: A documentary has the power to reach people. And we would hope that it would shine a light on a clearly neglected part of the world. Our hope is that it’s seen by as many people as possible and if it touches the hearts of only a handful of people to change their perception of this place, who knows? It might gain some traction and it might go to the powers that be. There might be some sense of empathy from world leaders. But from the ordinary person, we would just like people to understand that their fellow human beings are being treated this way. I think film and documentary has the power to do that.

A filmmaker we both like, [Gianfranco] Rosi, who directed a film called “Fire at Sea” made a wonderful film about a migrant crisis in Europe, and that to me, would demonstrate the potential in film to inform, educate, and enlighten people. So we hope the film will do that without it being didactic or hectoring or lecturing. We didn’t want to get into that. We just wanted to show life as it is. And we hope that people will come away from the film with a changed perspective, basically.

KP: How has this film changed you?

AM: You become much more appreciative of the things you normally take for granted. I mean, for me, covering the war in 2014 was one of the most difficult experiences personally, I’ve ever gone through. But I don’t dwell on it because I at least get to leave Gaza. I mean, there’s too many people who go through that. And then have to live with the prospect that it can happen all over again. I can’t imagine that. The stress that would induce. The psychological pressure people are suffering because of that. It took me a long time to process all the things I saw in 2014. But yet, I get to leave. I’m hugely appreciative of the life I get to lead and I love who we are. We forget that a lot in the west.

MM: I pretty much echo what Andrew said. For me, I just found an incredibly profound experience to work on this film. And particularly to have visited the place. You do have that sense of gratitude. Your petty first world problems are brought sharply into focus when people don’t have electricity and live in an open prison, effectively, as it has been described, and I think it’s an accurate enough description. So I would just hope that we can continue to work in areas that, maybe there’s other parts of the world that we can make films about as well that could bring a bit of enlightenment to the world. Just be thankful for what you’ve got, I suppose, is the big learning thing from it. It goes into your blood, the place. Even just spending four weeks there, you can just feel it. We were incredibly sad leaving because you have that sense that you’re never going to see these people again.

We would like to thank Andrew McConnell and Mick Mahon for taking the time to speak about their film, “Gaza.”

You can read our review here.

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