News | War / Peace - Palestine / Jordan “It’s Important to Insist on Hope”

Palestinian filmmaker Mohamed Jabaly on the sorrow and dreams of Palestinians around the world


Photo: Mohamed Badame

The war that has engulfed Gaza since last October affects every Palestinian, whether in Palestine, Israel, or the diaspora. Everyone knows someone who has been injured, whose home has been destroyed, or has lost their life.

Mohamed Jabaly is an award-winning Palestinian filmmaker.

Few know this better than Mohamed Jabaly, a Palestinian filmmaker and artist from Gaza City. Jabaly left the Gaza Strip for a short visit to Norway in 2014, but soon became stranded due to the closure of the Rafah Crossing between Gaza Strip and Egypt, and has lived in the diaspora ever since. His films have won a number of awards, including Best Director at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam for his latest film, Life is Beautiful. His previous film, Ambulance, which documented the 2014 Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip, has been screened at some of the world’s largest film festivals and broadcast around the world.

During a recent visit to Berlin to present and discuss his film, he met with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Duha Almusaddar to talk about the current situation in the Gaza Strip and his perspective on the present and future of his home as a Palestinian filmmaker.

You have witnessed and lived through many Israeli attacks on Gaza. How is the situation for you this time around?

It has never been easy for me since the day I left, actually, to live outside of Gaza, especially when you plan a one-month visit and then to return to your family, to your job and all this. But it became a kind of forced exile when Egypt closed the border, it became something else. It became even heavier over the years because it’s never been easy for me to start a new life without knowing how or when I’m going to be able to go and see my mom, for example, or when I’m going to be able to meet my city again.

Over all these years, whenever something happens in Gaza, it’s difficult to hear the news and carry on. I was always in the front whenever something happened in Gaza. I always went and filmed to reflect on our reality, but now it becomes more and more like I am watching it like anybody else. Still, you carry all your experiences with you. You know what it feels like, because you know what your family is feeling, but then you imagine how they feel and that becomes worse on you.

When you are living the situation, it’s different from when then you observe it from a distance. The last years weren’t easy, especially the attack in May 2021. The first time I returned to Gaza was the end of June 2021. When I left in 2014, Gaza had been destroyed, and when I returned, it was also almost destroyed. I mean, not everything. I mean, from a survivor or someone who lived war or experienced it, at least it gives you a different meaning; there are no breaks. We never had any breaks in our reality. Like, even now, hearing this ambulance, it just gives you an alert. You are on alert all the time.

As long as we breathe and we are alive, we will do what we can to continue to live and survive and do more for our freedom.

This time, I feel the difference is that we are lost. We lost everything we loved: all our childhood memories, the city that we grew up in — it’s been destroyed. I don’t know what to tell my children, should I have kids at some point in my life. How can I tell them about the city’s streets? Even my grandfather’s house was destroyed. Our house is still standing… maybe, I don’t know that now.

When talking with friends, we can’t digest the amount of bad news we have been receiving over the last seven months. It’s paralyzing our emotions. When I get a call that someone has died, I don’t know how to react. I can’t cry. I feel sad, but not the sad that you usually would feel, because I’ve already received so many shocks.

You have lived in Tromsø, Norway since 2014. How you would describe the public attitude in Norway with regard to Palestine?

There has been a great solidarity movement across Norway, which started with the Palestine Committee of Norway established in 1969 to increase knowledge and understanding about the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and to influence public debate. The movement has been growing in Norway, people have been demonstrating in the streets since before the war started.

So, always, you see people standing for our right to exist and in support of us. I would say there is good understanding of our reality and our cause as Palestinians. This gives me hope for a better future, that the world is more and more aware of our struggle. I would invite all the world to join this global solidarity movement to unify our struggles, so we can live in a free land with equal rights.

As a filmmaker who has worked to document the Palestinian struggle in Gaza during attacks such as in your film Ambulance, and also outside of Gaza in Life is Beautiful, what do believe is the role of art, particularly cinema, in advancing Palestinian narratives?

We say, if you want to know a society, you look to its art and culture. And when you look to our present today, which has been damaged and destroyed by this genocide that’s been going on in Gaza over the last seven months, you see that all the artists who have been building their art have seen their studios burned and attacked.

Of course, as artists here in the diaspora and across the world, I think our role is more important. People are already looking for art to learn more by watching films, by addressing the issue in a new way and/or bringing it closer to them in a more intimate manner — in my case, a film that tells an intimate story to make the world understand my struggle and our Palestinian struggle.

When we look at Gaza today, I would talk about a whole history that has been ruined. If you look at the historical buildings that have been destroyed, such as the al-Basha Palace, basically nothing is left for us. But still, as I say, hope is a crucial word. I think it’s important to insist on hope no matter what, we will live and we will survive, and we will be able to create more and rebuild what’s been destroyed.

In your films, you use family archives and footage of Gaza City during Israeli attacks but also of “peaceful” times with friends. What do these mean for you now, looking back at them?

Through these memories and through these photos, I will always remember my city. And you know, your memories will never die, especially if you document them. That’s what I did over the last years. I managed to document all of my city through even phone footage. All of these memories now play an important role in bringing it back and telling the beauty of our city and the hope that we lived for.

Today, I cannot rebuild the cinema unless I rebuild my city. So, we will rebuild the city and then the cinema.

But unfortunately, today we look at the present that is being destroyed. How can we see the future if our present is being damaged or destroyed? Still, there is always a hope that we will wake up from this nightmare to a new day and a new reality that hopefully comes from all this solidarity and awareness across the globe.

The cost is of course too high, but you see today how the world is reacting and moving towards our freedom. The destruction taking place in Gaza has raised public awareness of our struggle, which has been going on for 76 years. As long as we breathe and we are alive, we will do what we can to continue to live and survive and do more for our freedom.

What do you hope to work on for the future?

I’m establishing the Gaza Film Unit under the aegis of the Palestine Film Institute. I’ve been working for the Institute for the last few years, running the documentary hub there. We are present across festivals around the world, and we’re going to have a delegation to Cannes and to Sheffield. We will have a showcase in May, and then we are going to launch the Gaza Film Unit.

We are also going to help filmmakers on the ground across the globe who need to be seen, including Palestinians from Gaza, to support their stories and give them a push across this international platform. I dream of rebuilding the cinema in Gaza. I even received approval from the Gaza Municipality to renovate the cinema at the Holst Cultural Centre. Today, I cannot rebuild the cinema unless I rebuild my city. So, we will rebuild the city and then the cinema.