GAZA, (Reuters) – – “Cinema in Gaza is like writing on rocks with your fingers,” says Palestinian writer-director Sweilem Al-Absi.
It’s not just the dearth of funds, equipment and studio facilities that prompts such laments from film-makers in the Gaza Strip. Four years into Islamist Hamas rule, cultural censors are fraying the already threadbare local movie industry.
Locked in conflict with Israel and vying against secular Palestinian rivals in the occupied West Bank, Hamas has long invested in television- and Internet-based news, educational shows and even animated clips that advance its political views.
But independent artists say Gaza’s Culture Ministry, where projects must be approved before public screening, is quick to crack down on content that does not conform to Hamas edicts.
Such was the case with “Masho Matook” (“Something Sweet”), a 2010 short film directed by Khalil al-Muzzayen, which depicts the interaction between Israeli troops and soccer-playing Palestinian children in once-occupied Gaza.
Though the video vignette was submitted to the Cannes Film Festival, Hamas banned its screening locally, citing a four-second scene where Israeli soldiers appreciatively eye a comely Palestinian woman who breezes past them, her hair uncovered.
Culture Ministry director Mustafa al-Sawaf described the images as “out of context.”
“She was leaning and laughing, looking at the Israeli soldiers, and that was not appropriate. Palestinian women would not do that,” said Sawaf, who described his ministry’s intervention in film and television productions as minimal.
Much of the dispute stems from the fact that the film, set in the 1970s, shows a bare-headed woman — now a rare sight in Gaza, where Islamist mores have taken root.
While censorship is commonplace in conservative Arab and Muslim societies, some Palestinians see in Hamas’s version an over-zealousness born of its efforts to impose order on the poor territory penned in between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean.
“It was unjust to ban a movie just because of a scene showing a girl without a scarf. Why deny reality?” said 23-year-old filmmaker Ahmed Abu Naser, who, like his twin and artistic partner Mohammed, helped Muzzayen with Masho Matook.
The brothers themselves cut unusual figures in Palestinian society, by wearing their hair long and smoking pipes.
Gaza has no cinemas: three that existed before Israel withdrew soldiers and settlers in 2005 were torched during Palestinian factional clashes. Televisions, often with satellite feeds, are ubiquitous. But public screening venues are not.
A film festival hosted by the Gaza Women’s Affairs Center this month also fell foul of Hamas commissars.
The line-up included documentaries and fictional pieces on women’s issues from Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia and Mexico. But all had to undergo the Culture Ministry’s “scissors,” said Absi.
“What I saw would make me weep blood instead of tears,” he said. “Cuts, cuts, cuts.”
One film had to shed a scene where a woman, speaking to her paramour from opposite balconies, lowered one shoulder of her dress. In another, a man’s expletive-laced tirade against his wife was expunged.
Sawaf described the censorship as consensual, saying films submitted for vetting ahead of the women’s festival were returned with “comments for the directors.”
“We should have a position toward any work that violates traditional values because we want to preserve the heritage of the community,” Sawaf said.