Documentaries in times of war – Gaza and Ukraine

Christopher RW Nevinson, Returning to the Trenches, 1916
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By JOÃO LANARI BO*

The powder that connects the conflict in Ukraine with what is currently happening in the Gaza Strip is frightening

“War is cinema, and cinema is war” (Paul Virilio).

After 19 months of conflict, and on the eve of another harsh winter, the war in Ukraine appears to have entered a strategic stalemate with no clear alternative solutions. What is clear is the fatigue – that is the term – that has taken over discourses about the war, including those aligned with the Ukrainian position. Military fatigue, but also media fatigue.

And it leaves traces: the powder that connects this conflict with what is currently happening in the Gaza Strip is frightening. A logic of war, which reproduces itself without control or brakes, and which spreads quickly. A trail that passes through online media coverage and repercussions on social networks – generating the (false) impression of the proximity of wars, of the voyeuristic intimacy of violence.

The documentary record appears as a language of distancing, even if captured in the heat of the event. Two films – 20 days in Mariupol (2023) and Gaza (2019) – illustrate this proposal, both filmed in besieged war zones.

Mariupol

20 days in Mariupol, the first feature-length documentary by Ukrainian photographer and journalist Mstyslav Chernov, completed in 2023, works as a time and information capsule about the humanitarian devastation that occurred – and continues to occur – in Ukraine, after the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022.

Mstyslav Chernov and his colleagues at Associated Press, photographer Evgeniy Maloletka and producer Vasilisa Stepanenko, realized that the port of Mariupol, less than 50 kilometers from the border with Russia, would be a priority objective for Vladimir Putin's troops right at the beginning of the war. On February 25th, missiles fell across the country, including in Mariupol – Mstyslav Chernov and his team were among the few who remained at the scene.

The filming diary begins, narrated in voiceover off by the director: civilians disoriented by the shock of the bombs, a hysterical elderly woman wanders in a remote area – she reappears later, alive, but her house has been destroyed.

Martial law is imposed and many choose to evacuate while it is still possible: few bomb shelters are available, people huddle in basements and missiles devastate not only infrastructure and military posts but also civilian objectives. Electricity, telephone and Internet access are cut off. Hundreds of victims fill hospitals, already hit by bombs – and corpses begin to appear in the streets, waiting for a mass grave.

What drives Mstyslav Chernov's gaze in this death spiral is the desire to report, beyond journalism: it is a drive to report, validated all the time by doctors, firefighters and victims. This is not the first time that this type of journalism has stood out, reporting from conflict zones and capturing vivid and harrowing accounts.

We, the audience that avidly consumes these images, live the relentless ephemeral news cycle, anesthetized by the recurring fetishism of television editions. Here, the new 20 days in Mariupol: the cycle of consumption is broken, the permanence of the documentary product allows – and, in this case, encourages – reflection, the experience of images.

“This is painful to watch. But it has to be painful to watch”, says Mstyslav Chernov, facing the “sadistic virus of destruction”, which, at this point, empties the city. His particular anguish is uploading the images, getting out of the cyber siege imposed by the military juggernaut.

Mstyslav Chernov says he filmed 30 hours in Mariupol, but was only able to share 30 minutes of video with his editors – how to send large files, how to access WeTransfer for gigabytes of MP4 in the middle of a war? A pregnant woman is filmed on a stretcher after the Russian attack on the Mariupol maternity hospital: “Her injuries were incompatible with life; We did everything we could, a dead child was extracted,” said a doctor. The mother, according to Mstyslav Chernov, knew that the child was dead, and begged: “Kill me!”

The image circulated around the world, and the next day the Kremlin denied that it had targeted civilian targets. Sergey Lavrov, Putin's minister who practices a cynical and cruel speech worthy of Stalinist times, said that this was a setup and, therefore, “information terrorism”. The plan backfired: when contextualizing the image, recorded immediately after the attack, 20 days in Mariupol deconstructs and catches the Russian trickery.

The siege of Mariupol lasted almost three months – exactly 86 days, when Ukraine admitted, on May 17, that it was impossible to retake the city. The extent of the siege is mainly due to the resistance of soldiers and civilians entrenched in the huge Azovstal steel plant, built in the Soviet era. In April, it was estimated that 95% of the city's buildings had already been totally or partially destroyed by fighting and bombings.

The casualty count is still hazy – 25 civilians were killed and 10 soldiers on both sides were killed. Of the original population, 425 thousand people, just over a quarter remain in the city: many fled to other areas in Ukraine, many others were deported to Russia.

Mstyslav Chernov used a Sony Alpha 7 and a simple lens to film. There was no time to change lenses: zoom was the solution. The microphone to capture the sound was also basic, mono, of course. The film's post-production improved a lot, but without edited or artificial sounds, explosions for example. “I film it, I have to edit the article and send it, when the editors receive it, the article is almost ready.”

20 days in Mariupol it does not dramatize the tension that emanates from war, it merely registers it, as if reality were a drive of despair. The Kremlin's widespread rejection of Mstyslav Chernov's reporting is the documentary's ultimate legitimization.

Gaza

Gaza, made in 2019 by the Irish Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell, took on a tragic and devastating topicality with the war in the Gaza Strip. The term “current” does not have much meaning in this context – the present, suffering and the threshold of death, is a constant state for the residents of the Strip: the past is always current and the future has no prospects. It is a territory full of overlapping temporalities, biblical and colonial post-XNUMXth century: for this very reason, a territory full of cleavages, of fragments that disperse and return, infinitely.

A Bible associates Gaza mainly with the Philistines. God gave the city to Judah, but the Israelites failed to obey God to drive out the former occupants of Canaan (Numbers 33:51-53). Because of this disobedience, the Philistines and the city of Gaza remained a thorn in Israel's side for centuries (Judges 2:3). God (of the tribe of Judah) said: “You will drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you, and you will destroy all their pictures; you shall also destroy all her molten images, and destroy all her high places; And ye shall take the land for a possession, and dwell therein; because I have given you this land to possess.”

Quoting the biblical text is not a mere rhetorical exercise, especially when it comes to a film like Gaza: The Israeli far right, which plays a crucial role in the conflict, has as its political platform replacing modern secular law with Torah. Torah: five first volumes of the sacred book of the Jewish religion, originating from the Hebrew term “Yará”, which means teaching, instruction or law. The recent political battle to empty the Supreme Court in Israel has this background.

The Gaza Strip and its just over two million inhabitants are the product, among others, of a regulatory effort on top of a complex territorial situation, which began with the creation of the State of Israel by the UN in 1947. It was necessary to combine with the Palestinians who lived there: wars followed and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people who lived in the territories occupied by the Israelis to the narrow strip to the south, surrounded by Israel, the Mediterranean and Egypt.

Gaza, the film, was organized with the explicit objective of showing life in that enclave in a way that avoided the usual images broadcast during the limited time of News, that is: poverty, tragedy and destruction, dead and injured civilians (children especially), masked soldiers, young people throwing stones and abandoned buildings in smoking ruins.

Featured prominently and interviewed in the documentary are, among others: surfers and fishermen; a young cellist from a wealthy family; a good-natured and sincere taxi driver; and a Muslim family man, with dozens of children, confessing that he gave up on his fourth wife because of the tragic world that would welcome the new offspring. Nor are sociological comments emphasized: few words about the high number of jobless young people, nor even about the political rise of Hamas.

The design of an open prison exposed to the sun, however, little by little contaminates this complacent European look. The sea, a source of food and a spatial metaphor for existential limits, also functions as recreation and support for cliché images of sunsets – and it is looking at the sea that the cellist complains about foreigners: “the only thing they give us is sympathy ”.

The old fisherman remembers actions carried out by Israeli gunboat patrols; They throw sewage at those who venture to fish outside the permitted limit of 10 kilometers of sea, when they do not arrest the adventurers (his son received two years in prison for this audacity). We are, it seems, in an empty war zone, full of petty tensions and humiliations – and dangerously unstable.

the footage of Gaza took place in May 2018 – in March of that year, the first of the demonstrations known as the Great March of Return took place, demanding permission for Palestinian refugees to return to the lands from where they were displaced in what is now Israel. The demonstrations took place every Friday until December 2019: the recognition by the United States of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State embodied the protests.

Initially organized by independent activists, they were soon endorsed by Hamas. In the film, the atmosphere quickly overloaded, buzzing sounds ripped through the sky, and the spark of war was reignited.

The reality principle, the postponement of gratification for those who seek to avoid pain, has once again imposed itself.

*João Lanari Bo is a professor of cinema at the Faculty of Communication at the University of Brasília (UnB), author of, among other books, Cinema for Russians, Cinema for Soviets (Time Bazaar).[https://amzn.to/45rHa9F]


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