Theater thrives in Gaza, despite restrictions

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

A war zone is hardly a fertile place for nourishing theater companies and filmmaking ventures. Throughout occupied Gaza and the West Bank, a severe lack of funds, combined with heavy travel restrictions, has had a dampening effect on the output of Palestinian arts groups. Extreme poverty prevents potential audiences from paying to attend theater performances, which in turn has forced the closure of many small troupes. Existing film and theater groups struggle daily to survive.

Despite the many frustrations, however, the Palestinian theater and film scene is remarkably vibrant; this summer even saw successful film and theater festivals held in both Ramallah and the Gaza strip.

"There are no properly equipped theaters in Gaza, and very little Palestinian Authority funding," laments Sami Abu Salem, founder of the first Gaza Theater Festival, which played to full houses in makeshift venues last month. "People say, 'Why should we care about culture when we're fighting for survival?' " Most financing for theater in Gaza comes from foreign donors and aid agencies. But, he says, well-meaning charities often have their own agendas and fund performances only if a play's message fits their own.

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Still, theater groups perform as regularly as they can, often giving away tickets to shows. Private Palestinian charitable organizations are focusing their efforts on children, who they believe are key to the re-creation of a thriving cultural environment. But making their dreams a reality is not an easy task. Freedom of movement for civilian Palestinians remains at almost zero, making it impossible for a free flow of ideas to emerge. Curfews imposed by the Israeli military have frequently forced evening performances to be cancelled, thus discouraging even local audiences from attending.

"Cultural growth requires accessibility," says Mahmoud Abu Hashhash, cultural program director at the Qattan Foundation, a Palestinian arts charity. "Before the intifadas, people would travel from Jenin or Nablus to Ramallah to watch a play, then leave for home at midnight. That's unimaginable today."

This year's Gaza Theater Festival faced similar problems. Originally, it was conceived as an international event. "But," Mr. Abu Salem explains sadly, "in the end, all the foreign theater companies decided not to come. They were scared of being caught in a war zone. Even West Bank and Israeli Arab companies didn't come, as they couldn't get through the Israeli Army checkpoints."

In the face of such disappointments, a bright spot continues to be theater for children.

The Qattan Foundation provides grants for young people and aids them in finding artistic residencies overseas. It runs workshops in Gaza, and gives teachers basic drama skills. "By helping today's children," says Mr. Hashhash, "we can hope for better future artists and better future audiences. Our own generation grew up in conflict, and most have lost their cultural heritage and aspirations. They're concerned with political matters, and theater is seen as an unnecessary luxury. But children can help our society regain those crucial communicative elements of life."

An inspirational success in the field of children's theater is the Al Rowwad Children's Theatre Troupe, which operates from the wartorn and poverty-stricken Aida refugee camp in the West Bank. One of the very few troupes to have the opportunity to perform outside the occupied territories, Al Rowwad is currently touring the US with its production, "We are the Children of the Camp."

"Theater is a powerful tool of expression," says Abdelfattah Abu-Srour, the dynamic unpaid director of the troupe. "It allows the children to manage and release all the anger, frustration, and pressure they live under, and to deliver their message in a peaceful, nonviolent, and civilized way. It also shows them how educating themselves in different fields is vital, and that they can't build their country by fighting in the streets."

Through touring, the children have also learned that not everyone sees them as terrorists and suicide bombers, something they were afraid of before they left. "Yesterday," says Mr. Abu-Srour, "we were invited into an American Jewish house for dinner. Everyone was hugging each other. When people look at each other as human beings, all barriers disappear and people respect others regardless of their differences. The children have learned that the 'other' isn't necessarily the 'enemy.' " Coming from a home where the 30-foot high security wall slices their camp in two, and military incursions have been fierce and frequent, this broader perspective is crucial for the children of Aida, as well as for audiences.

But theater is not the only medium through which dramatic communication with an international audience is being channeled. A revival of Palestinian cinema is now slowly gaining ground. Qattan is funding 28 aspiring Palestinian filmmakers to pursue study in Jordan with the goal of producing an all-Palestinian feature film. Forty-five educational "cinema clubs" are also being established in Palestinian schools throughout Gaza and the West Bank. It's estimated that about 80 percent of Palestinian children have never been to a movie theater. All cinemas, except for a scant few in Ramallah, were closed by the Israeli military at the beginning of the first intifada in 1987, and none have reopened.

Documentary filmmaking, too, is becoming more widespread amongst Palestinians. The young filmmakers at Balata Refugee Camp, near Nablus, disseminate their films on the Internet, attracting millions of viewers despite being unable to go beyond the camp's perimeters. While none of the filmmakers in the Balata Film Collective - many of whom are young women - has received professional training, their documentaries make compelling viewing as they often tackle hard-hitting themes. In one film, leaders of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade talk about how it feels to be the most wanted men in the occupied territories. Speaking candidly and with emotion, they deal with subjects ranging from their constant fear of assassination, to their close relationships with their mothers. In another harrowing short documentary, recently released female Palestinian security prisoners from the Balata Camp describe their terror at being detained in Israeli jails.

A recent Arab film festival took place in various improvised locations, though none of the films - this year, at least - are Palestinian-made. Downtown, in his small office, Sami Abu Salem is already hard at work on next year's theater festival. "Next year, after the disengagement, we hope it will be easier for international groups to join us," he says optimistically. "But until then, we're just intent on [pulling] Palestinian citizens away from the atmosphere of killing, bloodshed, and bombardment, to a new atmosphere: one of life, entertainment, and love."

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