Gaza’s open-air cinema: A refreshing escape for Palestinians

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In Gaza, a rare event unfolded as residents gathered on a sandy beach in front of a large projector screen, marking the “Cinema of the Sea” festival that concluded recently. The enclave, under the rule of Hamas and enduring an Israeli-led blockade, lacks operational cinemas, making this open-air cinema a unique and much-needed respite for the impoverished population.

Over two weeks during the summer, the festival screened around 15 films, many featuring Palestinian actors or producers. Ali Muhanna, a theater director involved in the initiative, highlighted that the waterfront cinema is the only outlet for the residents in this territory of around 2.3 million Palestinians.

For Salma Shamaleh, a seven-year-old girl dressed in pink and seated barefoot at the cinema, it was an awe-inspiring experience. She expressed her excitement, having never seen such a large TV screen before, as she watched the animated blockbuster “Ferdinand,” which tells the tale of a giant, kind-hearted bull.

Gaza’s history with cinemas dates back to the 1940s, but they were forced to close during the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s. While some reopened after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s, they have remained mostly inactive, partly due to concerns from Hamas authorities that cinemas might propagate foreign or Western beliefs contrary to Islamic traditions.

The recent outdoor screenings, including the “Cinema of the Sea” festival, have provided a unique opportunity for Gazans to enjoy cinematic experiences, particularly during the scorching summer. The festival’s lineup featured films like “Farha,” a Jordanian production depicting Palestinian atrocities during the 1948 conflict leading to Israel’s creation, which resonated deeply with the audience.

The festival was organized by Al-Bahr Elna Cooperative cafe in collaboration with the culture ministry, aiming to showcase films that reflect Palestinian contributions to cinema and society’s values. Despite financial challenges after initial funding dried up, the cooperative has continued to operate through donations.

The Hamas-appointed body responsible for approving public art events, represented by Atef Askoul, acknowledged the importance of providing access to films and cinema for Gazans, given their challenging living conditions under the blockade. The festival succeeded in bringing joy and a sense of happiness to the people, as they appreciated the opportunity to engage with cinematic art on the sandy shores of Gaza City.