"...afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if it's owner fails to control it".
George Orwell defined a way of witnessing Asia that still remains valid. "To shoot an elephant" is an eye witness account from The Gaza Strip. December 27th, 2008, Operation Cast Lead. 21 days shooting elephants. Urgent, insomniac, dirty, shuddering images from the only foreigners who decided and managed to stay embedded inside Gaza strip ambulances, with Palestinian civilians.
George Orwell: “Shooting an elephant” was originally published in New Writing in 1948.
Gaza Strip has been under siege since June 2007, when Israel declared it an "enemy entity". A group of international activists organized a siege-breaking movement, the Free Gaza movement. Thanks to their efforts, and despite the Israeli ban on foreign correspondents and humanitarian aid workers to cover and witness operation "Cast Lead" on the ground, a group of international volunteers: self organised members of the International Solidarity Movement were present in Gaza when the bombing started on December, 27th 2009. Together with two international correspondents from Al Jazeera International (Ayman Mohyeldin and Sherine Tadros), they were the only foreigners who managed to write, film and report for several radio stations what was happening inside the besieged Palestinian strip.
Were they journalists? Were they activists? Who cares!. They became witnesses. Being a journalist or being whatsoever depends on how you feel. It is an ethical responsibility that you manage to share with a wider audience what you and those who are around you are going through. It will be the result of your work that will lead you to a professional career as a journalist or not, rather than pre-assumptions and labels. Make them know. Make those who you want to: listen and be aware of what you are aware of. That is a journalist. Having a card, with "press" written on it, or getting a regular salary is not necessary to be a witness with a camera or a pen. Forget about neutrality. Forget about objectivity. We are not Palestinians. We are not Israelis. We are not impartial. We only try to be honest and report what we see and what we know. I am a journalist. If somebody listens, I am a journalist. In Gaza´s case, no "official journalists" were authorized to enter Gaza (apart from those who were already inside) so we became witnesses. With a whole set of responsibilities as regarding to it.
I have always understood journalism as "a hand turning the lights on inside the dark room". A journalist is a curious person, an unpleasant interrogator, a rebel camera and a pen making those in power feel uncomfortable. And that is the concept of my work in Gaza: To fulfil a duty in the most narrated conflict on earth, where the story of the siege and the collective punishment that is being imposed by Israel on the whole population of the territory in retaliation for rockets sent by Hamas will never be told with enough accuracy. For this it has to be lived. I sneaked inside Gaza despite Israeli attempts not to allow us to enter and I was "politely" asked to leave by those in power in Gaza. That is my idea of journalism. Every government on earth should feel nervous about somebody going around with a camera or a pen ready to publish what he or she manages to understand. For the sake of information, one of the biggest pillars of democracy.
This is an embedded film. We decided to be "embedded within the ambulances" opening an imaginary dialogue with those journalists who embed themselves within armies. Everyone is free to choose the side where they want to report from. But decisions are often not unbiased. We decided that civilians working for the rescue of the injured would give us a far more honest perspective of the situation than those whose job is to shoot, to injure and to kill. We prefer medics rather than soldiers. We prefer the bravery of those unarmed rescuers than those with -also interesting, but morally rejectable experiences who enlist to kill. It is a matter of focus. I am not interested in the fears, traumas and contradictions of those who have a choice: the choice of staying home and saying no to war.
Directors: Alberto Arce/ Mohammad Rujailah
Script: Alberto Arce/ Miquel Marti Freixas
Editing: Alberto Arce/ Miquel marti Freixas
Sound: Francesc Gosalves
Posproduction: Jorge Fernández Mayoral
Co-production/distribution: Eguzki Bideoak.
Translation: Mohammad Rujailah/ Alberto Arce
Design Team: Mr. Brown and Mabrilan
A collaborative effort
This film would have never been possible without the devotion and commitment of Muhammad Rujailah, "the fixer". A local Gazan who decided to spend those weeks with us. For most of the time he was my ears, my eyes, my mouth. Most foreign journalists, not speaking Arabic rely on a "hidden figure" that is normally erased from the resulting work. I want to acknowledge his collaboration. Expressing that foreigners need locals. And locals have to be credited for their work. Orientalism is always present in the foreigners approach to the Middle East, that´s where local perspectives are needed to overcome stereotypes and build an honest narration of the complex reality we are facing.
This film would have never been possible without the trust, warmth and collaboration of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society and Health Worker Committee ambulance crews. Rescuers like Marwan, Hassan, Jamal and many others were there, answering phone calls and driving crazy day and night races between bombs and snipers knowing they were targets for the Israelis. Many of their friends, like Arafa Abdel Daim, were killed. They were shot at. Their cars were destroyed. But they never gave up. They are brave. Brave without weapons. One of our main focuses of "to shoot an elephant" is to uphold International Humanitarian law by showing how the medical teams and hospitals were directly targeted while performing their duties.
In Gaza, we were a team. Together with the locals, Vittorio Arrigoni, Eva Bartlett, Ewa Jasiewicz, Leila, George, Natalie, Jenny united to form a group. Now I will show some of their intentions and work during those days. It could not have been possible without them. Also without the strength I got from the telephone calls from a number of activists all around the world who just phoned to say that they were there, that we were not alone. They have to be thanked properly. Even if they don´t know and I am unable to say thank you personally, they pushed me ethically not to give up. Haidar Eid and his fellow colleagues from the University teachers association of Gaza Strip with their intellectual support in understanding what was going on and what should be done after the massacre we witnessed, to effectively join efforts for justice. Nabil, from the Palestinian Medical Relief Society was the person who showed us all around Jabalya refugee camp in order for us to understand the magnitude and perversity implied in maintaining the collective punishment that Gaza´s inhabitants are suffering.
Some officials in the Spanish government helped me to get out with all the raw material. It was their duty, but they did it with the best professionalism. Others would not have engaged. Mahmud was our crazy driver. With his taxi and his willingness to risk, we managed to reach houses directly targeted with white phosphorous shells or managed to film the fire at the United Nations central warehouse for food when it vanished and was burnt with phosphorous. And fighter Ahmed who paid a price because of helping me. Miquel trusted me and believed in this project right from the start when we talked for the first time. Eguzki Bideoak supported me and all the participants and those involved in the organising of the "Encuentros de Fotoperiodismo Ciudad de Gijón" who helped me to regain the enthusiasm I had somehow lost.
Sarah and my family. Always Sarah and my family. I entered Gaza with a commitment to making a film because somebody had faith in me. CI Comunicación have to be acknowledged for that. Too bad our paths took us to different destinations.