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'Gaza Surf Club': Toronto Review

Dirs.  Philip Gnadt, Mickey Yamine. Germany, 2016, 87 minutes

In Gaza, locked away from the rest of the world, the young population yearns to travel beyond their congested strip of land. In the meantime, a few have found another escape – surfing. This charming documentary that follows them into the sea – another militarized zone — will travel widely, riding on its novelty and good-natured portraits of resilient athletes who accomplish something extraordinary in a city that has been bombed into ruins.

Sequences of young men surfing there tell another story of moments of autonomy and escape

Gaza Surf Club should be a crossover hit at festivals, with some indie theatrical potential. Television sales will be strong, with the sports audience boosting its range, maybe even with surf gear sponsorships. One of the surfers prays in a Van’s wetsuit.  

It won’t hurt the film in the US that Bill Finnegan’s surfing memoir just won the National Book Award, and the documentary’s look at a Muslim girl surfer’s hope against political odds to get on a board, covered from head to toe, offers a new twist on Europe’s burkini debate.

The film’s opening shots seize on the documentary’s special location. Waves crash in slow motion in the Palestinian city on the Mediterranean. As the water splashes into the air, it looks like the fire of incendiary bombs which have been part of life in Gaza for decades. The camera then moves through block after block of buildings in ruins, a grim reality check.

The film returns to the sea, where a group of surfers rides the waves with boards that came from California, via Israel. They and the boards travel in makeshift taxis, they pray in their wetsuits, and no one pays them much attention.

Gaza Surf Club tells its stories through some appealing characters. Ibrahim Arafat, a young man in his twenties with two day jobs, would like to make surf boards in Gaza, but materials are scarce. He yearns to travel to the US.

Mohammed Abu Jayab, now in his forties, hoped to leave Gaza one day, and sees young surfers living through dreams rather than their everyday reality. “My dreams are almost destroyed, but I’m still hoping to go abroad,” he says. One would-be surfer is Sabah Abu Ghanem, a girl of 15 who started the sport years before, but now avoids the beach because of religious disapproval.  With support from her father, she practices discreetly from their boat, fully covered.

Gaza Surf Club skirts a direct discussion of politics. It’s not necessary. The landscape of rubble reflects the wider political context, and Sabah’s withdrawal from the sport is a reminder of the weight of the hardline doctrines of Hamas, which controls Gaza.

Yet sequences of young men surfing there tell another story, not of highlight reels – the Gazans aren’t good enough surfers to merit that, although one does ride in a headstand – but as moments of autonomy and escape, and of athletes working with the materials at hand to hone skills associated with places that they are unlikely to ever see.  

Philip Gnadt and his team capture that romance, tracking the surfers in the water. Given how central music is to surf movies, they also manage to make the oud their version of a surf guitar. With peace still far away, the Gaza surfers will have to settle for the waves at home.  

Production companies: Little Bridge Pictures, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Robert Bosch Stiftung  

US sales: XYZ Films info@xyzfilms.com

Producers: Benny Theisen, Mickey Yamine, Stephanie Yamine, Andreas Schaap

Executive producer: Mickey Yamine

Screenwriters: Philip Gnadt, Mickey Yamine

Cinematographer: Niclas Reed Middleton

Editors: Marlene Assman, Helmar Jungmann

Music: Sari Hany 

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