Middle East

Gaza cinema a new experience for many with first screenings in 20 years

Screening of a movie in Gaza Image copyright Gaza Cinema
Image caption This is the first chance in decades that Gazans can watch a movie being publicly screened

It was only when he was 24 that Homam al-Ghussein first went to the cinema. Now, he says, he cannot miss another film.

Why did it take him so long? He lives in Gaza, where cinemas disappeared 20 years ago because of violence.

And for those living there, tight restrictions on leaving the territory have meant that going to watch a movie somewhere else is, for many, off limits.

But things are changing. Public screenings have resumed, thanks to a recently launched private project. It is no surprise then that the initiative has been welcomed by him and many with open arms.

"It felt amazing," said Mr Ghussein, an architect. "I will always go to every film, whatever it is."

Life in Gaza can be disappointing, he says. The borders of the Palestinian territory, home to about 1.9 million people, are controlled by Israel and Egypt for security reasons but criticised by human rights groups, and only people with permits are allowed to travel out.

Hamas, the Islamist movement that reinforced its power in Gaza in 2007 after ousting its Fatah rivals, has enforced its conservative views through a network of radio and television channels. Most things seen as inappropriate, such as many aspects of Western culture, have been banned.

Also, three wars in a decade and a blockade have left the enclave with a very poor infrastructure, and leisure options are virtually non-existent.

As there are no movie theatres in Gaza, the screenings are held at a rented hall at the Red Crescent Society building.

Image copyright Gaza Cinema
Image caption So far, organisers have only shown films which are unlikely to draw the attention of censors

Husam Salam, one of the project's organisers, says demand has been high, and each screening has had an audience of between 120 and 200 viewers, many of them groups of family and friends.

"We do not have cinemas, public libraries. There are no places to practice cultural things [and] government efforts are really shallow in this area," says Mr Salam, who works with Ain Media company, a sponsor of the project.

Careful selection

The scheme started with productions about Palestinian history, but has recently shown more well-known titles, such as Oscar-winning Disney Pixar animation Inside Out.

But do not expect more controversial movies or sensitive scenes, as all films have to be previously approved by the Hamas authorities.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Leisure activities in Gaza are rare, with few official initiatives

"We select films [that] do not breach our culture or religion, and do not have images breaching our religion," Mr Salam said.

"For each film, we give [the authorities] a small summary and they give us the approval."

The project started in January, with Oversized Coat, from Amman-based Palestinian director Nawras Abu Saleh. It looks at Palestinian life between 1987 and 2011, including the two intifadas (uprisings) against Israeli occupation.

"These people who suffered these wars and siege are now in rows having popcorn and watching [a movie that] reflects the Palestinian situation," Mr Abu Saleh said.

"The project is very important… because it is considered as one of the ways to break through the siege that has been forced on Gaza for 10 years."

A different past

But things were not always like this. Cinemas could be found in Gaza before being destroyed during the first Palestinian uprising in 1987.

Residents say back then, Islamist groups became increasingly hostile to screenings and consequently many of the movie theatres were attacked.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Years of war and economic blockade have left Gaza with very poor infrastructure

Residents said they were later repaired, but violence took over the territory again years later, this time a result of internal fighting between forces of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and the theatres were again destroyed.

"My father used to tell me that he collected his pocket money to go to the cinema every weekend," says Rama Humeid, 30, a communications officer from the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza.

Word has spread quickly through social media, and the project's Facebook page now has more than 7,000 likes.

Tickets cost 10 shekels ($2.5; £1.75), regarded by organisers as affordable in a place where much of the population is unemployed or dependent on food aid.

The screenings come as Hamas is seen to be slightly relaxing its grip on cultural activities in the territory, which has pleased Ms Humeid and her friends.

"There are not many options for culture or entertainment," she says. "However recently, I have seen some cultural events such as Gaza Cinema and musical events."

But a lot is yet to change, as she says: "Life in Gaza is not easy."