What if the most perilous place in the world suddenly became a haven, the only safe zone on earth? And getting there required the help of a couple of bumbling hustlers, quite a bit of money, as well as dressing up as "the enemy". Would you do it?
That is the question Palestinian-British filmmaker Basil Khalil asks, and answers with humor in his feature debut. While in his Oscar-nominated short Ave Maria Khalil told the story of a family of Jewish settlers, complete with cranky mother-in-law, who crashed (literally) into the lives of Carmelite nuns, forcing the women to help the family in order to get rid of them, in A Gaza Weekend he smuggles a British-Israeli couple into Gaza during a deadly virus outbreak which has made Israel unsafe.
What makes Khalil's work grand is his irreverence and sense of humor. Colors and fun abound in A Gaza Weekend, something we are not used to seeing often in cinema from the Arab world, even though the Region is chock full of people possessing great joie de vivre. Going against the trend of what is the typical Arab film selection at international film festivals is a groundbreaking quality which Khalil possesses and while it is wonderful to watch his films, A Gaza Weekend will encounter issues from programmers, who nowadays are incredibly afraid of cancel culture and offending one side or the other of their audience.
Make no mistake, A Gaza Weekend proves an equal opportunity offender, saving no punches for both the Israelis and the Palestinian characters featured in the film. But that also means that it creates a two way conversation, which is very much needed in the countries and across the world, when trying to find an answer to the Palestinian struggle.
If your idea of funny is politically correct, this is probably not the film for you. But then, you've probably missed out on most of the great comedy routines of the past half a century, including the work of Roberto Benigni and Larry David -- two men whom incidentally the filmmaker quotes as constant inspiration. Khalil as a filmmaker pulls out all the stops, in telling the story of a couple who believe their only hope of making it out of this thing safe and sound lies in getting to Gaza.
But let's start from the beginning. The opening shot of A Gaza Weekend shows a messy young scientist in the super secret Israel’s Institute for Microbiological Research drinking coffee, contaminated with a fluorescent green glob that just leaked into her cup. The film then kicks off in Gaza, with the Arabic version of 'Hava Nagila' (yes, it exists and is sung in Palestinian Christian church services) playing as soundtrack. Palestinians have become aware of a deadly virus called Aggravated Respiratory Syndrome -- ARS also means "pimp" in Arabic -- which has gripped Israel and closed its borders with the world. Sound familiar? Well, it turns out Khalil started working on the story nine years before the Covid pandemic took over the world, but inspired by the SARS outbreak of 2002.
Cue to British journalist Michael, played by cool UK actor Stephen Mangan, and his Israeli girlfriend Keren, played by Mouna Hawa, who is in reality Palestinian but channels her inner JAP perfectly. The two are turned away from the pier where they are meant to board a boat back to the UK, and thus begin a journey through Gaza and hopefully out into Egypt to freedom.
"Get me to Gaza, ASAP!" Said no one ever. Which makes A Gaza Weekend funny from the get-go. But a warning, this ain't like Laurel & Hardy funny, the jokes aren't always gratuitous, and you must work for your laughs by knowing a bit of Arabic, a touch of Chinese even, and more importantly, actually possess a sense of humor yourself. But that is what makes the film brilliant.
On their odyssey to safety, which lasts a weekend hence the title, Michael and Keren -- any American will get the extra reference in her name -- meet hapless Palestinian market traders Emad (Loai Nofi) and Waleed (Adam Bakri) along with Waleed’s wife Nuhad (Maria Zreik) who seems to be in a constant state of subdued aggravation. She's probably harassed by Waleed's losing schemes which also involve making surgical masks out of imported cheap Chinese bras (the boxes are marked "Wonky bras for foreign sale only"). And you must sit through the credits to find out his next endeavor, because the laughs don't stop until the whole film is through.
Michael connects with Emad through his Australian TV journalist friend Jonathan (Yousef Shuwayhat) who recently interviewed Emad and who tells Michael that for US $10,000 each, he and Keren can get out of the country via Gaza. The story is set up for funny moments to come and lots of inside jokes -- some you will get right away, others you'll need to watch the film again to fully grasp. I know I will need more than one viewing.
For example, in the header photo above, the man in the Andy Warhol like picture behind the protagonists looks like an Iranian cleric but is instead Ovadia Yosef, an Ultra Orthodox rabbi. There is a line that if you blink you might miss, translated very loosely by yours truly from the Arabic -- "you are like an old slipper, even if you stink, you're too comfortable to throw away," and the list of inside jokes goes on and on.
Great cinematography by Eric Raphael Mizrahi and Lasse Ulvedal Tolbøll, helped by the quick paced editing by Shahnaz Dulaimy, later joined by Victoria Boydell for the finishing touches make the film a must-watch. And the score by Alex Baranowski mixes an 80s feel with regional sounds that perfectly complement the story and locations.
Personally, I really loved the film because it is totally irreverent -- as I wrote before, Khalil doesn't discriminate between making both the Israelis and the Palestinians the butt of his jokes. Plus, now that Netflix has finally discovered, it's about time, the Palestinian diaspora in their new series Mo, created by Mohammed Amer and Ramy Youssef, I find A Gaza Weekend the perfect companion piece to show the other side. Those who aren’t immigrants, stayed in Gaza, didn’t leave and still represent their country in a funny, charming, and poignant way. Not how we are used to seeing Palestinians on the news -- as either victims or terrorists.
I believe we are long overdue for a humorous take on the Middle East in general as most of the selections from the Region at Western film festivals tend to show a mix of pathos, poverty porn and sadness. So kudos to TIFF for having had the courage to program Basil Khalil's film.
I'll leave you with the feeling I walked out of the screening room experiencing. There is a powerful line in The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran that goes "The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain." In A Gaza Weekend, Khalil proves that the spirit of Palestinians is unbroken and that laughter is indeed the best medicine. But I must also admit that I teared up at the end of the film, when, right before the credits a stunning rendition of Nina Simone's song 'I Wish' reworked into Arabic with haunting gospel sounds by Bashar Murad -- a pop singer from Jerusalem -- comes on. Because Gibran's line can also work in reverse -- once you've laughed yourself silly during a film, there is a moment when tears well up and can explode just as easily as giggles.
A Gaza Weekend world premiered in Toronto’s Discovery section. To find out more, check out the TIFF website.
United Kingdom/Occupied Palestinian Territory, 2022, 90 mins
Dir/Writ: Basil Khalil
Prod: Amina Dasmal
Exec Prod: Daniel Battsek, Lauren Dark, Robin C. Fox, Kristin Irving, David Kimbangi, Cara Sheppard, Sunny Vohra
Line Prod: Ossama Bawardi
Cinematography: Eric Raphael Mizrahi, Lasse Ulvedal Tolbøll
Editors: Shahnaz Dulaimy, Victoria Boydell
Music: Alex Baranowski
Cast: Stephen Mangan, Mouna Hawa, Maria Zreik, Loai Nofi, Adam Bakri
Intern. Sales: Protagonist Pictures