Open Letter to Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times
by Christine Baniewicz
A cold wind bore down College Avenue in Berkeley last week as I waited in a long line outside of the Rialto Cinema. I shivered. The queue was stuffed with middle-aged patrons for the 7 o’clock showing of a French comedy that got excellent reviews: The cultural event of the year! I was going to see Tears of Gaza instead.
My date was running late and as I drew closer to the ticket counter, the swirling words from your review knocked around inside my brain. Frustrating, poorly executed, graphic, disturbing. Six months ago I lived above the Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp, teaching a theatre course to Palestinian actors. My love for those students and their work burns like a blue flame down the center of my chest…
But I don’t live there anymore. Now I live in Oakland, working 40 hours a week at a manufacturing company in San Leandro and when I clock out, I want to see something beautiful, affirming, well-made. Especially when I’m slapping down $10.50 for it at an art-house cinema.
My stomach rumbles. Across the street, Holy Land Café tosses the scent of falafel into the air and it mixes with the greasy dinnertime stew of odors from other restaurants down the street. Stomach-turning footage, you whisper. My date arrives in a clicking whir of bicycle and I greet her with a startled hug. This is only our second night out, and as we stand together in the wind your words suddenly bubble up inside my throat.
“It’s pretty graphic,” I say. Almost unendurably graphic.
“Yeah, I figured.” We giggle, my anxiety ratcheting up and I glance at the movie poster, emblazoned with the tears of a Palestinian child. I’m going to cry I’m going to cry inside the theater. The prospect of weeping next to this stylish, attractive woman is almost unendurably embarrassing.
I look at my feet. “Yeah, so, if you’d rather see something else…” And there it is, the decision plonked into her arms like a pile of wet towels.
We’re next in line. My stomach is tense, and my date shrugs.
So I bought two tickets for the French show, Kenneth. We watched it with our sneakers on the railing and laughed the whole way through. It was a very well-made film.
* * *
‘The frustrating Tears of Gaza leaves too much unsaid,’ you write.
Here are some things I said to my date as we crossed the carpet inside the Rialto Cinema lobby. The things I didn’t say follow in parenthesis:
“I mean, I lived there for three months, you know?” (I’ve done my part.)
“I don’t need to be ‘galvanized into action’ at this point–” (I don’t need to howl beside you, face splotched and purple as I see my students’ eyes on every bleeding child.)
“It’s not like I won’t watch it eventually.” (As punishment, alone on my laptop in bed.)
Right, right, totally¸ she said.
“I’m just too exhausted for it, you know? Thanks for understanding.”
No problem, she smiled.
“I think we’re upstairs, to the right.”
(I feel like shit.)
* * *
Here are some things you said about Tears of Gaza:
“Tears of Gaza is both horrifying and frustrating.”
“Lokkeberg [the director] takes pains to include footage of Israeli warships, drones and helicopters, carefully edited in to magnify the sense of omnipotent menace.”
“Whether military actions like these are excusable or not, if you decide that your mission is so noble that you don’t even have to make an attempt to present Israel’s rationale, you are creating one-sided propaganda whether you know it or not. And if you are making propaganda … you are not the vanguard of the solution but an integral part of the problem.”
You didn’t say this:
(I felt horrified and frustrated watching Tears of Gaza.)
(Images of Israeli warships, drones and helicopters scared me.)
(Actions like these [shooting children in the head, exploding family homes, raining tear gas on civilians] are never excusable. There are no excuses, no political context or possible rationale that could imaginably underpin the basic irrationality of this violence, but Israel must have had a good reason, right? They must have, because otherwise – fuck.)
(This movie made me feel like shit.)
* * *
I’m writing to you, Kenneth, because your review and my behavior at the Rialto Cinema are integral parts of the problem in Israel/Palestine. It’s why we both felt so scared and embarrassed: Tears of Gaza implicates us. Our tax dollars soar and whistle through the Middle Eastern sky, funding the phosphorus burns across that little girl’s body, and what do we do? We giggle and evade, clam up and rationalize and critique and on-the-one-hand until there are no hands left — which is good, because without them we might not have to feel the texture of our own complicity in the 2008 attacks on Gaza.
But Tears of Gaza takes your hand and places it firmly against the twisted scars of Palestine, brushing your fingertips against the wound until you feel it. It feels almost unendurably painful.
The problem’s not the movie, Kenneth, and it’s frustrating void of context. The problem is us. We are the context. Our squirming, mewling aversion of eyes, our ignorance and indignation at being roused to feel — this is the only context in which the violent reality of Gaza makes any sense. Only in a world where the United States of America is peopled by folks like you and I could such an atrocity happen with so little said about it.
* * *
I’m also writing to tell you that we are the vanguards of the solution — or at least, we carry the little flickering tongues of it inside our hearts. The trick is not to hide the fire but to expose it, let it consume us until our defenses melt away enough to feel the stomach-turning burn of our own responsibility.
I should have shown my date the blue flame inside my chest, told her how much I love my students and friends in Palestine, how often I vibrate at my desk with a silent scream of fear for their lives. I should have wept and whinnied and keened, but instead I swallowed and swaggered; I snuffed the pilot light of my spirit, which is the only meaningful light we have to shine against the darkness of this situation, Kenneth.
* * *
I watched the film two nights ago at my dining room table, knees curled up into my chest and trembling. I stared into the shining eyes of children you call traumatized as they describe the futures they imagine for themselves in law and medicine. They hold their tremendous grief with a steady gentleness you and I would do well to imitate. The light pouring out of their shattered spirits waters my eyes.
And I agree with you, ultimately — the film leaves too much unsaid. Like most powerful movies, it shows more than tells; it evokes and ignites. If you are looking for a meaningful light to cast on the situation in Gaza, I suggest you turn to the hot glow emanating from the words of your own review. It burns brightest in this line:
“Watching these situations without being upset at the horror of it all is simply not possible.”
Feel your horror, Kenneth; direct your frustration at its source in our bureaucracy and fearful, disillusioned leaders — not at the films that wake you to its reality — because our job as writers is to feel angry, and responsible, and to say the things that Tears of Gaza doesn’t:
The civilian cost of the military occupation of Palestine is inhumane and unendurably high. It must end.
Christine Baniewicz is a writer, composer and facilitator of community-engaged theatre. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Theatre Studies from Louisiana State University, and leads applied theatre workshops around the world as an associate artist with the traveling theatre-arts organization, ImaginAction. Christine lives in Oakland, CA.