On a warm summer night, the sound of laughter and applause fills the air as a crowd of Palestinians watch a movie on a makeshift screen on the beach. They are enjoying a rare treat: a seaside cinema that offers them a brief escape from the hardships of life in the Gaza Strip.
The cinema is hosted by “The Sea is Ours” cafe, which has been screening a selection of films, including the animated comedy “Ferdinand”, for several weeks. The cafe owner, Ali Mhana, is a local playwright who wanted to bring some entertainment and culture to his people.
“I hope one day there will be a cinema, so I can go to the cinema and eat popcorn,” says Mohammad Zidan, 13, who has never been to a regular cinema in his life. He is one of many children who are drawn to the beachfront event by the sound and image of the movies.
Gaza, home to about 2.3 million people, has been under an Israeli-imposed blockade since 2007. The blockade has severely restricted the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, creating a humanitarian crisis that has left many residents struggling with poverty, unemployment, power cuts and water shortages.
Cinema once flourished in Gaza, with Palestinians flocking to see Arab, Western and Asian films, but the movie houses were torched in the First Intifada in 1987 and then burned down again in 1996. The last cinema, long abandoned, is now a haven for bats.
While Gazans have been able to go to occasional movie screenings at theatres and other venues, such a full bill of films at the seaside venue is a rare opportunity for them to enjoy some relaxation and fun.
Mhana says he chose films that would inspire people and make them happy. He also hopes that the seaside cinema would help break the stereotypes and negative images that many outsiders have of Gaza.
“We want to show that Gaza is not only about war and destruction, but also about life and creativity,” he says.
The seaside cinema is part of a larger festival that celebrates Palestinian filmmakers and provides a respite from the summer heat. Over the summer, “Cinema of the Sea” screened some 15 films — many of them with Palestinian actors or producers — on the waterfront in the blockaded coastal enclave.
One of the films that was allowed to be shown was “Farha”, a drama based on the true story of a Palestinian girl who was raped and killed by her father and brothers in an honour killing in 1949.
The seaside cinema was a rare opportunity for Gazans to enjoy some entertainment and relaxation amid the hardships of living under Israeli blockade. But it also highlighted their longing for more freedom and normalcy in their lives.
As one viewer put it: “We want to live like other people in the world.”