Surfing For Your Life In The Middle East

A few words with directors Philip Gnadt and Mickey Yamine on their documentary, "Gaza Surf Club"

Gaza Surf Club, a new documentary by Philip Gnadt and Mickey Yamine, explores the lives of Gazans who’ve been greatly affected by surfing and surf culture, despite it being difficult to pursue in their embattled territory on the Mediterranean Sea, a place where waves are scarce, surfboards non-existent, and materials to build boards nearly unattainable. Not to mention that Gaza is one of the most impoverished places in the world, and it’s controlled by Hamas, which makes life beyond Gaza’s borders only a pipe dream for its people. But in the end, and in the face of so many hardships, the story of the GSC is a story of hope, and it’s further proof that surfing can be a savior for many people, even in the worn-torn Middle East. We spoke with Gnadt and Yamine about the inspiration for the documentary, the difficulties in making it, and the message they hope to convey to the film’s audience.

How did you first hear about this small group of surfers in the Gaza Strip? What inspired you to tell their story?

Philip Gnadt: The interest in the subject came more from an interest in the region, more precisely through a friend I met in Stuttgart [Germany] who was born and raised in Gaza. He gave me an insight into Gaza from a very different perspective, beyond what you see and read in the news.

Most of us are painfully familiar with the “Gaza topic” when it flares up in the news. We’ve all seen the same shaky news clips of the conflict, of bombed-out houses, of helicopter gunships, and masked fighters, over and over. My friend told me more about what life was like between wars, and it was refreshing to hear something other than “occupation” and “terrorism” for a change. I started doing some reading and research, but you keep ending up with the same depressing feeling, because of course, nobody really has a solution.

Eventually, I stumbled upon an article about surfers in Gaza and I immediately thought: that’s new. My friend from Gaza had never heard of them either, but I was intrigued by the powerful imagery. Surfing is a sport that stands for personal freedom, while in the stark contrast of Gaza’s backdrop, and being one of the most isolated and desolated countries in the world. I started doing more and more research and eventually got in contact with the guys there.

As I don’t speak Arabic, I started looking for someone who could help me out with the language, the culture, and who preferably was also a producer. I was introduced to Mickey, who grew up in Cairo and who immediately liked the topic. From then on, we developed the film together.

“During the war I feared more for the boards than for my children,” joked Abu Jayab in the film. “You can make another child, but you cannot make another board.” Did you expect to find such strong love for surfing in Gaza?

Mickey Yamine: That particular quote is quite insightful, because I know he meant it as a joke, but there is, of course, a sad truth to it. Equipment is pretty hard to come by in Gaza, if not impossible. Surf gear is only available when donated and imported by journalists or activists. Matthew Olsen, who at the time lived in Hawaii and is a protagonist in the film, is instrumental in this story. His organization, Explore Corps, is also the driving force behind the idea of the club. Over the years, together with surfing legend Dorian Paskowitz and Tel Aviv-based surfer Arthur Rashkovan, they brought in the vast majority of boards that the surfers in Gaza use.

When you live in such a densely populated region, with virtually no means for travel, often sharing an apartment with several siblings and varying family members, the peace and solitude of a wave quickly becomes an escape. Of course the waves in Gaza can’t be compared with other surf spots in the world, but as with so many other things, they make do with what they can get.

How long did you work on this film, and what was the most difficult part in making it?

Philip: The whole process, from its inception until its release, was almost five years. It’s hard to tell which part was more difficult. I would say it was always the next big, unknown step. In the beginning, I guess, was the first contact with the surfers. Later, the challenge of all the red tape, getting the relevant permits, crossing borders…even during editing, it was hard to find the worthy storyline that made the film what it is now.

Being German, the prospect of spending six weeks inside Gaza without a cold beer at the end of the day is not a challenge one can take lightly. Alcohol is verboten and impossible to come by, but we learned to appreciate the placebo effect of a Dutch non-alcoholic beer that must have caused a significant spike in their sales during our stay.

The film follows three main characters: Abu Jayab, the eldest of the Gaza Surf Club clan; Ibrahim, the 23-year-old dreamer with big aspirations; and Sabah, the young girl forced to stop surfing due to social stigmas. Now that the movie is out, how do you hope it might impact each of their lives?

Mickey: We’re actually hoping that the world will take notice and understand the human suffering that takes place there. Perhaps some of the feedback that gets generated by this documentary will impact positively (even in a small way) the lives of these urban heroes and heroines living in the Gaza Strip.

What was the reaction to the film at TIFF (the Toronto International Film Festival)?

Philip: It was an amazing opportunity for us to launch the film there. We had screenings with up to 500 people in a single theatre, which is insane, especially for a small documentary with our credentials. We also got lucky with some really great international reviews and subsequent film festival invitations from around the world.

This film boils surfing down to its single greatest attribute: that it can bring hope to anybody, no matter the situation. As Ibrahim says in the film: “Without the beach, Gaza is nothing.” What else do you hope Gaza Surf Club brings to viewers in the western world?

Mickey: One thing we’re hoping to convey is that Gaza is not just what the media shows us. With all the dreadful news this political conflict regularly generates, I believe it’s important to bear in mind the kind of everyday life these people really have, while trying to maintain some normalcy.

Maybe try to picture a Palestinian kid sitting on a donated surfboard, waiting for the swell of a wave to give him or her a brief moment of that exhilarating feel of freedom, so taken for granted by the rest of us.

[To view the film, visit SundanceNow.com]