Six Questions With Abdallah Omeish, Director Of “The War Around Us”
The film was awarded Best Documentary Feature at the Newport Film Festival this summer and Variety Arabia called it “a gripping, deeply moving chronicle of the Gaza War.” The Libyan-born director and Mohyeldin will be at the Los Angeles premiere at Barnsdall Theatre tomorrow to take questions from the audience but Omeish gave NeonTommy a few minutes of his time beforehand.
Tell me about "The War Around Us."
The film is about the only two Western journalists who covered the war. You had Ayman Mohyeldin and Sherine Tadros — Ayman was already living in Gaza and then Sherine had come in just to cover one story but a lot happened and she ended up staying. By the time the war started, she couldn’t get out. But the story chronicles the story of two best friends who were going to the war and what was happening on the ground — real testimony, real footage. The footage’s never been seen before.
You previously directed another documentary about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict called "Occupation 101." Can you talk about why you continue to return to this subject?
After the war happened, there was a complete neglect about the realities of what happened. It was almost pretty much pushed under the carpet and forgotten. And we just felt that there was a huge need for something to be done. I personally was done dealing with this type of subject but Ayman was thinking about making a film and it never got to finish. And I got involved with him to finish the film and do something about what happened. It’s very different than Occupation 101— Occupation 101 was much more factual-based, in the sense that there was a lot of experts, there was numbers, we had statistics. With “The War Around Us”, it’s very different in the sense that it’s a human story, so it’s character-driven and it’s driven by the two characters that we have in the film, Ayman and Sherine. They give you a real good sense of what happened because it’s their own personal account of what they saw and what they went through. It’s their account of what happened in Gaza, which reflects one what happened to the people as well. It’s not just their story, it’s the story of Gaza and what happened inside that many people did not see. It’s an important subject because it’s a subject that deals with everything in the region and in the world. It’s a subject that’s constantly being forgotten.
Was there a reason you decided to do it through the perspective of two journalists rather than a more traditional format?
It was important to do it through the journalists because the journalists were the witnesses and at the same time, they were Western journalists and the film was done for a Western audience. It was very important to make the film relatable to a Western audience. That’s why we chose that angle to go through the journalists. One way to talk to people about it is that, it’s an important film about a situation that happened a few years back that was completely missed by the media in the States. The other thing is that it’s an important film for students of journalism, especially people interested in conflict zones, because it’ll give a real intimate look of what it takes to do that type of work. I think it will help a lot of people decide whether it’s something they want to do or not. The thing is that the human stories that are constantly forgotten, where very often, if you hear a Palestinian side, it’s a number. Usually there’s no name. But hear you’re actually witnessing and seeing first hand what happens to ordinary people… mothers, fathers, children, just ordinary human beings, who have nothing to do with the government or the policies of the government, and yet they’re the ones that are paying the heavy price. We wanted to honor those who died, that no life should die in vain — and that was really one of the biggest motivators, really, to make this film, so that they could always be remembered and not forgotten.
You also filmed "Libya: Through the Fire" for Al-Jazeera English. As a Libyan documentary filmmaker yourself, how does the Arab Spring relate to the Palestinian struggle and in what ways did you relate your own experience as a Libyan to this film?
A lot of the times when I’m doing these films, I relate through being a human being more than my nationality or where I’m from. I think it’s something that resonates with me as a human being and I always felt that the issue of the Palestinians was a very important issue because it’s an issue that can be relatable to any person, anybody who wants freedom. There’s no human being out there who does not want to have freedom.
I think’s it’s related to the Arab Spring, except [the Palestinians] are dealing with something much more complicated in the long-term. They’re not fighting a dictator amongst their own, they’re fighting a dictator from the outside, so their situation is a bit different than Arab countries. They’re actually occupied; they’ve been occupied for a very long time At the same time, the way the world is viewing the Palestinian struggle is not a struggle for self-determination or freedom. They’re looking at it as two equal sides and that they’re fighting each other, which is completely incorrect. But the way the world is viewing the Palestinian struggle is very different from the Arab Spring. I think once people maybe realize that the Palestinians’ fight is the same as every other Arab country — which is the right for freedom and democracy — and I think once they’re being looked at this way, it will change for them. I think films like this really give people a sense of what it’s like to be a Palestinian and [they have] the same needs and wants as everybody else. It’s an important film to show and to humanize the Palestinians to the West. They’re just like everybody else. They’re constantly being demonized in mainstream media and they don’t have proper representation in their own government to give them a better life.
What do you feel are your responsibilities as a war journalist?
My responsibilities as a filmmaker is to show the truth, the truth the way that I see it, and the truth the way that it’s there, in front of me, the way it’s being represented to me. What’s happening in Gaza, what’s been happening in Gaza is a reality. These are real people, real issues. I feel like, through documentaries, you’re telling a story but at the same time, you’re being a journalist. You’re giving people a sense of what it’s like to be in those conditions and those situations. I think it’s an important role… Experiencing the Arab Spring myself, firsthand, gave me an insight of the great need of people [for freedom]. It’s a God-given right, and no one has the right to take it away from you.
Your film premiered at the Newport Beach Film Festival this summer--what was the response to the film?
We’ve gotten such positive reviews, very strong reviews for the film. People’s reactions have been great. It’s been a lot more than I expected personally. We’re very happy with the response we’ve been getting.
Reach Staff Reporter Tasbeeh Herwees here.