May Odeh’s Diaries: Celebration, Beauty and Transcendence

 Nezar Andary | Jadaliyya | Aug 1, 2011

[Screenshot from Diaries. IMage from Unknown Archive]
[Screenshot from Diaries. Image from Unknown Archive]

In the concluding voice over of Diaries, May Odeh declares, “It is difficult to allow occupation and political factions to steal away the last breath of the people who live tomorrow.” Her poignant film breathes more life into a Palestinians that will live tomorrow and will not only survive all the destructive forces on Gaza, but will inspire us on many levels. In fact, after finishing her film, my mood was celebratory in the same way I feel about the creative activism taking places all over the Arab world.

There is irony in the word celebration as Gaza still lives under siege; however the characters we encounter in this film show that there is light at the end of tunnel. In Diaries, in the beginning second sequence and ending of the film, we journey through Gaza’s tunnels and we see the light at the end of the tunnel that the camera does not pass through. May Odeh’s creative documentary film expresses this light in sound and image, in the diaries of three women living in Gaza and her own diary of her journey in Gaza.

May’s voice over begins the film with the screen barely seeing her face. She comments on the dire situation of Gaza’s 1000-day plus siege, but the film moves to her own narration of visiting Gaza. The film is in fact also May Odeh’s diary of her first visit in Gaza. For her whole life, Gaza has been physically off limits. We know the reasons too well and are reminded of them everyday as Gaza and all of Palestine is not allowed to breath through Israeli policies. She herself in the process of the filmmaking was unable to return to her university in Norway. Too many times, when the director narrates a documentary we are trapped in an ego or sense the voice over is taking over the film. May Odeh must be congratulated because her voice over narration throughout the film is not only balanced, but also her humility shines.

May Odeh’s Diaries encounters and frames the lives of three inspiring women in Gaza: Safa Joudeh, Asma Shaker, and Asma al-Ghoul. Diaries, however, is not just their story obviously. Diaries jumps out of reportage through a talented mix of voice over and shot making of May Odeh. At first I questioned the simple title of “diaries.” Why not Diaries of Gaza Women? However, as viewers experience this film, it transcends just being that typical political documentary about Gaza. This is not to push this film as the clichéd term “universal,” but there are many new aspects in this film that allowed me to accept the title at the end.

To make a documentary on Palestine or more specifically on Gaza is not an easy task. Will the filmmaker become too ideological and just create a political diatribe that we agree with? Or will the director express a new vision that demands we see it. There have been many films on Gaza in the last decade. The two most well known in the U.S., James Longley’s Gaza Strip and James Miller’s Death in Gaza, have screened all over the world, on TV, and in many university classes. There are many documentaries about Palestine both in terms of TV Reportage and creative documentary. What distinguishes this film therefore? After watching the film twice, May Odeh’s Diaries discovers beauty in Gaza on so many levels.

To write beauty seems cliché and again ironic in what is described as the densest place on earth, or people commonly say Gaza is a sardine can. From the very beginning of the film, she tells us in the beginning that the images of Gaza she knew were a city pictured as hell. And yet she unravels a whole series of images that portray a bustling and beautiful city. We sense the uncanny in Diaries as we do witness the rumbles of Israeli bombing, but they are juxtaposed with city resisting with life. In fact, the word beautiful repeats itself in her first “diary” of Safa Joudeh. Safa, a journalist for Manara TV, represents how Gazans are not only thriving but surviving. Even in the midst of Israeli bombardment, Safa’s diary (in voice over) finds beauty in the stars in the exact moments Israeli warplanes were overhead.

Safa’s life as with two other women being discovered in the film is shot and structure not just to tell a story. May Odeh’s film clearly has ‘great storytelling.’ Storytelling however, has become an overused expression to judge filmmaking. What is more important for documentary film in my opinion is the structure of perception that a director creates and not just a typical Hollywood dramatic structure. The three sections of Diaries are not just three stories about three amazing women in Gaza, but through the aesthetics of documentary film, Diaries expresses human condition in an intricate fashion where we discover the beauty of these three women almost in the same way possibly that the director did.

May Odeh’s camera does have a strategy in capturing the beauty of Gaza. It is not just in how she films the destruction of parts of the city, but how she frames the families of her characters. What struck me as important was the sense of inclusion in her frame. In all her characters, we do not feel like the camera is ‘zooming’ in on a stereotypical hero, but what evolves are shots that richly contextualize these three women.

The other two characters, Asma Shaker and Asma al-Ghoul differ from Safa and that is also another strength of the this film. Too many times in documentary films, we just see repetitive sequences of the same types  and yet Diaries brings out differences between the three women that May Odeh knew before the filmmaking (virtually and also from university). Indeed, as the film progresses we learn so much from the three women–the interconnections to this period of revolution, the collapse the political and personal, and of course the beauty of everyday life of resistance through activism and human relationships.

Transcendent characters in the world are many, but bringing this out through the art of documentary is why watching this film is necessary. Odeh’s journey into their lives also goes beyond the typical methods of portraying women’s causes. In fact, in each character, we witness not only their struggles with the siege, but we enter interior monologues about lives in their families, on the codes of dress, and philosophical gems about the harsh judgments of society.

One example of this is how Odeh confronts dress codes and society. Recently, so much of the discourse on hijab is essentialist jargon from all sides, but Diaries accomplish what so few have done. Each woman has developed specific philosophies about their choices and clothes that transcends much of the debates we hear when the hijab is just a sign of Islam or some part of political ideologies like in France. Her characters comments When so much information about Arab women is patronizing or presented in a rescue narrative, May Odeh’s film reverses this trajectory in the sense that viewers are rescued by the intelligence, passion, and perseverance of all three women characters.

As I a good film editor, I am withholding information. To review a film that has just been finished and to be sincerely impressed with the aesthetics and ethics of its documentary art demands that I ask all those that read my review to screen this film at their universities, in film festivals, and to push its distribution. Documentary films like May Odeh’s Diaries, do not just go on the shelves of your corporate bookstores or to Amazon’s shopping carts. Like the activists in her films, we need to make sure they are seen even if we have to climb through tunnels. The beauty of Gaza and its resistance demands this.

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