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Monday, February 03, 2003

Killer Kids
This weekend I saw a couple of movies set in places where life is worth very little: City of God and Gaza Strip. The first, a Brazilian movie set in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, is based on a true story—the 1970s gang war between Li’l Zé and Carrot—and the other is a documentary about life in the Gaza Strip, filmed in 2001.

City of God is a great film—and since I was able to watch it without hiding my face from the unrelenting violence, I guess I was right in thinking that what made it hard for me to watch Gangs of New York was all that knife-play. By focusing on kids—who move seamlessly from playing soccer to robbing gas trucks—the movie centers on the point where they can decide between a life of crime and the path of righteousness.

Violence—bullets to the head at point-blank range, not school-bags at 10 paces—comes as naturally to these kids as eating. In some ways it’s work—you can either bust your hump for pocket change or shoot your way into the drug business—but it’s also how you show your smarts. The quick and clever way to win is to kill your rivals, and there’s no reason to get sentimental—if hoods aren’t killed by other hoods, the chances are the police will gun them down with little or no provocation. And besides, if you don’t kill them, they might kill you.

Although the movie’s narrator/protagonist, Rocket, is a little hard to believe (he dreams of becoming a famous newspaper photographer, and sure enough the crime wars in the City of God provide him with an opportunity), most of the characters really existed. In the final credits, shots of the actors are placed alongside photographs of the real hoods, and an entire scene from the movie is shown to be an exact reproduction of an actual event; we know because we see the real thing.

Gaza Strip is real contemporary horror: Director James Longley took his camera to the Gaza Strip in January 2001 and spent three months following the lives of people—mostly kids—he met there.

It’s a very effective way of showing what’s going on. Most of the time it appears as if Longley was standing in the street (the bare squares and refugee camps of Gaza bear an uncanny resemblance to City of God’s favelas) when shots or bombs or gas attacks would suddenly rain down. One of the most shocking segments is a series of interviews with young people who found themselves in the middle of a gas attack. The Israeli government claims it was tear gas, but the hypertonic spasms it set off look more like the effects of nerve gas. (The movie returns to hospital emergency rooms several times—a shocking and effective place to shoot.)

The kid who speaks the most is a 13-year-old illiterate newspaper vendor from Gaza City called Mohammed. At times he’s astonishingly articulate, at others he spouts empty slogans about martyrdom and homeland. A review of the movie in the Seattle Weekly complained that “Little Mohammed is little more than a puppet, a robot programmed to weep for his slain buddies and mumble rote phrases about wanting to be a martyr,” but given his biography—about 18 months of school and little to do but hawk his papers, hang out with his friends, and throw stones at Israelis—it would be hard for him to escape his programming. Besides, he expresses himself so well, he’s more than a robot, he’s an extraordinary kid.

The thing that makes Gaza Strip unique is its unerring focus on the strip’s residents. We’re told that Israelis have blocked the borders, we hear them shooting at the kids throwing stones at the crossings, and we hear them bulldozing buildings and see the rubble they create, but we never see their faces or hear from them directly. It isn’t fair, but it’s not meant to be. No one is blameless—the rocks the kids are chucking could kill the Israelis on the other side, and I didn’t doubt the sincerity of their desire for martyrdom (the wisdom is another thing); in those life circumstances, Paradise beckons quite temptingly.

One thing that didn’t go down so well was the haranguing tone of the representative from Arab Film Distribution who spoke to the Little Theatre's jam-packed crowd at the film’s end. He said the Weekly’s reviewer had no right to express his opinion of the film; racist expressions like that shouldn’t be allowed, the guy said. There’s no doubt that the Israeli government shapes Western perceptions of the situation in the occupied territories, and there’s no doubt that information about what goes on there is controlled and repackaged for external consumption, but restricting the free press in the United States isn’t the way to gain sympathy for the injustices there. In fact, that attitude is part of the problem.