Mohamed Jabaly spent the 51 days of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict following the crew of an ambulance. We caught up with him at Sheffield Doc/Fest to talk about his film, Ambulance, and the outreach project he had brought with him to Sheffield.
When the film begins you are already in the process of making a film at the hospital. How did you get into filmmaking in the first place?
I was working as a filmmaker, making short films and working as a photographer. The hospital got in touch and asked me to make a promotional film, to show their work, surgery and stuff like that. After that I continued photographing activities in the hospital, but nothing to do with the ambulance unit yet. When the 51 days of attacks in Gaza started, I said to them that I wanted to be part of the ambulance unit. I hadn’t met them yet.
Filmmaking was self-taught. I was interested in art and graffiti; I was doing graffiti all the time in Gaza. I was interested in photography. I bought my first professional camera in 2011, I saved up for it. I did many short films about daily life in Gaza, showing the beautiful side of the city.
Early on in the film you say ‘clinging to my camera made me feel safe’. Is there an element of protection offered by documentary, because you’re showing something important?
Yes. The camera is really connected to me. The first morning when I woke up my camera was on the sofa and first thing I picked it up without thinking. I didn’t understand what was happening in the house. My family were all there; family members had come to us for shelter. My hand just took it because it was the thing closest to me. That’s what you do; you take the thing closest to you. That’s why I clung to my camera; it was a kind of hug.
At one point you say ‘the reason does not matter’. Did you deliberately distance yourself from the controversy as a way of highlighting the suffering of normal people?
It was really hard to make it a personal thing, connected to the people and just to the people. When you say ‘Gaza’ it’s full of politics. I tried to focus on the human perspective, on the people, on my personal story, on the story of the ambulance, me being with the ambulance unit trying to save people. That was the main goal, just to go and help, without any other stuff to think about.
You also say ‘it was the first time I’d witnessed a massacre this close’. Do you become desensitised to it all? I’m thinking specifically of the moment when you see a fragment of bone on the floor of the ambulance. Do you have to force yourself to ignore the horrors around you?
Usually when we are in situations like this, we don’t see it up close. We also see it on television, from the press’ perspective. So really it was the first massacre I had witnessed like this, this bloody. To see the bone on the floor was really like ‘whaaaaat?!’. I was asking some questions, which aren’t in the film, like ‘should we bring it back to him? What should we do with it?!’. We were all standing looking down at it and it’s a fucking body part! It was not a cool thing to see.
Does the fact that you are documenting events where you live affect your focus? Was it hard to be objective?
Generally I film everything. What my camera was capturing or seeing was like the moment, what I witnessed. When I was recording I was recording real life. I was seeing it. Without knowing what was going to happen next.
I was sure I was going to make a film from this but I didn’t know when, where or how. My destiny brought me here, to start post-production in Europe. I was invited to Norway for something else, not for the film. Then when I got stuck and couldn’t go back, I started working on it.
Obviously we see you with the ambulance but outside of that were you constantly afraid? How did life carry on?
I was thinking of many things. I was thinking of my family. I was thinking of how I was putting my life in danger. I was thinking whether I should be filming or with the ambulance unit or with my family, who were calling me all the time. It was not an easy situation to be in.
When you were filming, what was the ratio of positive to negative reactions? There are some bits at the start where you’re asking questions and the guys are saying ‘yeah, not now…’
These guys were local. We are tired of politics. We have grown tired of everything connected to the situation. So when you ask us ‘what do you think about what’s happening?’, we will answer with something far away from what you are asking. It’s something that we don’t want to talk about. Sometimes when you ask them ‘what do you think?’ they will say ‘oh, we’re gonna be fine’. They put humour on it. It isn’t just war – when I was with the ambulance unit we had a great time together! We made a lot of jokes, had fun, even in these circumstances. We didn’t choose to be under this, so we just had time to live the moment, even if it was dangerous. That’s how we survive usually, we just keep positive.
You mention in the film about not telling your family what you were doing. How long did you hide it from your family?
Oh my god, every time I hear this question I get chills! My family knew I was at the hospital, they didn’t know I was out with the ambulance unit. The ambulance came to pick me up from my home and I told my family that they just came to take us to the hospital, just for transportation. One day the ambulance was okay, you see the glass is fine, but the second day it was smashed. I called [ambulance driver] Abu Marzoud and I told him ‘if my father asks you about this please say something like somebody threw a stone or something’. I was lying all the time. It was not good but it was the only way to make them feel that I was okay, not to worry. After the war ended I told them I had been doing this. They haven’t seen much material. I want them to be with people when they see it, to be with me.
At one point, watching refugees leaving their homes, you say that you started crying and had to turn the camera off. Why was it this particularly which broke you?
I said in the voiceover that I saw blood, I saw destruction, I saw many things but this was the day I got truly affected, and tired. To see a little boy with his mother, without shoes, walking…they just want to live without…You feel like your brain stops. This huge amount of people just trying to survive, to be in a safe place. I mean, the place you feel safest is your home but at this moment your house or your home is not safe. They try to go to a place where they feel safe. This really touched me a lot. And because it’s my neighbourhood, I see my people flooding from there…it was too much. My nerve went, I was really shaking. I told Marzoud I just wanted to go home, I didn’t want to do anything. At that moment I turned off my camera and I went home.
There is one scene where you film people taking selfies in front of the rubble. Do you think there are rules about what you can and cannot film? Should there be?
There are no rules in our case, it’s open. I love taking selfies. I take selfies a lot. It captures me in a moment, like what the journalists are doing. It’s a part of life. Even if it was destruction, it’s a part of our life also to have a memory of ourselves by taking selfies. I found it positive.
You say how people are kind of bored of the politics, but was it hard at times not to get angry? You said you got sad seeing people leaving their homes but did you also get…
Angry, yeah. You get angry. Everything around you makes you angry. Why do we have to be in a war and then a war again? Why? We just want to live like anybody in this world, without war. It could be anywhere but my case, this situation, was in Gaza, connected to a long story and history. Normally we try to put the politics away. In our daily life if we kept talking about this we would go super mentally crazy! So we just stop talking about it and we keep going and that’s it.
Where did the idea come from for the tie-in live Skyping sessions with people in Gaza? I did it myself and it was kind of crazy…
We are working on an outreach project with the film. The ambulance installation was one of our ideas, to make conversations and connections with dialogue. The idea came from us, the production team, and for me this is also my mission, being here, to show how we live, how my friends, my people, live in this time. We tried to make it more connected to real life, as you saw.
Do you have any new projects that you are working on at the moment?
At the moment I am working on outreach with the film, but I have in my pocket a new project, a new documentary, connected to Gaza, for a guy who is also living outside Gaza. He sought asylum in Norway and he became a friend of mine and said ‘Mohamed, we have to do something’. At the start of filming he didn’t have his residency. I have been following him for nine months trying to make a film of his story…and also my story, to open it up, of being outside and stuck. I chose a way [to get out] as an artist and he chose to seek asylum. Hopefully I will find the rights things to tell.