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Obliterated Families: Bringing the audience closer to the reality of life in Gaza

In All posts, Interviews by Jess Linington

Recently released, Obliterated Families is an interactive documentary that draws attention to the families from Gaza whose lives were shattered during the Israeli offensive in 2014. Blending together striking images, in-depth text, infographics, animations and short videos, the project is designed to bring the audience closer to the reality of life for Palestinians from the Gaza Strip.

I spoke with the authors of the work – Anne Paq, member of the Activestills photocollective and Ala Qandil – who have collaborated with dozens of other media professionals over the last two years to make the project a reality. As well as taking a deep dive into the work itself, our interview explored their reasons for making Obliterated Families, the considerations for both audience and subject, and the challenges of independently producing such a complex project.

For the project, Paq met and interviewed over 50 families from different parts of the Gaza Strip, with ten stories told in-depth included in the final work; “We had met a few of those families long before we knew that we will end up producing a multimedia web doc. A lot of writing is based on the memories of those meetings from before or during the Israeli offensive. Anne has recorded dozens of interviews with survivors, detailing attacks and the life in the aftermath. But once we decided to focus on the ten families, and Ala went back to Gaza to meet with some of them again and work on their portraits, we had to make a choice.

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“Opening up in front of a camera is sometimes much more difficult for people. We did produce additional videos last summer, but most conversations took place without a camera, so as to people could feel more at ease, less guarded when they recalled the memories.”

By taking the pressure away from needing everything on video, the texts formed an essential part of the project. Anna commented: “I was very fortunate to have Ala Qandil joining me in this project. We have been working together for years. We were teaming up during the offensive itself and reporting non-stop the impact of the Israeli attacks on the Palestinians in Gaza – Ala with her writing, and me with the photographs. Even in the midst of dreadful events, Ala was always trying to bring up personal details about the persons affected. I knew that she would be the best person to write these stories because of her very sensitive and personal approach and also because she had been reporting during the summer so she had this crucial background knowledge. She also knew some of the families from the project.”

“The texts are essential because we did not want to add another dry account of the attacks.”

“The texts are essential because we did not want to add another dry account of the attacks. It was important to talk about these families in a deeper, more intimate way, to bring back some of the memories and dig into the history of the families, as well as bringing elements of contexts. We did not want the stories to be frozen at the moment of the attacks. How was the life before for these families and after? I think only strong texts were able to bring these dimensions.”

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Numbers have often been used to describe the Israeli offensive on Gaza: 51 (days), 2,200 (dead Palestinians), 500 (children killed), 11,000 (injured), 100,000 (homeless), 0.5 million (displaced). But the statistics do not reflect the loss of a loved one, the bombing of a family home, the conditions in an overcrowded UN school, the fear or the trauma that comes after the ceasefire. Obliterated Families  takes those figures and makes them human, giving an intimate tale of sudden loss, pain, and life in the aftermath.

Embarking on an independent production with a scope as big as this project requires collaborations, with Paq and Qalid turning to their network to find contributions and support where they needed it: “Many friends offered feedback, shared their ideas.   When it comes to the visuals, we were lucky to have very talented photographers and cameramen who contributed their powerful images, such as Ezz al-Zanoon, Anas Hamra and Dylan Collins. The main video editors, Dror Dayan and Michał Grosz also did a great work with the materials we had.”

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“We are not a media company, we are a reporter and a photojournalist that with help of dozens of friends independently produced this web doc.”

They also turned to family, with Claire Paq’s animations adding another dimension to the stories: “We hope to have more of them in the next chapters. The design also was a collaborative effort. We put it together with the web designer Aleksander Makowski, media artist Heidi Motola, myself and Ala Qandil.”

The fact it was an independent production also shaped the launch and distribution of the project: “We are not a media company, we are a reporter and a photojournalist that with help of dozens of friends independently produced this web doc. We had extremely limited resources. And for us the process of telling those stories is difficult too. Some of us have been working day and night for months to be ready for launch of the website on the second anniversary of the Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip. And we knew we will not manage to prepare all the ten chapters by the beginning of July.”

However it wasn’t just practical considerations that caused them to release the work in chapters. The pair thought about the audiences’ capacity to digest and reflect on these difficult stories: “Despite our best attempts to make it easier on the audience, they are difficult to watch and read, because each one of them breaks your heart, disturbs you, and we hope – doesn’t allow you to stay indifferent.

“They are difficult to watch and read, because each one of them breaks your heart, disturbs you, and we hope – doesn’t allow you to stay indifferent.”

“You read the family history, childhood memories, you start to identify with the people – imperfect, very human, and than they share with you the story of the attack that took away their family, the moments of fear, the pain of loss. It’s not only that the viewers will not be able to take in more than a chapter at a time. We actually hope that people who visit the website will take their time, read one of the stories and come back ones they had enough time to process it.

Anne continued, “So many people in the ‘west’ see what happened in Gaza with such distance, as if our governments do not have a responsibility in it, whereas it is clear that if Israel can continue its oppressive policies of occupation, colonisation and military offensive, it is because of the complicity of our governments, and the total impunity Israel enjoys for its crimes.

“So I do hope that this project will bring the audience closer to Gaza, and closer to a better understanding about what people have been through. I do hope that people will question not only Israeli actions but also their governments’ stances.  I really hope that the people will use the tools we will provide, such as the exhibitions kits to engage with their communities.

“I also hope this web documentary will echo the voices of the survivors and their calls for justice.”

“I also hope this web documentary will echo the voices of the survivors and their calls for justice. Entire families were targeted, and killed. They have to be remembered but what about justice for them ?  We need to keep calling for the perpetrators to be brought for justice. Or else our silence is just a green light for Israel to do it again.”

The impact of the work is already being felt, “We had met some of the families whose stories we tell before or during the war. One of them was the Shuheibar family. Anne Paq documented the funeral of the three children Afnan, Basel and Jihad, killed on the roof of their home while feeding the pigeons. A few months after the ceasefire, Paq returned to Gaza and met the family again. When Wissam, father of Afnan, learnt she was French, he insisted on showing her a fragment of the bomb that killed his daughter. Based on the inscriptions on the fragment, Wissam suspected it was produced in France. Anne reported it to a local human rights organization. Military experts hired by a French human rights NGO confirmed that the piece was produced by a French company Eurofarad, later acquired by Exxelia Group.

“On 29 June, the Shuheibars had a complaint submitted on their behalf against the company for their “complicity in war crimes and involuntary manslaughter”. This is the first time that a Palestinian family has attempted to file a complaint against a private company in France, and possibly in Europe, for complicity in war crimes. The chapter about the Shuheibar family will be updated with news of the French proceedings.”

The aim of this project is to grow and updates about Shuheibar family are not the only thing the pair have in mind. They are also  preparing factsheets, infographics, and a Library section with a photo gallery, a downloadable exhibition, additional interviews, and other features. Anne said: “It is always a complex issue. Of course I want to think that this work can have an impact, or else I will do something else. I consider myself as an engaged photographer ; and activist. So I always ask myself this question. I want this work to stand against the injustice that was done to the people in Gaza. This is a tribute, but also I want it to be seen as a call for action, a call against our indifference. After reading these stories, can you really  see those families as mere ‘collateral damages’?”

“I also hope this web documentary will echo the voices of the survivors and their calls for justice. Entire families were targeted, and killed. They have to be remembered but what about justice for them ?  We need to keep calling for the perpetrators to be brought for justice. Or else our silence is just a green light for Israel to do it again.”

Preceding the release of the web documentary the pair also published a short film: “Gaza: A Gaping Wound” which can also be found on the Obliterated Families site. The stories were released over the last two months, each on the anniversary of the attack on the family whose story the chapter tells. You can watch them all here:  www.obliteratedfamilies.com.