…suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East… And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.
– George Orwell, Shooting an elephant, 1948
Directors Alberto Arce and Mohammad Rujailah document an important and very recent chapter in the history of imperialism in the Middle East with the courageous film, To Shoot and Elephant, a documentary that has been made freely available to the public through a Creative Commons License. It is an inside account of the 2008/2009 Israeli invasion of Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, which killed approximately 1400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.
This is not an easy film to watch. You will see children die in a Palestinian hospital, their bodies wrapped in sheets and carried to the morgue; you will see a civilian man hit in the face by shrapnel; you will see a paramedic, trying to move a dead body from the street, fired on and wounded by Israeli soldiers.
An overwhelming number of the dead and injured are children. In its 2009 report on Operation Cast Lead, Amnesty Internal wrote, “Disturbing questions remain unanswered as to why such high-precision weapons, whose operators can see even small details of their targets and which can accurately strike even fast moving vehicles, killed so many children and other civilians.” Similar concerns were raised by the 2009 United Nations report.
To Shoot an Elephant is a first-hand account that confirms many of these human rights abuses did indeed occur. These include attacks on hospitals, schools, and civilian residences, and the use of white phosphorous – a particularly barbarous weapon that creates a powerful flame that is almost impossible to extinguish and sticks to the skin, causing second and third degree burns.
Filmmakers Arce and Rujailah do not pretend to represent all sides, and in fact, such an effort would probably have proven impossible, since Israel prohibited most humanitarian organizations from observing the conflict. Instead, the filmmakers made the choice to embed themselves with paramedics for the duration of the invasion.
Arce writes in his film introduction, “We decided that civilians working for the rescue of the injured would give us a far more honest perspective of the situation than those whose job is to shoot, to injure and to kill.”
Co-director, Mohammad Rujailah, also appears in the film as the “fixer.” He is the 24 year-old Palestinian insider who gives the film crew access to families and acts as translator. In the film’s early scenes, he declares that the Israel/Palestine conflict is an internal problem. By the film’s end, after an international aid warehouse has been bombed by Israel, effectively torching millions of dollars worth of medicine, blankets, and other provisions, his opinion has changed. His anger is no longer focused solely on Israel; its scope broadens to the “International Community” that remains silent as its aid money goes up in flames.
I had expected to see a highly militarized society under siege in Gaza, but what emerges instead is a portrait of a long-suffering and stoic people. While many Gazans are clearly overwhelmed by grief – there is one scene in which bereaved women say that death is the only thing they look forward to – other scenes show the courage of the people in retaining some semblance of life, as they tell jokes, prepare food, and take care of each other.
It is perhaps in these moments that the film’s true power lies, as it becomes not just a document of suffering, but a testimony to the strength of spirit in the Palestinian people. The film offers a glimpse of Gaza under the more “normal” conditions that prevail even outside of war. For instance, it struck me, as a Westerner, to see an ostensibly urban area nevertheless relying on donkeys as a means of transportation.
To Shoot an Elephant is an unflinching film. It is difficult to watch through to the end without feeling a deep contempt for the feckless and cowardly western governments, including the Canadian government, that supported Israel unwaveringly throughout this humanitarian catastrophe.
You can watch this film in its entirety for free at the film’s official site.