Plot: A 40-something fisherman in Gaza who has never been married catches an Apollo statue by pure chance. The statue, of this Greek God who looks aroused, awakens the man’s inner desires and sends him on a journey of self actualization.
One of the best films from the Middle East this year, Arab and Tarzan Nasser’s GAZA MON AMOUR is the breath of fresh air that Arab, and particularly Palestinian cinema, needs right now. Funny, heartfelt and perfectly realized, the film holds strong potential for crossover appeal and, if submitted, can be a strong Oscar contender for Palestine at the 2021 Academy Awards.
Rare are those films that manage to be both droll and touching, but GAZA MON AMOUR thanks to one of the best central performances at TIFF by Salim Daw as Issa, the film’s protagonist and a smart, piercing and brutally honest screenplay by the Nasser brothers who were both inspired by their own father’s larger-than-life personality and dedicated the film to his soul. An unexpected entry which comes at a time where much of Middle Eastern cinema has plunged into political miserablism, GAZA sings a completely different tune, yet never forgets the political backdrop against which the action unfolds.
Issa (Daw) is a 40-something bachelor who has succumbed to a monotonous lifestyle. Not the kind of man who strikes you as mid-life crisis material, he seems to have accepted his choices in life, particularly that of remaining single. His sister (Succession‘s Hiam Abbass), who has long pushed him to get married, has almost given up on him. For a while, Issa’s life was a miniature version of the lives of millions of Palestinians who, amidst all the bombings, raids and constant turmoil, seem as though they forgot how and why to live. Walking like ghosts and struggling to smile, their traumatic past has given them no room for optimism. When despair takes over, what’s even the point anymore?
Such is the life of Issa, just like his neighbors, family and friends – except many consider him lucky to be bearing no responsibilities of parenthood and marriage. To them, he is free despite being a 40-year-old virgin but such freedom is relative. Everything changes one fateful night when Issa goes fishing -within the limited radius Gazans are allowed to fish in under the Israeli occupation – and finds a statue of Apollo. It’s not an ordinary statue though, as his organs look aroused. The sexual nature, and of course its value as an antic, take Issa on an unexpected journey full of heart and laughs.
What makes GAZA MON AMOUR truly refreshing is the way it brilliantly handles the Arab, and Palestinian psyche. There are millions of people in the Middle East who have simply forgot how to be happy. While political turmoil certainly has killed their hopes for a better future, GAZA argues that despair can be as nurtured as much as it is caused: when one gives in to the idea that all has been lost, being alive becomes an automatic, by-default state of survival, rather than a defiant attempt to still appreciate the small joys of life which, yes include love and sexual intimacy.
Acknowledging how sex has long been a taboo in a conservative region such as the Middle East, Apollo serves as a fantastic metaphor to the self-induced sexual oppression that many in the region choose to impose on themselves as part of their social conformity, particularly as they age and are expected to maintain a dignified image of themselves in societies that believe that lust, love and physical desires have an expiration date. GAZA shatters such notions with humor and heart, and when Issa’s journey comes full circle, it’s such a joy to watch.
Verdict: Bold, innovative and brilliantly blending humor and heart, GAZA MON AMOUR is one of the best Middle Eastern films of the year and one of the Best Palestinian films in a long time. A piercing examination of the Arab psyche and its adherence to social conformity, the film offers an important call to truly love and live life to its fullest. As long as the heart is beating, it still can – and should – do much more than simply keep us alive.
This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival.