A new documentary, “Flying Paper,” takes us on a cinematic journey into the kite culture among Palestinian youth in the Gaza Strip, and their quest to shatter the Guinness World Record for the most kites ever flown.
The film will be shown at Athens International Film Festival in Ohio starting this week [Editor’s note: the article was originally published before the Festival took place. The Athens International Film and Video Festival took place between April 12 and April 18 2013].
Flying Paper tells the uplifting story of Palestinian youth in Gaza in the run-up to the world record-breaking event, showcasing the creative resilience of youth making and flying kites despite the hardship in their lives.
The feature-length documentary film was directed by Nitin Sawhney and Roger Hill, and co-produced with a team of young filmmakers in Gaza. Told through the lens of a handful of children from Jabaliya refugee camp and Seifa village, the film seeks to convey a unique, compelling narrative of life from a place that is very often misrepresented in the mainstream media.
Co-directors of Flying Paper and key members of the production team discussed the film.
Back in 2006, Nitin Sawhney, Assistant Professor of Media Studies at New School for Public Engagement, co-founded the media initiative Voices Beyond Walls (VBW) to run digital storytelling workshops with Palestinian youth in refugee camps, in the West Bank. French freelance photographer Anne Paq joined VBW in 2008. In winter 2009, Sawhney met US documentary filmmaker Roger Hill. They both wanted to shoot a film in Gaza, different in style to most documentaries on Palestine. The subject remained to be determined.
After a first trip to Gaza, Sawhney went back in summer 2010 to set up VBW youth media program in Jabaliya camp. Hill joined him as a trainer, and Paq came later to follow up with the program participants.
Sawhney and Hill felt it was necessary to produce a documentary-length film that would reach wider audiences. They had heard about a forthcoming kite festival, organized by the UN. The Guinness record-breaking attempt seemed to be an ideal cinematic story.
At the end of the youth media program, Sawhney challenged the best trainees: “If you’re really good, I want you to work with me and Roger on a new film project.” They signed on right away. Nearly a dozen youths aged 12-16 moved on to the production set, filming footage across Gaza and documenting the record-breaking festival.
The two central settings of the film are Jabaliya camp and Seifa village. Seifa sits close to Gaza’s northern border with Israel, inside the “buffer zone,” a military no-go area with watchtowers and shooting spots just meters away. Jabaliya, with the largest refugee camp in Gaza, is very densely populated.
To fill in the back-story, Sawhney and Hill looked for good kite makers as potential characters profiling the youth before, during and after the Guinness Record attempt. With the help of the UN, they found a family in Seifa.
Kite maker Musa, young charismatic leader, and his sister Widad, witty and sarcastic, are primary characters. The grandfather, Abu Ziad, village governor, also appears in the film to highlight the connection between his generation and the youth through the kite making tradition. Abeer, 19, leader among the young graduates from VBW program, is narrator and co-producer. “I enjoyed playing both roles,” she says. “I wanted to do make an impact through this film.’’
Abeer was fully involved in the making of Flying Paper, providing contextual information, conducting interviews, filming, giving feedback. “Abeer really helped to carry the film along. She has been vital on camera and behind the scenes,” Hill observes.
Paq, co-producer and photographer, worked with Abeer developing a voice narration, shooting additional segments with her and about daily life in Gaza. Based in the West Bank and often travelling to Gaza, Paq organized film showings, contributed with regular feedback, and facilitated sharing feedback from the Palestinian youth.
Video editor Ahmed Elabd and Emmy award winning editor Rafael Parra took Flying Paper through its final cut. World-acclaimed composer Nitin Sawhney, based in London, contributed with original music throughout the film. Animator Daniel Nienhuis produced animated sequences in the film.
Uzma Hasan, London-based independent producer, came on board last September. Hasan joined to help the film crew to raise finishing funds for completion, and get the film out to wide audiences worldwide.
According to Sawhney, this film is important because it’s purely told through children’s voices. “Those kids live under threat, yet they’re the most hilarious, charming kids you’ll ever meet,’’ the co-director adds.
For Hill, making the film in the voice of Gazan youth was crucial. “I valued the fresh perspective, energy and creativity that the youth brought,” he points out.
Similarly, Paq underlines the films doesn’t have experts talking with the children, or instead of them. “The voices of the youth aren’t taken away; it’s them talking to the camera,” she hints.
Far from being ignored in the film, the general situation in Gaza serves as background for the story. “The film shows many positive things about Gaza, but doesn’t remove the bigger picture,” the photographer clarifies.
The tone of Flying Paper is playful and uplifting. “For a documentary coming out of Gaza, the fact that it keeps you laughing, and breaks your heart, is amazing,” Sawhney notes. Hill thoroughly enjoyed telling a small story within the larger social-political context, with the intention to attract larger audiences who can learn about life in Gaza through the story.
Paq thinks a serious, heavy documentary doesn’t quite reach the public. “If you have a story offering a different dimension, you can touch people in a much stronger way,’’ she argues. Hasan shares similar thoughts. “This film throws a different line on a very over-politicized situation,” she says. “Its essence is incredibly simple, beautiful, and universal.”
Flying Paper captures children’s creative resilience through the kite culture. Sawhney believes the poetics of kites is an easily accessible metaphor for Gazan children. A struggle, in the act of making, and a sense of freedom, in the act of flying.
On the day of the kite festival, children turned up on the beach, ready to fly over 7,000 kites at once. “All those kids looking happy and proud of their achievement send a powerful message to the world,” Paq reflects. Among the many beautiful scenes, Paq points to one where Musa finds his kite broken, and repairs it. “It’s a strong metaphor for life in Gaza, where Palestinians rebuild their lives again,” she says.
Flying Paper was very well perceived in the local communities where it was filmed. “People welcomed a story that isn’t just about their suffering. There’s life, culture, community, love,’’ Hill emphasizes.
Jabaliya camp and Seifa were heavily bombed during Operation Pillar of Defense, last November. Paq was in Gaza to film more shots with Abeer for the final scenes. During the war, Paq shot some new footage. After careful discussion, the co-directors decided not to include the new material in the film, not to alter its narrative.
After three years in the making, Flying Paper was completed at the end of last year. The filmmakers successfully raised $28,956 from 286 backers via Kickstarter for completion of the final cut. Additional funding was secured through small grants and tax-deductible donations.
Private screenings were held in the US last year, and a showing was organized in Seifa, last February. Flying Paper has so far been accepted for screening at the Athens International Film Festival in Ohio (12th-18th April) and atLondon Palestine Film Festival on the 7th of May.
Abeer invites everyone to watch Flying Paper: “We wanted to show the truth in a simple way, through a small story.’’
‘’I hope the film sends a humanizing message that children in Gaza are like all children in the world,” says Hill.