The kite runnners

Where kites, not katyushas, fill the sky

In the documentary ‘Flying Paper,’ plucky kids trying to break a world record show the humanity inside Gaza; it’s a short, ‘soft,’ film, and it’s proving a hard sell

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

A still from the film "Flying Paper." (photo credit: courtesy image/copyright Amber Fares)
A still from the film "Flying Paper." (photo credit: courtesy image/copyright Amber Fares)

DOHA, Qatar – On July 29, 2010, on the Mediterranean shore of the Gaza Strip, thousands of schoolchildren gathered to unfurl 7,202 homemade kites into the air, together shattering the Guinness World Record for most kites flown at one time.

Gaza broke its own record that day, having clinched the same title one year before, as well, with 3,710 kites reaching the air together. And this time around, filmmakers Nitin Sawnhey and Roger Hill were on hand to capture the moment, chronicled in their documentary “Flying Paper,” which is showing this week in Qatar at the inaugural Ajyal Youth Film Festival.

The film is short and sweet, spending its 71 minutes following a handful of plucky Gazan kids determined to fashion their own kites out of newspaper, glue and sticks. At the same time, using the kite as a handy symbol, it also meditates on the themes of freedom and unbarricaded open air. This is not a political story, but politics inevitably weave their way in, with the children describing their own traumatic memories of 2009’s Operation Cast Lead, and quick animated transitions showing a colorful kite maneuvering its way across a Gaza map prominently separated from Israel by a barbed-wire fence.

“It’s so hard to make any sort of film in Gaza that isn’t political in context,” says Sawnhey, a professor of Media Studies at the New School in New York City and a co-founder of the Boston Palestine Film Festival. “We made some very important choices in the editing, one of which we wanted the film to be almost entirely from the point of view from the kids themselves.”

Sawnhey first began working and filming in Gaza through the nonprofit Voices Beyond Walls, a series of storytelling and digital workshops promoting creative outlets for children in the Palestinian territories. It was through that work that he met several of the film’s protagonists, including a gutsy boy named Musa from the northern Gazan village of Seifa; and a serious, poised teenaged girl named Abeer who dreams of being a journalist. Because the task of getting an entire film crew in and out of Gaza is so difficult, Sawnhey explains, the children who star in the film also took on roles behind the camera, sometimes operating equipment, scoping out locations and even filming extra footage and sending it back to Sawnhey during the editing process.

Co-director Nitin Sawnhey at the Ajyal Youth Film Festival. (photo credit: Getty Images)
Co-director Nitin Sawnhey at the Ajyal Youth Film Festival. (photo credit: Getty Images)

As a result, the film offers a rare glimpse into the humanity of Gaza, showing a story rooted not in terrorism or hate, but the simple desire of local kids obsessed with seeing their creations take flight and fill the sky.

“It’s a disarming narrative,” Sawnhey says. “It’s a narrative that people aren’t expecting.”

Nitin Sawhney (photo credit: José Goulão /Lisbon, Portugal/Wikipedia)
Nitin Sawhney (photo credit: José Goulão /Lisbon, Portugal/Wikipedia)

The story of the film’s score is equally charming: Original music came from Nitin Sawnhey, a well-known British musician, with whom Nitin Sawnhey the director struck up a friendship after inadvertently receiving his fan mail for years. Both men’s families migrated from Pakistan to Britain. Sawnhey the musician finally reached out to the eponymous director after playing a concert in the south of France and realizing that the concert’s director had pulled a photograph from the wrong Nitin Sawnhey’s website, plastering the face of the director – rather than the musician – all over the city.

“Flying Paper” played well at Ajyal, a festival entirely designed for younger viewers where even the jury is comprised of local children. Reaching adults – both those who fill movie house seats as well as those who offer elusive distribution deals – has proved more of a challenge.

“To get distribution for this film has been quite difficult and I think that’s because the narrative of this film is that Palestinian kids have hope, they don’t have bitterness in their hearts,” says executive producer Uzma Hasan, who is also on hand this week in Doha. “It’s not a hard-hitting, negative sort of view, and in my experience, while it sounds very cynical, when I’ve been talking to potential distributors they keep saying it’s a soft story. What that actually means is it’s not a story that fits in neatly to the accepted narrative.”

Part of the issue, Sawnhey explains, is that the film defies genre. While filled with child protagonists, it’s by no means a kiddie film. It’s a heartwarming story about a war-torn region, and despite being a documentary, it also has animation. Distributors, he says, are sometimes unsure where to place it.

“Everyone has a hard time kind of figuring out what to do with the film,” he says. “It’s uncomfortable for many people, because it doesn’t have that didactic approach that you typically hear about films in Gaza. Instead, you hear about a 6- or 7-year-old having this experience.”

Sawnhey and Hill submitted the film to the Tel Aviv Spirit Film Festival, but it was not accepted, a decision Sawnhey says he is sure was more about insecurity toward the film rather than political motivation. He hopes to submit it elsewhere, and get it in front of Israeli viewers soon.

“We haven’t made a serious attempt to bring it to Israel yet, but I think we need to do that,” he says. “Regionally the film can do very well because it’s a story people can relate to.”

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