From Under the Rubble (2017) is a documentary feature about a peaceful, close-knit family of farmers in Gaza – the Samounis – 48 members of whom were killed when they were herded into a house by the Israeli Defence Force and then fired upon, as part of Israel’s battle with Hamas in January 2009.
The film is narrated in a raw, intimate, unflinching way, largely by Amal Samouni, who was nine years old when the family house was shelled. Amal was buried under rubble for four days, surrounded by the dead and rotting bodies of family members, until aid workers were finally permitted to enter the area and rescue her. She still lives with more than 15 pieces of shrapnel in her head: they are too deeply embedded to safely remove. Together with her mother Zeenat and her surviving siblings, Amal pieces the family story together, moment by moment, for the camera.
With this film, Greek/Australian writer, producer and director Anne Tsoulis has set out to give voice to the civilian perspective on war, and call attention to the fact that the overwhelming majority of those killed and injured in conflict zones are women and children. Anne has spent over 25 years working within the film industry, with numerous credits in drama and documentary.
Catriona Mitchell: Anne, your film captures a sense of the innocence of youth, juxtaposed with the inestimable cruelties of war, right from its opening lines.
“When I think about the world, I start wondering why we live like this in Gaza,” says Amal. “Why the people outside live in safety and peace. Here there are always soldiers and war and sieges and closed borders…”
In taking on this story, was it your plan from the outset not only to put a human face to war, but to place a special emphasis on voices of the young?
Anne Tsoulis: Gaza is a child population, the only one in the world. It’s a well-hidden statistic. The average age is 17. Compare that to Australia, where the average age is 37. The majority of its civilians killed, wounded, disabled during conflicts are women and children. What I am doing in this documentary is giving a voice to the majority of the Gaza people, which happens to be the young.
What impressed me with the Palestinian children in Gaza is how incredibly articulate they are, and how knowledgeable they are of world affairs. Their speech and knowledge is way beyond their years. They are quite remarkable, as I think the documentary demonstrates.
Did it take a lot of work to build trust with the Samouni family, to encourage them to share their story with you so openly?
I wrote to Zeinat from Australia and introduced myself. I told her I too was a single mother, and I too come from a family of farmers from a small village (in Greece) where four out of five members of the village are related to me. I explained I could identify with her situation, imagining what it would be like if the same happened to my family’s village.
I went to Gaza to meet her and her children in 2015, and we bonded immediately.
The content is at times unbearable – for example, we hear that Zeenat’s husband was shot dead in front of her and her children, his body spat upon while it was still warm. We see terrorised and wounded young children in hospital, their blood gathering in pools on the floor. Equally disturbing is Amal’s poised narration, some years on, of what happened to her when the house was shelled: “My uncles were lying dead next to me. I was sitting on my dead aunty’s lap. There were decapitated people and others dead with their body pieces scattered around…”
Did you have to distance yourself emotionally from all that you were seeing and hearing, in order to stay focused on the storytelling?
To tell you the truth, when you direct, you are so occupied with getting the footage, that there is no time to get emotional. I guess it’s a bit like when someone dies, and you’re so busy preparing the funeral arrangements and the wake etc, you don’t get a chance to grieve. You just go into action mode.
It was when we began editing the film, and when I had the time to just focus on what they were saying, that the emotions ran very deep in me. I was very grateful to my editor, Ken Sallows, who would ignore my tears and keep working.
It doesn’t matter how many times I see the footage of Zeinat in tears, telling us that when she saw her four year old son in the morgue, she felt her soul had been taken. I go to pieces.
At one point in the film, a paramedic says to Amal: “I am so sorry that we are bringing up so many bad memories, but at least you would have some idea of the reality of what we witnessed.” Was there any risk of re-traumatising Amal, by having her recount her past in such precise detail? Or do you think it was healing for her to do so, knowing that this film would call international attention to the plight of those in Gaza?
After the war, people from all over the world – artists, clowns, social workers – converged on Gaza. These amazing activists were there to stand by the Gaza people and let them know they were not forgotten. They worked with the children, whether it was with dance workshops or psychotherapy sessions, to assist them to overcome their trauma. So the children were used to telling their story and sharing it with the world.
I worried about re-traumatising Amal, but along with her siblings and mother, she wanted to tell her story. She did not want what happened to her family to be forgotten.
Amal Samouni still has more than 15 pieces of shrapnel embedded in her head. It is too dangerous to remove them.
Zeenat Samouni’s last words to you when you left Gaza were, “Anne, don’t forget us.” Having been on such intimate terms with the family, how did you feel on returning to a life of safety and comfort in Australia? Did you feel you were abandoning them?
The children have adopted me as their second mum, and that is how they address me. I feel that responsibility. They miss me and I miss them, and I wish I could visit, but I wouldn’t be able to get a visa to do so. It’s difficult for them to understand: it is as difficult for me to come to Gaza as it is for them to leave Gaza. It’s a very frustrating situation.
From here I can try and help. I can make this documentary and spread awareness. This is where I put my focus, because it is too heart-wrenching to think of how they are coping.
From here, I can also distract them by showing them the world outside of Gaza. Last year I was in Athens when they called me on Facebook video. So I took them with me on a ride through Athens on the tram. I showed them the beautiful beaches, fishing boats, the shops, the streets, the houses. They travelled with me for thirty minutes in this manner. We laughed together and I could see their wonder at everything I was showing them. We do this every so often. But when I hang up, I feel a sense of despair that they are stuck in such inhumane conditions, and it is just getting worse and worse.
You made the statement to a journalist: “I am making this documentary as a homage to my mother and all the other women whose role in times of war and conflict are ignored in the history books.” How did your mother’s story influence you, exactly? And how might the world be a different place if women’s stories of war and survival weren’t erased, but were instead shared, remembered, and retold?
My mother’s lasting memory of war was the hunger they experienced. Eight hundred thousand Greek civilians died of starvation during WWII, mainly women and children, the old and most vulnerable. I certainly never read about it while I was studying WWII.
A friend’s mother was telling me she was a child in Athens during the war, and at night she could hear people moaning and crying in the street outside her window begging for food. She’d wake up in the morning to their dead bodies outside their door.
I majored in history at university to understand that women and children do not feature in the history books. Wars are always about the combatants and the military campaigns, and even though civilian deaths far outweigh those of the combatants, the civilians are largely ignored. Certainly women and children are rarely mentioned in history books.
Once we put the human face to war, there is no such thing as conquest or victory for either side. We will cease to judge wars in these terms. The only way forward can be to find peaceful solutions.
Filmmaker, Anne Tsoulis (left) says that without her producer John Moore, she would never have got this film over the line and into production: “He is an excellent example of a male producer supporting female filmmakers and female issue subject matter, which of course we can’t have enough of.”
From Under the Rubble is currently exhibiting at film festivals. To see the trailer, click here.