Interview with Gazan Filmmaker Ahmed Mansour
"Angel of Gaza," Advocacy, and Documenting the Nakba
George Iskander · Nov 16, 2023
15 min read
I first met Ahmed Mansour—a US-based Gazan filmmaker and director of Angel of Gaza (2021) and Brooklyn Inshallah (2021)—at the 2023 Chicago Palestine Film Festival at a screening of his short Angel of Gaza, which has been on my mind ever since I saw it earlier this year. He is one of the co-founders of the Gaza Ambassador program, a graduate of NYU and a political advocate for Palestine. Mansour has been awarded residencies and fellowships from Duke University and the Paths to Peace Leadership Program.
Angel of Gaza follows a family separated for over 7 years: the father, Ayman, lives in the United States, while his wife and daughter, Malak, live in Gaza. The film is framed around Malak, who narrates the film. Mansour traces the complex familial struggles and trauma faced by many families in Occupied Palestine and beyond through this family’s difficult journey and joyful reunion. His film captures both the suffering of Palestine without overshadowing the joy to be found in shared family life.
George Iskander: Ahmed, I first came to know you and your work through the Chicago Palestine Film Festival. We had a very great lineup of films this year, and one of my favorites was Angel of Gaza. One of the things I liked most about it was that it did so much with how little time it had. In the film, we’re introduced to problems that people in Gaza face, we’re introduced to this family, we’re introduced to Malak, and you see things through the eyes of the child, and it’s very powerful. You see their journey to America, and then suddenly, it’s over, and you can’t believe it’s 20 minutes. A lot of my friends echoed the same sentiment. One thing I’m curious about is how was your experience making this film? I ask because parts of it were filmed, from what I understand, in Gaza.
Ahmed Mansour: Believe it or not, I originally intended the story to be told through the eyes of the father. So, for years, that was the intention. And the film was almost ready in April 2020, until I had an incident where I lost all the footage and the final cut of the film.
In April 2020, I was editing in my studio in upstate New York, in the Catskills, in the mountains. And in the middle of the night, my friend and I woke up to a fire coming out of the chimney. All my equipment and my hard drives were burnt. And I was so close to backing it up. I said, you know, the next day or the day after, I’ll back it up. But the fire was faster.
Of course, that was a very devastating event. You work for years on a project, and then, psh, it’s gone. It was quite tragic, but, you know, I’m from Gaza, so I never give up. Because the phoenix, it’s a Gazan phenomenon. And by that time, Malak was a little bit older, so she was a little bit more articulate. When I started filming, she was really young, around 5. I realized how articulate Malak is, and I said, “How about we test a new main character?” and see if it was going to be more effective. And we just did that. Me and the producers and the crew, all of us together, we kind of said, “Thank God the fire happened!”
That was the angle: Malak is the angel. So, we’re like, let’s rewrite the scenes, but let’s try to make it as-documentary-style as possible. There was some footage we shot we could salvage from when Malak was younger, in Gaza.
That’s the story of the film. When you think about it, sometimes or most of the times, the filmmaker is the one who makes the film, right? But for me, Angel of Gaza truly is the film that made me who I am, in terms of shaping my artistic vision, in terms of learning how to work out a story, even personally. That time was a very hard time. It was the beginning of COVID. I had been away from my family for five years exactly at that time, I wasn’t able to go back to Gaza, not being able to meet with my family. So, making this film was really a life-changing project, let me put it that way.
GI: I’m glad you made it and that it’s out there, even though the process of making it was long and difficult. Reshooting is not easy, especially when it’s a documentary. You pulled it off very well, I didn’t realize at all!
Given all the awful things that are happening in Gaza, there’s a lot of attention being put on Palestinian cinema. Organizations like the Arab Film and Media Institute are putting together Palestinian movie programming. I’ve seen that Angel of Gaza is in one of the films that’s available for people to watch — so many more people are seeing the film. How has that been for you? What have the reactions been?
AM: It feels really good. People are watching my work. But also at the same time, it shouldn’t be this way. Remember: there’s a river of blood. People pay attention. So, it feels good on one side, but on the other side, it feels unfair. But this is how it goes, I believe, that when there’s violence, people really pay attention.
GI: It is unfortunate. Yes, the cause is getting more support. There are more people showing up and understanding all the awful things that are going on. It shouldn’t take such a loss of life for any of this to happen, and I wish it had happened so much earlier.
On another note: I remember during the film festival, you mentioned you were working on a film about the Nakba. You had this idea to meet with Nakba survivors, to hear their stories, and to record that. I think that’s such a brilliant idea, because few people outside of the Arab and Palestinian community know what the Nakba even is. To put that into a film, to show very clearly these are the awful experiences that people had is powerful. Could you tell me a little bit more about that?
AM: Yeah. The whole idea was inspired by my grandfather, sidi [Arabic for grandfather] Younis. He was maybe 20 years old when he was forced to leave his village of al-Bitana in 1948. I filmed with sidi Younis early this year. In February, he passed away. He was my last living grandpa, my last living grandparent from the Nakba generation. It felt really heavy that we are losing the generation that witnessed the Nakba. On one hand it’s very hard to lose my grandfather, but on the other hand, it felt like a big responsibility to think of a project where we are keeping the memory of that generation, because if their story gets lost, then we lose the root of what we are fighting for.
So, right after the Chicago Palestine Film Festival, I came back to D.C. and teamed up with a group of activists at George Washington University. They have a beautiful ballroom. I put out a call for filmmakers and for activists to work on that project. We have to. Everyone who knows a Nakba survivor who is still alive, we should document their journey, their story. We were able to get in that room on the anniversary of May 15th. We were able to get six Nakba survivors just from the DMV area. It was just incredible. The energy in the room and the equal representation of each generation. We had the Nakba generation and then the second generation, the parent generation. And then many, many Palestinians from the third generation. For that event, I made a short documentary that I’m still refurbishing a bit. It’s about 15 to 20 minutes.
It’s about narrating my own journey of my grandfather. How he was, his village, the name of his village, how he was forced out. And the second part is about my father: where my father was born, in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. And then, we go deep into the experience of the second generation. What did they do to resist the situation in which they were born into, which is refugee camps. I dove into the experience of the PLO and the Oslo Accords. Because that’s my father’s generation’s kind of experience. And then we end up with Fatah and Hamas and the clash in the Gaza Strip and the disconnect between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Finally at the end, I ask a question: where is our generation, the third generation? What is our role? We’re yet to act out of our own experience, our own story. Until now, unfortunately, we are acting out of post-Oslo Accords. So, in that event, on the anniversary of the Nakba in Washington, we had six Nakba survivors. Most were at least 85 and 90-something. I had the idea of having a small discussion with each table. We placed a Nakba survivor at each table, along with like 10 or 20 members of the attendees to hear firsthand their experience. I filmed that as well. It was a very warm event and it helped a lot, sharing my own short documentary of my grandfather, my father, and myself. It really inspired many from the third generation, because again, each Palestinian has to learn to be a documentarian. It’s no longer the responsibility of those of us who go to school to study filmmaking or documentary filmmaking. Each one of us who have a living grandfather or grandmother for the next generation, have to think of somehow documenting, recording, filming, and writing their story because they’re dying away. And before it’s too late, you have to document them, and I’m happy to help people.
I’m thinking with the crew to highlight 20 minutes from the event, because this needs money, we need resources to start a campaign. The role of the filmmaker is to support the need for a cause or a specific issue. And then the human rights defenders and the passionate people jump on it. So, this is where I am on the Nakba project. We’re going to package maybe half an hour from what we filmed, build it into the 76th anniversary of the Nakba, to call on all Palestinians to document the story of their living grandparents for the next generation.
GI: That’s incredible. I think it’s a wonderful initiative. Every survivor of the Nakba has a unique story and experience. As difficult as it is, they need to be recorded so people don’t forget, because many already are. I hope the film sees the light of day, I’m excited to see it and share it, insha’Allah. Hopefully it inspires others to take the initiative, because once that generation is gone, they’re gone.
When we were talking earlier this week Ahmed, you mentioned you were lobbying Congress. Could you tell me a little bit more about that?
AM: Yeah. I’ve been in the United States for eight years. Throughout the eight years, I’ve been contacted by different groups to lobby with them in Congress. For example, in 2018, former President Trump cut the money from the UNRWA. I was contacted by the UNRWA people because I attended UNRWA schools in Gaza from first grade to high school. So, they asked me if I could lobby with them, to share my personal story, because they need the money for UNRWA to come back. And, of course, I worked with different groups also. Like Jewish Voice for Peace, like American Muslims for Palestine, Churches for Middle East Peace.
I got to learn how to speak to politicians and what they care about. For eight years, I’ve been telling policymakers and politicians that the policy of Israel, backed by the United States, is turning the two million people of Gaza into a ticking time bomb. On October 7th, they exploded. So, nowadays, I try to go to Congress, just to talk to people, to senators about the situation. That’s a duty. We can’t just sit in here and watch the genocide taking place in front of our eyes.
I lost many members, cousins, best friends, neighbors. All their families are refusing to leave, or they evacuated, and they came back. It’s really a situation where we cannot afford to be gentle, we have to be pushing. So, I’ve been joining many groups and I’m starting a new initiative called Gaza Ambassador.
Now, the State Department narrative and the American administration narrative is, “Who is going to rule the Gaza Strip after this operation?” As if they have gotten rid of Hamas, and second, as if the Gazans gave them that power! The question that should be asked, did they consult any Gazan to talk about who’s going to rule them? Is it the PA? Is it the Saudis? Is it the Egyptians? So, it’s really quite tragic as someone from there, to just listen to that narrative. There is no initiative to say, well, “Stop this nonsense, Gazans are here, they have to be consulted.” We have to be at the table. The time when you decide for us is gone. So, we’re forming an initiative called Gaza Ambassador for the Gazan community in the US and their supporters. We are representing the people of Gaza. Everyone of us is an ambassador, speaking in our name, and trying to make sure that our voice is heard. They cannot speak about us without us.
GI: It’s impossible to stand by and watch it happen. We know Congress is very hard-headed and imperialist, but we have to have hope that they’ll listen. It’s a fantastic initiative. Gaza and its supporters are not going to take this sitting. I’m very sorry to hear about your family and friends, may God have mercy on them. Thank you so much for talking with me, Ahmed about your films, experiences, and advocacy. I was wondering if there’s anything else you want to say to our readers.
AM: What’s happening in Gaza can be understood in two parts. The first part, the humanitarian, and the second part is the revolution worldwide, especially in the US.
If you look at the first part, the humanitarian part, you can’t find any humanitarian aid to Gaza. The West, the US, Europe, and the Zionist leadership have shown us that all of their rhetoric about human rights is just a facade. They have never changed from the time of the Crusaders. They lie and fund a genocide while the whole world is watching. The reason I left home in 2015 is because I wanted to pursue the American dream. I believe in American values. I really believe that the American people are just as much victims as the Gazans in Gaza in terms of what the media tells them, the propaganda war. Not to mention the mainstream media, the US administration and the Zionists. This all shapes the American perception. That’s why we are storytellers. This is also another responsibility: to give another narrative to the American people because they really do not know. In terms of humanity, the elite show us that they really don’t care about humanity.
Think about what’s happening over on the ground there, the suffering of the people, the agony that the people are living through now, there’s no humanity whatsoever. This is what I talk to my family and my friends about. This is what they ask me. “Is this really what the West is all about?” I can’t find any words to answer that.
The second part that helps us to understand what’s happening is the revolution part. As tragic as it is back in Gaza, it is really the change that’s happening at home here. It’s one that you cannot turn your eye away from. My final statement is that our work is very important here. The liberation of my people back home in the United States, in Egypt, in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq starts by the liberation of American people. That’s just a simple fact. Zionists have steered American politics to benefit their projects. Now Americans are starting to realize that, and they will know the other narrative, our narrative. And this is your work, my work, all of our work as artists, intellectuals, writers, and filmmakers. This is very important because now the American people are watching what’s happening in Gaza and they know it’s wrong. By the same time, they are looking for our narrative, to hear our narrative. Because they know now that the narrative that they were born and raised hearing led them to witness a genocide on the screens. So now they’re looking for the other narrative. It’s happening everywhere, the protests, the walkouts, the teachings, the sit-ins, film festivals, literature festivals. The revolution is going in the right direction but maybe not in the right speed that we would like to see it. But it’s happening.
We have to keep pushing. We have to get up every morning and just interact in this society. Talk to people and guide people. Trust me, they will see the light when they engage with us. Because all that has been seen so far is darkness. “He brings them out of darkness and into light.” [Quran 2:257]
You can connect with Ahmed through the Gaza Ambassador program (on Facebook), and his short Angel of Gaza is available to watch until the end of November through the Arab Film and Media Institute.
Stills are from Angel of Gaza and Brooklyn Inshallah. Protest image from Chicago Sun-Times.
Ahmed Mansour is a US-based Gazan filmmaker. He has directed the short "Angel of Gaza" (arabfilminstitute.org/palestinian-voices) and runs the Gaza Ambassador project (facebook.com/gazaambassador).
← Back to blog