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Trapped in Gaza, Star of Sundance Documentary Misses Film Festival


Palestinian actor and playwright Ali Abu Yaseen, 55, gives an interview in his home at the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, Jan. 29, 2019.

A new documentary called Gaza is hitting the screens at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival this week, providing a colorful glimpse of life in the blockaded Hamas-ruled territory. But one of its main subjects, Gaza actor and playwright Ali Abu Yaseen, won't be attending the gathering due to the very circumstances depicted in the film.

Abu Yaseen had hoped to make his first-ever trip to the U.S. to take part in the festival. But the continued closure of Gaza's border with Egypt, and Hamas' bureaucratic inefficiency, made it impossible for him to reach Cairo in time to receive a visa from the American Embassy needed to travel to Utah.

After missing Tuesday's premiere, Abu Yaseen has all but given up hope of reaching Utah on time. The film's final screening is Saturday.

"I'm seething with indignation," he said in an interview at his home in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City. "The dream that I had for the past three months has all but collapsed."

Gaza, a 90-minute film, is among 12 contestants in the World Cinema Documentary competition at Sundance. Directed by award-winning Irish film makers Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell, the work takes a look at everyday life in Gaza, from wars and their traumas to young people's pastimes and aspirations.

Plays written by Abu Yaseen and stage performances by his students appear in the film.

Abu Yaseen, one of Gaza's most famous entertainers, said the film shows that Gazans "can sing, present an important theater and smile in the face of the unjust world."

"The bizarre, wonderful fantasy of Gaza was our message of love to the world, which sees Gaza as Tora Bora," Abu Yaseen said, referring to the stronghold of Taliban extremists in Afghanistan.

Closed borders

Israel and Egypt sealed their borders with Gaza after the Islamic militant Hamas group seized power there in 2007 following bloody fighting against forces of President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah. Abbas' Western-backed Palestinian Authority has controlled parts of the West Bank since then.

FILE - A member of the Palestinian security forces stands guard at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip, Sept. 26, 2018.
FILE - A member of the Palestinian security forces stands guard at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip, Sept. 26, 2018.

Over the past decade, Hamas and Israel fought three devastating wars, and repeated attempts to reconcile Hamas and Fatah have all but faltered. Gaza's economy is in tatters, electricity is supplied for half the day at best, tap water is undrinkable and the threat of renewed fighting with Israel is constant.

The blockade has made it virtually impossible for most Gazans to travel abroad. Israel allows only small numbers of Gazans, usually humanitarian cases, to exit through its Erez crossing. Instead, the vast majority of Gazan travelers must exit through Egypt, which only opens the border a few days a month.

Abu Yaseen said he was thrilled to receive an invitation to Sundance in December. Just as he was applying for a travel permit early this month, Egypt unexpectedly closed the border crossing for three weeks. Without notice, Egypt suddenly opened the crossing this week, giving Abu Yaseen little time to get to Cairo, receive a visa and board a flight to Utah.

More powerful than 'a million bullets'

On Tuesday evening, he learned that his name was not on the list cleared by Hamas to travel.

"I don't know how the system works here. There is something wrong," he said, directing his anger at Hamas. "They should have pleaded with me to travel and represent Palestine because this film is more important than 1,000 or a million bullets."

Iyad al-Bozum, spokesman for Hamas' Interior Ministry, said he was unaware of Abu Yaseen's case, but noted that the crossing can only handle a small fraction of applicants. He said 15,000 Gazans are currently in urgent need to travel, while only 200 can make it out on a single day when the crossing is working.

"There are patients who died in Gaza waiting to travel. There are students who missed their scholarships, and there are people whose residency permits in outside countries expired," he said. "This is disaster for every Palestinian in Gaza."

In 2017, the Palestinian Authority regained partial control of the Rafah border crossing in a deal with Hamas. But on Jan. 6, just when Abu Yaseen and a freelancer who worked on the film registered to travel to Cairo, the Palestinian Authority withdrew from the crossing to protest what it called Hamas' "abuses and harassment." The border only reopened Tuesday, under Hamas control for the first time in two years.

Abu Yaseen had one of his works participating in a major film festival in Cairo 25 years ago, calling the experience a "great achievement." But he said that appearing at Sundance would have been "the most memorable of all."

Robert Redford, president and founder of the Sundance Institute, addresses reporters during the opening day press conference at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Jan. 24, 2019.
Robert Redford, president and founder of the Sundance Institute, addresses reporters during the opening day press conference at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Jan. 24, 2019.

Speaking in a videotaped Skype interview from the festival, McConnell, the co-director, said the voices of Abu Yaseen and the freelance production assistant, Fady Hossam, would have been "hugely powerful here in Utah."

"Who better to explain that than Gazans themselves? So, it's disappointing," McConnell told The Associated Press from Park City.

Abu Yaseen has visited Europe, but has never been to America. He was excited for the trip and was reading about Utah, learning, for example, that it's almost half the size of Iraq. On his laptop, he flipped through pictures of snowcapped hills, canyons and lakes from the state. A longtime fan of Robert Redford, Abu Yaseen mostly regrets having lost the opportunity to meet the Sundance founder in the flesh.

Now that he realized he won't make it to Utah, Abu Yaseen picked up his oud, the Middle Eastern stringed instrument, and played and sang a tune by Lebanese singer Marcel Khalife, starting with "they stopped me at the border, asking for my I.D."

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