The Belle from Gaza (2024)

The Belle from Gaza Review

The Belle from Gaza

The subjects of “The Belle from Gaza” speak with an alarming candor which additionally speaks to its approachable, intimate construction but any danger to them, in terms of revealing their identities or attracting too much local attention, is verbalized more often than it is depicted or felt. In order to watch Yolande Zauberman’s delicate documentary one has to guess and intellectualize: she searches for a trans woman rumored to have walked there secretly from Gaza through the clubs and red-light districts of Tel Aviv. While the camera remains trained on various women in piercing close-ups, few moments widen the movie’s scope despite gesturing toward a larger picture.

Israeli society’s fault lines have long been a fascination for Zauberman; her 2011 documentary “Would You Have Sex With an Arab?” similarly cut through the night life and branding of Tel Aviv as a bastion of queer progress and refuge in the Middle East. “The Belle from Gaza” is a kind of pilgrimage through her previous works, particularly her most recent documentary “M,” in which 2016 Miss Trans Israel winner Talleen Abu Hanna played a supporting role. This time around, Abu Hanna is not only the camera’s guide but also its window into these hidden corners of Israeli trans life, illuminated by personal confessions and expressions of joy, desire, fear.

An old photo taken by Zauberman (captioned “the Belle from Gaza”) and half-remembered stories send her on somewhat of a mystery hunt for this rumored trans woman who escaped Gaza’s militarized borders. The exact story behind this phantom beauty seems to shift with each new person interviewed one subject leads to another in search of the Belle and whether she exists at all (as either real person or political fantasy) is frequently brought into question.

This obsession with the Belle starts from a place of curiosity; several trans sex workers (most of them Arab Muslim or Arab Catholic) shed light on their family dynamics, and at first an uncomfortable narrative takes shape, with Israel’s Arab towns and neighborhoods being painted as de facto anti-queer factions compared to the more progressive Tel Aviv. But these subjects’ hushed whispers often tell another story, hinting at what might become of this Belle should she or her Palestinian origins be found out deportation, or worse while also alluding to the nightly troubles each of these women must navigate.

One anecdote stands out in particular: As an Arab trans woman recounts a hate crime from her youth, she remembers being driven by a lynch mob toward an IDF military checkpoint which she assumes was so that Israeli soldiers might mistake her for a terrorist and shoot her dead. The weight of this traumatic event is placed on her attackers and their sinister plan; however, the lingering subtext of this story remains untouched, as does the chilling implication contained within it of a deadly institutionalized racism.

These political portraits live in a film’s background and darker corners, enlivening an otherwise casual interview with close reading but failing to ask the questions that would make that investigation fruitful. Any film set in Israel now, on a Palestinian subject, will be seen against the backdrop of the still-ongoing war in Gaza and protests against the Israeli government throughout the summer. But documentaries like this one, shot months ago, can also serve as Rorschach tests for the political temperature before Oct. 7.

However it is this very demand from its audience to project politics onto pauses and dramatic silences where “The Belle of Gaza” is weakest as personal inquiry. That is also what makes it so disappointing that the camera spends so much of its time trained on subjects who are trans and alive: The choice to do so is itself radical, a kind of exposure that reveals their inner lives. But those lives are flattened by the refusal to take off blinders; it only acknowledges certain defining social fabrics they gesture toward constantly and don’t seem willing to go into further out of fear for their own safety. So instead, it fills them with more silence.

Watch The Belle from Gaza For Free On Gomovies.

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