A trip inside Hamas's movie studio.
It looks at first glance like a typical block in Gaza: concrete facades spray-painted with political graffiti, collapsed roofs, and a battered United Nations sign. But looking a bit closer, you notice that there's something a bit too orderly, a bit too purposefully neglected, about the row of dilapidated buildings. The U.N. sign seems hastily painted on. Nearby is a fish pond.
Welcome to Hamaswood, one of the first movie sets owned by a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. Hamaswood -- or, as the locals call it, the Asdaa Land for Artistical and Media Production -- is a small studio city near the Gaza town of Khan Yunis. Less than a city block in size, Asdaa's movie set is much smaller than any Hollywood studio, and it boasts a few features that you wouldn't find in Cinecittà: for example, the fish pond as well as goat yards and cow yards, not intended for animal films but as money making livestock. As it turns out, running a terrorist movie studio involves problems that Samuel Goldwyn would never have dreamed of.
Despite the challenges, owning your own studio seems to be all the rage in the Middle East. In Lebanon, Hezbollah's TV station, Al-Manar, is a key part of the group's information warfare strategy. Al-Manar is more than just a mouthpiece; it brings Hezbollah's message to a wider audience through broadcasts that range from news programs to a quiz show in which contestants are tested on their knowledge of martyrs. (Perhaps not surprisingly, the TV station itself has been labeled a "terrorist organization" by the United States.)
Hamas already runs a modest media empire, its reach stretching to newspapers, radio, and satellite television. But Asdaa represents an ambitious foray into the world of film and entertainment, a medium that could prove an even more potent propaganda tool -- if Hamas can just get it off the ground.
Although the executive director, Abed Al Aziz Monsour, says production space at Asdaa isn't reserved exclusively for Hamas, it's clear that the current filming plans revolve exclusively around the conflict with Israel. Asdaa recently completed its first major production -- a two-hour documentary on Imad Akel, a Hamas activist who was killed by Israeli forces in 1993. The film used a professional director, but the dialogue was written by Mahmoud al-Zahar, a cofounder of Hamas. Rather than a Hollywood feature film, it's more like straight-to-DVD; Asdaa plans to sell copies of the movie to help cover production costs. Whether the studio's spaghetti Western production values can compete with the pirated Hollywood blockbusters and Egyptian movies popular in the Middle East is unclear, since the film is still unreleased.
But competition from more mainstream studios is just one of the problems facing Asdaa at the moment. Asdaa's director's office is bare-bones: just a meeting table stacked high with Asdaa-produced newspapers describing the city's work and activities. Seated behind the room's one luxury, an executive-style wood desk, Mansour outlined some of the roadblocks to building the huge studio that Hamas originally envisioned. Asdaa, he explained, sustained several hundred thousand dollars worth of damage during Israel's Operation Cast Lead, which took place between December 2008 and January 2009. The strikes heavily damaged the administrative building, blowing out windows and doors, and totally destroying the fish pond.
It has been hard to rebuild, too, because the continued blockade of Gaza has driven construction costs way up. Mansour says he intends to build a smartly furnished media center that will house a theater, museum, conference room, production facilities, and even a restaurant -- but there is little evidence of actual construction, cement now being particularly expensive with the blockade. Financing is an uncomfortable subject for the executive director. When I asked what the budget for the studio city was and who paid for it, an uncomfortable silence fell on the room, followed by nervous laughter from the bearded members of Hamas who sat at the conference table. "It's a sensitive question," Mansour said, a statement that was not surprising, given the murky origins of Hamas's funding (it is generally believed that Iran and Syria are the organization's major benefactors). The film about Akel, says Mansour, was funded by an anonymous donor.
Other projects, meanwhile, are on the way, at least in theory. Now that the documentary on Akel is complete, the next big production is supposed to be a TV series about the life of Ahmed Ismail Hassan Yassin, the blind sheikh who served the spiritual leader of Hamas until he was assassinated by Israel in 2004. But the constant challenge is recruiting experienced actors. Gaza does not have a homegrown entertainment industry, so Asdaa recruits amateurs, in one case hiring the family member of an employee. And Asdaa might be producing entertainment, but it still must adhere to Hamas's conservative social mores. "There is no problem with women acting, as long as they are covered, respect religion, and are traditional," Monsour said.
Then there is the problem of filming in wartime. For the recent documentary, the director needed to re-create the atmosphere of Gaza in the early 1990s, before the Oslo Accords, but getting some details right was difficult. For example, sequences that involve shooting or heavy fighting proved particularly challenging, and not just because Asdaa lacks the budget for Hollywood pyrotechnics. There were serious concerns that the Israeli military, which conducts regular surveillance flights over Gaza, would mistake them for real fighting or paramilitary training.
"They were scared for the actors' lives in that area," Mansour recalled. "They thought Israeli drones would attack them."
If the films do make it to distribution, Hamas should hope they meet with a better fate than its computer games. In Gaza's many computer cafes, teenagers spend hours playing Counter-Strike, a first-person shooter game from the United States played between a team of terrorists and a team of counterterrorists. It turns out that Hamas has made its own version of Counter-Strike, in which the two teams are -- no surprise -- Israel and Hamas. But the boys told me they preferred the better graphics from the American games. At one computer cafe, an owner offered me a copy of Hamas Counter-Strike for free -- apparently, no one was buying.