London, United Kingdom – A boy who adored Sergio Ramos and all things Real Madrid. A girl who wanted to become a journalist. A seven-year-old who had a brain condition and loved to eat tomatoes with every meal. A toddler who never grew tired of playing hide and seek behind a door. A seven-month-old boy who had just learned how to crawl and was showered in kisses by his siblings.
These are some of the 67 children who were killed in Israel’s 11-day bombing campaign on Gaza last May.
Some suffered violent deaths in their sleep, others were killed while at home or in their neighbourhoods as they played or ran simple errands.
The conflict erupted as tensions over occupied East Jerusalem boiled over. Israel claimed it was intending to damage Hamas’s military abilities, but rights groups and several governments were alarmed by the growing number of child casualties in the conflict – the overwhelming majority of whom were Palestinian.
After watching news of the attacks from Britain, Michael Winterbottom, a celebrated director, decided to make a film remembering these young victims – and so he linked up with Mohammed Sawwaf, a Palestinian filmmaker on the ground.
Sawwaf sent about 100 hours of footage to Winterbottom, who edited the documentary, narrated by Kate Winslet, in a dark cutting room in London.
For about 80 minutes, the audience witnesses mere moments of lifetime pains.
Siblings, some so young that they will soon lose vivid memories of their killed brothers or sisters, shuffle nervously as they speak about their bereavement. Mothers and fathers put on brave faces in front of their surviving children, but break into tears when filmed alone. Keepsakes are carefully laid out in front of the camera – a Star Wars hoodie, a school certificate, the kind of necklace that costs a pittance but means the world to a little girl.
And we see mobile phone photos and videos, complete with cartoon-like Snapchat filters, showing the children full of life and happy before images of them which attest to the grimmest realities of war – small bodies, bloodied, and torn into pieces.
Al Jazeera spoke to Winterbottom and Sawwaf about their film, Eleven Days in May:
Al Jazeera: Few directors in Western nations have tackled events in Gaza, where there have been many tragedies. Why do you think that is?
Michael Winterbottom: I don’t know. From my point of view, having seen it on the news like most people, it just felt like what was happening was shocking – obviously. But also [shocking] that it happened before – you see things on news and then you forget about them. Maybe that forgetting about things is why they keep happening again. Perhaps if you remember events like that, and what they feel like at the time, perhaps they are less likely to happen again.
Mohammed Sawwaf: Maybe one of the reasons is Israel’s refusal to accept any criticism – it is quick in reacting to any criticism and fights anyone making such criticism, whether directly or through its lobby groups in Europe.
Some of those filmmakers and influencers may have been affected by the Israeli narrative, its distortion of the Palestinian image and its founding of a negative stereotype against them, especially in Gaza.
Al Jazeera: What propelled you to this particular subject – the loss of children?
Winterbottom: As a parent, the worst thing you can imagine is losing a child. For people in Gaza, it’s happened before and it’s happening again. That feeling as a parent – can you protect your children, can you look after them? That seemed like it would be something good to focus on.[In the film, you see the stories of] child after child, you get to know them a little bit – the accumulation of it is what’s powerful.
We hope that makes people realise bombing is not a solution to the problem. It would be great to think that the more people feel that, the less likely it is to continue.
Al Jazeera: In the comments section under an early review of your film, you have already been decried as an anti-Semite. How do you feel about this label?
Winterbottom: I don’t look at anything like that. It’s obviously wrong. Our film is what’s showing what’s happening to people in Gaza. The idea that that is anti-Semitic is ridiculous.
Al Jazeera: You are releasing a film about a Middle Eastern war when there is a huge conflict in Europe. How can we compare – or should we even compare – the response to the victims of both tragedies?
Winterbottom: The experience of a family losing a child is the same, whether it’s in Ukraine or it’s in Gaza. I think our response has been different, and the response to the war in Ukraine has been very much – we must do something to stop it, what’s being done is terrible, that the people who are doing it are wrong, that we should be doing everything that we can to help the people who are being bombed.
I don’t think that has really been our response to what’s happening in Gaza, or for that matter what’s happening in Yemen and after all, in this century, we’ve done a fair share of bombing ourselves.
It would be good to think people’s reactions and feelings about what’s happening in Ukraine would perhaps make them also think we should feel like that about other conflicts throughout the world, whether in Gaza or elsewhere.
Sawwaf: Unfortunately, we must wait for a war to happen in Europe until the West notices and feels the horridness of war and its victims.
I sometimes find it troubling to compare what is happening in Palestine and Ukraine, despite an outpouring of sympathy from Palestinians to the Ukrainian people. It is very easy for those who have felt pain to feel the pain of others.
The people of Gaza and Palestinians in general have been suffering the pains of war and loss for many years. But the difference is that Ukraine found someone to stand by it, support it, empathise with it, accept its refugees and provide them with safety.
It has found countries that have imposed sanctions on the oppressor, Russia, whereas unfortunately Gaza has been under siege for 16 years and there is no safe place to escape to.