Film Reviews

TIFF Review: ‘Gaza Surf Club’

Riding a wave is a political act in this fun and easygoing doc

Courtesy of TIFF


Gaza Surf Club
(Germany, 87 min.)
Written and directed by Philip Gnadt, Mickey Yamine
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)

With the burkini being this summer’s most controversial clothing item, TIFF-goers might reconsider the hot button swimsuit after seeing Gaza Surf Club. No burkinis actually appear in the timely Gaza Surf Club, but the controversy surrounding religious freedom, women’s rights, and self-expression resonates strongly within this portrait of aspiring surfers on the shores of the Gaza Strip. This doc by Philip Gnadt and Mickey Yamine finds an inspiring subject in Sabah, a 15-year-old Palestinian girl who longs to surf on the waves of the Mediterranean. She plays a secondary role in the doc, but Sabah gives Gaza Surf Club much of its gravitas and power.

Surfing might seem like a trivial matter when bombs are dropping all around the Gaza Strip, yet Gnadt and Yamine find a chorus of enthusiastic surfers who know that great natural power whirls in the Mediterranean. Life continues during wartime, after all, and one can only spend so much time hiding in fear. Enter Ibrahim, the film’s main subject: he’s a 23-year-old lifeguard who loves to surf and dreams of using the sport to inspire Gaza’s youths. Gnadt and Yamine join Ibrahim on some wild rides as Gaza Surf Club hangs ten in a surfer’s paradise. The possibility of a thriving surf culture seems fruitful here as the picturesque coastline, rollicking waves, and untapped enthusiasm all make this location a fair real estate for a club.

Exhilarating cinematography by Niclas Reed Middleton and kinetic editing by Marlene Assmann and Helmar Jungmann create adrenaline-charged surfing sequences in which Gaza Surf Club recreates the high on which Ibrahim and his peers thrive. These sequences are fun and freeing. Gnadt and Yamine use the breathtaking interludes to convey the stark contrast of life offshore from those in the waves, letting audiences appreciate the escape that surfing affords.

Gaza Surf Club doesn’t hide the other side of the country, either, as images in the film slowly and respectfully observe the bombed-out remains of a country assailed by rockets and airstrikes as explosives hurtle between Israel and Egypt like shuttlecocks on the court. Ample testimony from citizens of the Strip shows a beleaguered community that is tired of seeing so much war. Surfing is just one way to tap this restlessness. We see how grabbing a board and riding a wave becomes a political act that offers hope for the future.

The doc brings Ibrahim to Hawaii where he learns the art of crafting a surfboard and raises awareness of the plight of Gaza’s surfers. Quality boards are rare in Gaza, and hard to bring across the Israeli borders. Ibrahim’s anecdotes demonstrate to the Americans how much they take their beloved pastime for granted. It also lets Ibrahim thrive in his surfing element as the warm island waves of Hawaii offer a new Mecca. This fun and easygoing doc uses the power of sport to strengthen and bolster individuals as they gain confidence and find themselves soaring with the freeing adrenaline rush of the waves.

The most inspiring image comes in the film’s final moments when Sabah, aided and encouraged by her father, goes deep out into the waters of the Mediterranean. One doesn’t want to spoil the ending, but this review must conclude by saying that Gaza Surf Club is a triumph for representing women’s rights at this year’s festival.

Gaza Surf Club screens:
-Friday, Sept. 9 at 6:15 PM at Cineplex Scotiabank
-Sunday, Sept. 11 at 9:45 PM at Cineplex Scotiabank
-Saturday, Sept. 17 at 3:45 PM at Cineplex Scotiabank

TIFF runs Sept. 8 – 18. Please visit tiff.net for more information.

Visit the POV TIFF hub for more coverage from this year’s Toronto International Film Festival!