Films can be given life or put to death in Cannes. Many are born from meetings there. But very few are dreamed up in a rush on the beach while trying to impress an industry exec. A Gaza Weekend is a rare exception, beginning its unlikely journey at the 2009 edition of the festival, where Basil Khalil was casually asked by a sales agent what project he was working on next.
“And I had absolutely nothing,” he tells . Not wanting to admit his creative shortcomings, the British-Palestinian filmmaker quickly came up with a project off the top of his head. “Swine flu had been in the news at the time, so I just said, ‘Ok, so there’s a virus in Israel and the only safe place is Gaza.’ And that’s all I had.” And did it have a name? “Er, Kosher Swine Flu!” It worked. She was impressed, asking if he had a script. “So I lied again, and said yeah,” he admits. Excited about helping get the wheels moving on this clearly darkly-comic project — which five minutes earlier hadn’t existed — the exec put Khalil in touch with the Sundance Labs. A hastily written pitch later, and Khalil soon found himself part of a program in Jordan.
13 years on from its peculiar beachside origins in France and A Gaza Weekend — which Kosher Swine Flu would eventually become — is now getting its world premiere in TIFF. Much has happened since. Khalil was Oscar-nominated for his acclaimed 2015 short Ave Marie (an equally absurd plot involving Israeli settlers who crash into a West Bank nunnery and a project that was mostly made as a proof of concept to show you could make funny Palestinian films). There’s also been the pandemic, giving Khalil’s feature some alarming levels of poignancy.
Following a British TV journalist (Stephen Mangan) and his Israeli girlfriend (Mouna Hawa), the plot sees Israel cut off from the rest of the world after the outbreak of the deadly virus ARS. With Gaza now considered the safest place to be and the two seeking to escape, they pay Palestinian smugglers to get them over the border, only to find that the smugglers are actually loveably hapless market traders (played by Adam Bakri and Loui Nofi), partially inspired by Del Boy and Rodney in Only Fools and Horses and wheeler dealers types forever chasing the next business opportunity. Chaos ensues.
There’s much to laugh about A Gaza Weekend. The name ARS is an obvious starting point, which alongside the real-life Acute Respiratory Syndrome acronym, has dual-meaning in both English and Arabic (in which Khalil says the word means “something like mother-fucking bastard”). And early on in the film a Gaza resident is seen holding a sign saying “Bring Back the Blockade” as Israelis threaten to pour into the territory.
Khalil says that particular joke was only put in because it really happened. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, due to its almost prison-like status, Gaza was Coronavirus-free as the virus sprung up in Israel (the virus eventually entered the territory in the summer of 2020 when students returned home from Egyptian universities). “I saw on Twitter people from Gaza saying ‘the only good thing to come out of the blockade is that we don’t have COVID,’” he says. “So I was like, Ok, they’ve got a sense of humor, I’m not mocking their situation.”
Because, despite its setting and clear comic overtones, A Gaza Weekend doesn’t seek to poke fun at anyone or cheapen anyone’s genuine plight. “It’s coming from love and we’re showcasing people and their beautiful moments, their flaws, their happiness, and in a non-judgmental way,” says Khalil, who was born in Nazareth and based many of the characters on people he knows. “And I think there have been really good comedies done on much worse disasters, like the Holocaust. If you look at Life is Beautiful and Jojo Rabbit, they were also mocking the absurdity of the situation, and weren’t cheapening the suffering.”
Similarly, Khalil says A Gaza Weekend sticks its satirical stick in the idea of a powerful country constantly crushing the weak. “You’ve got a nation that’s being crushed by a self-declared democracy, and that is a big absurdity. But now, suddenly the weak are strong.”
Naturally, it was only apt that a film about a virus outbreak got caught up in the COVID-19 pandemic itself. Filming started in Israel in February 2020 as it loomed on the horizon and by mid-March Khalil and his team had to promptly shut down, literally running to the airport the following morning as hotels kicked them out and flights were canceled. Production would pause for an entire year before resuming in the spring of 2021, when it started again in Jordan.
“So everything I wrote happened to me! It was funny until it bit us in the ass,” he says. “Next time I might write about lottery winners.”