UK director Michael Winterbottom has suggested that his 2022 Gaza documentary Eleven Days In May had a tougher time securing a UK broadcast partner following an article in the London-based Jewish Chronicle linking his Palestinian co-director to Hamas.
The Kate Winslet-narrated documentary Eleven Days In May commemorates 68 Palestinian children killed by the Israeli bombing of Gaza in 2021. It consists of filmed vignettes in which the families recall their lost children and speak of their loss.
Supported by Oxfam and Unicef, it was shot by Gaza-based filmmaker Mohammed Sawwaf and his team, with Winterbottom working remotely in the UK, focusing mainly on the editing.
Revolution Films theatrically released the film in the UK in May 2022 to positive reviews, but the film became mired in controversy following a report in the Jewish Chronicle suggesting Sawwaf had Hamas connections.
The newspaper dubbed the film “Hamas propaganda’ saying Sawwaf had received an award for “countering the Zionist narrative’ from leaders of Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist organization in the UK, US, Canada, Japan and the European Union. The article claimed Sawwaf’s father had ties to Hamas and that the filmmaker was supportive of the organization on social media.
Talking at a Doha Film Institute masterclass on Wednesday, Winterbottom said the film had been harder to distribute than expected, although an international TV deal is now under negotiation.
“The film had a cinema release in the UK and got five-star reviews about how unbiased it was. After that, there was an article in the Jewish Chronicle. The gist of it was a smear, saying essentially, he’s from Gaza, he supports Hamas, therefore he supports terrorism, therefore you shouldn’t take anything in this film seriously,” said Winterbottom. “My feeling and Mohammed’s feeling was that it is best to ignore that type of article.”
Some 10 months later, Winterbottom said he feels the article and the controversy it stoked deterred some potential broadcast partners.
“We had a theatrical release in the UK, but we didn’t have a TV deal. The article that was written in the UK press was obviously an attempt to put people off the idea of showing it. I think Mohammed did a great job and I am very proud of the film, but we had a much more difficult time in getting it out there than we would have expected.”
“The smears in the article about Mohammed was that he deals with Hamas. Hamas runs Gaza, of course, he deals with Hamas. When you’re making a film in the city of London, you need to get permission. We take money from the government and taxpayers. We take money from the BBC. That doesn’t mean we’re stooges, or making propaganda films.”
Winterbottom said the aim of the work had been to present a record of the children and the impact of their deaths on their families.
“From the beginning, the idea was to remember all of them. It’s a memorial,” he said.
The film features images of dead children which led to it being given an 18 certificate by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) for the UK release.
Winterbottom said these images had been included at the request of the families who had provided them.
“We were in charge of editing and I take full responsibility. We were given those images by the family. Mohammed asked them to give any images they wanted to be included in the film. All those images were given by the family. It’s a film about absence. The central characters of this film are absent, the children who have been killed.”
Tackling its repetitive structure, Winterbottom said this was integral to the work.
“Cumulatively by the end, there is a cumulative power: so many children were killed, so many families lost their children, so many hopes and dreams were destroyed,” he explained.
“Also, this is not a one-off event in Gaza either. This is something that repeats itself throughout history. For the families there, it’s happened before, it’s happened on this occasion, it’s happened again since this and it will happen again. There is a repetitive nature to the tragedy created by humans – it is not a natural disaster. The repetitive structure was connected to the idea of the film.”
Must Read Stories
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.