While the devastation being wrought upon Ukraine has dominated the headlines over the last two months, just a year ago — for much of the world — the focus was on Gaza, which saw 11 days of death and destruction before Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire. Of the almost 200 Palestinians who died during Israel’s bombardment of the tightly controlled territory between May 10 and May 21, more than 60 were children.
Among those watching the horror unfold at the time was British writer/director Michael Winterbottom, who teamed with local director Mohammed Sawwaf to make Eleven Days in May, which is getting a special charity screening in London on Wednesday.
Narrated by Kate Winslet, the deeply emotional and unflinching documentary looks to humanize the deadly statistics, interviewing the mothers, fathers and siblings of the deceased children, hearing about their passions and their ambitions and the love between them and their families before the bombs started falling.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the Eleven Days in May premiere at the Picturehouse Central, hosted by Russell Brand and raising money for Hoping Foundation, Winterbottom discussed why he tried to focus on positive memories instead of making an “angry film” and why he hopes it will encourage people to find a solution to the conflict.
What was the spark that made you decide to make Eleven Days in May?
I think like most people watching the news last year, it was very shocking, and I think the coverage was good, and it got a lot of people’s attention. But we’ve done quite a few things connected to news stories, and it always feels like it might be in the news for a moment but then disappears. So it just seemed like it would be good to try and find a way for the children to be remembered. Quite soon after the bombing ended, we talked to UNICEF and Oxfam, and both were really helpful and encouraging, and then we talked to various different filmmakers and production companies in Gaza. We then worked with Mohammed, and really from that point on Mohammed did all the work on that end, contacting the families and checking they wanted to take part in the film. I think for everyone, it was just a way of trying to make as simple a film as possible to try and remember what happened.
Obviously getting in and out of Gaza is practically impossible, so I’m assuming you didn’t go yourself?
Originally, UNICEF actually thought they could possibly get us in, but it was going to take so long that we didn’t. So no, I haven’t been, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on Gaza.
Gaza has seen many invasions and bombing assaults over the years, and a lot of death. Was there anything about this particular conflict that made you want to do something?
I’d say more than the fact that it has happened before, that was perhaps itself more of a motive. It felt like if people remembered or imagined what it would be like to be in Gaza and being bombed — or being in Ukraine and being bombed or being in Yemen and being bombed, it’s the same experience wherever you are — it will make it less likely to happen again. The fact that periodically this happens in Gaza is one of the things that seems so terrible about it. It’s happened before and ideally would never happen again, so I suppose the point of any story about remembrance is trying to hope that it doesn’t happen again.
Editing must have been upsetting. Did you manage to put your emotions aside?
Obviously, it’s a very upsetting story, so it was quite hard editing. But I think from the start, it was very much about trying to remember the children, the things they love about them, the children’s dreams and ambitions, to try and focus on the positive memories. So there is that part of it, it is about families that love their children, and obviously that’s extremely upsetting at the same time, but it’s also about the positive aspects of family as well. But losing a child must be the worst thing imaginable. So the short answer is yes, it was quite hard work.
In the trailer and synopsis, the word “Israel” doesn’t appear at all, and I think it’s only used one or twice in the film. It felt very deliberate. What was the reason for not naming who was dropping the bombs?
It’s made from the point of view of people in Gaza. The starting idea was to focus on the families who have lost children and remembering those children, remembering their love for them, remembering what they miss about them and how their lives will never be the same again. My mum lost her first child and I think, however you lose a child, it’s the same grief, it’s the same experience. Obviously, this is very specifically about Gaza. But also, it would be the same experience in Ukraine, the same experience in Yemen, the same experience in Iraq when we were bombing Iraq, the same experience in Libya when we were bombing Libya. I suppose it was trying to keep the focus on not blaming someone, but on the children themselves, and for it not to be an angry film.
How did you get Kate Winslet on board to narrate?
I worked with Kate once a long time ago, and we just asked. As a person of integrity, we thought she’d be great. And fortunately, she said yes.
Well-known figures and celebrities have sometimes found that they’ve come under heavy criticism when they discuss Israel and Palestine, so shy away from it. Do you think that was a concern?
I think you’re right. I think Palestine is a difficult area for people to talk about. You’d have to ask Kate about whether she thought about it from that point of view. But I suppose, as you say, it’s not a film about Israel, it’s a film about families in Gaza, and it’s trying to focus on their love and loss. But it is a difficult area to talk about. But I didn’t think that means you should avoid talking about it.
When Gaza was being bombarded last year, it felt like there were more people than usual from the public and the entertainment industry — people who hadn’t spoken out before — calling for the fighting to end. Was this something you noticed?
Yeah, I was aware that there were more people calling for the conflict to end. I think there were definitely more public voices speaking out against it. On the other hand, if you compare the reaction to the bombing in Gaza to the bombing in Ukraine, it’s a very different reaction.
What do you hope for the film to achieve?
Firstly, I hope that it helps people remember what happened last year. And I suppose it’s trying to be a film of remembrance, to remember the children. If people can think about them as individual children, their families, the relationships between the families and the children, and just imagine really being in that situation, hopefully that will encourage people to try and find ways of that situation not happening again. Because it’s not like this is a one-off thing. And that makes it all the more important to remember what’s gone on in the past and stop it happening in the future.