Escape From Gaza: How Palestinian Filmmakers Tarzan And Arab Made It To Austin

Twin filmmaking brothers Tarzan and Arab have never left the Gaza Strip or seen a movie on the big screen. This week they're coming to Austin to show their short and see their favorite movie projected for the first time. This is the story of how they got from Gaza to the Drafthouse.

This was what Carrie Matherly heard again and again as she began asking around about getting twin Palestinian filmmakers, known as Tarzan and Arab, to come to Austin. Carrie, Tim League's assistant, had been tasked with figuring out how to get these two to America after Harry Knowles brought their situation to Tim's attention. Tarzan and Arab had made a short film, Colourful Journey, but had never seen a movie in a theater. They had studied fine arts but had never been to a gallery. They have never left the Gaza Strip - an area about 25 miles long and 12 miles across at its widest point. At least not until September. In September they began a long journey that sees them finally touching down in Austin today, to show Colourful Journey to a crowd and to see their favorite film - Bergman's Cries and Whispers - projected. And everyone had said that this could never happen. Tarzan and Arab - real names Ahmed and Mohammed Abu Nasser - studied photography and fine art in school. They live in their studio, which is decorated with their art and cluttered with books and two pianos.  They say they got their talent as painters and illustrators - as well as their nicknames - from their father, a teacher who was also an artist. They've never seen a movie in a theater, but they became obsessed with film when they would pass by the burned out wreckage of a cinema and look at the tattered remains of movie posters, and imagined what it must have been like. Those posters gave birth to one of their conceptual art projects, a series of 20 fake movie posters that take their titles from real Israeli military operations, like Summer Rain, Autumn Clouds, Defensive Shield, Cast Lead. They want people to look at the posters, which reflect the struggles and problems of the people of Gaza, and imagine the movies. While they don't have the training or the equipment or the money, Tarzan and Arab are determined to be filmmakers. Their short won an award at a festival in Ramallah and played at London's Mosaic Room in March; they were unable to attend either event. The Guardian, whose report first turned Knowles on to Tarzan and Arab, describes Colourful Journey as  "about factional infighting within Gaza and its political, social and personal cost. Tarzan and Arab depict a fratricidal war, their identical appearances reinforcing their message that Gazan brothers need to unite to face their common enemy." The initial contact with Arab and Tarzan was sparse; the  twins don't speak much English, and it wasn't clear they fully understood - or believed - what the Alamo Drafthouse and Ain't It Cool wanted to do for them. Eventually it became clear that they have family in California, and so their aunt became the intermediary, in order to better communicate. Things were moving slowly, as they tend to do when dealing with governments in that part of the world. The team was hitting every contact they had, trying to figure out a way to get the boys' visas; they found hostility when they contacted the Israeli Embassy in Houston, and more hostility when they got in touch with the State Department. No one seemed interested in helping, and the officials only replied with suspicion. Then Tarzan and Arab got news: the border between Gaza and Egypt, the only plausible way for them to leave Gaza, would be closing in a week. It's unclear how they heard, as this wasn't officially announced, but the Palestinians have their ways. Getting across that border is tough in the best of times, especially for young men. The boys decided that this was their moment; if they didn't make a move now they might not be able to leave Gaza for another year or more. They sent a message to Austin: "We're headed to Cairo. Figure out what to do with us from there." And then they were off. Without a plan. And without much progress happening in America to actually get them to Austin. The hope had been to get Tarzan and Arab to Austin for Fantastic Fest, but that quickly proved impossible. They spent weeks in Cairo, and the American Embassy took their passports as part of the visa application process. This meant they were trapped in a strange city without identification. Soon money began running out, and without IDs they couldn't pick up the funds that had been wired to them at Western Union. Worse, the brothers began getting hassled in the streets. They weren't sure if it was because they dress like big shaggy weirdos or if it was because of their nationality, but they became terrified of getting into trouble without identification. They started just staying indoors. As they waited they quietly celebrated their 24th birthday, alone in Cairo. In America Carrie was working with their aunt; their first conversation was a strange one as the woman, while helpful, was terse. Later Carrie discovered that she had been going through labor during the call. "It's okay," the aunt said. "It's my fifth baby." By now Fantastic Fest had come and gone. Tarzan and Arab had left Gaza on September 16th and had been without a passport since September 24th. Things were getting desperate, and they had come so far, shown so much determination, that nobody in Austin could give up. Finally a local Congressman got involved. He did some leaning on the right people and magically the passport issue cleared up. There were some excuses thrown around, but the important thing is that Tarzan and Arab got their passports and their visas. As of this writing they should be in Austin, Texas. Tim League intends to give the twins the usual Texas experience that many visiting filmmakers get when coming to the Drafthouse - incredible barbecue, shooting shotguns and hopefully meeting with other filmmakers. Their next stop will be Hollywood, where they'll spend time as tourists and catch up with family in the Los Angeles area, many of whom they haven't seen in decades. Talking to the Guardian, Arab said, "As artists we are restricted by living in a conservative and tough community. Let's be realistic. Our life is under siege, under control. People don't have time for art. They spend all their time looking for crumbs. They say, 'What use is art? Art will not give you bread.' " Hopefully their time in America will reinforce what Tarzan and Arab already know: that art is not just useful but vital and essential to the human experience. And maybe while they're here we can be reminded that art isn't about your equipment or facilities, but rather about your will and your vision. While Tarzan and Arab don't have the cameras or editing software available to most young American filmmakers, they have a surplus of will and vision. If you're in Austin, join Tarzan and Arab as they show Colourful Journey and watch their first ever movie on a big screen. It's Wednesday at 7:15 at the Alamo Ritz. If you're not in Austin, you can help Tarzan and Arab get their first feature together; Tim League has opened a Kickstarter for them. You can donate here.