Alex Klein is piecing together the story of a people and a place a world away from his own. Earlier this year, the American skateboarder gathered up three of his best friends, borrowed $30,000, procured an HD camera by not entirely ethical means, and got on a plane to Tel Aviv. He went to document the efforts of Surfing 4 Peace, a grassroots movement that refuses to let bombs, embargoes or militant threats dampen its mission to bring surfing to the ravaged Gaza Strip. What he ended up capturing, however, is an image of a nation divided by borders, but united in the surf. The result is God Went Surfing With The Devil, a documentary film that takes its name from a pearl of wisdom uttered by Jewish surfing ambassador Dorian ‘Doc’ Paskowitz: “God will surf with the devil,” he said, “if the waves are good.” Holed up in a roasty editing room in Los Angeles, Alex took a moment out to breathe, reflect and talk to HUCK about the tales that he found.
What motivated you to make God Went Surfing With The Devil?
Alex Klein: It started with Doc Paskowitz, the guy who brought surfing to Israel. In August 2007 he got with a guy named Arthur Rashkovan, who I’d met on a skateboard trip to Israel a few years earlier. Together with Kelly Slater they founded Surfers 4 Peace and donated a dozen surfboards to the guys in Gaza. Six months later Arthur decided he was going to do it again, this time with twice as many surfboards. In the time that had elapsed, the situation in the region had deteriorated greatly. Gaza was entirely under siege and the borders were closed. Palestinian militants were launching daily rocket attacks at Israel, and Israel was responding with counter-attacks that were killing militants and innocent bystanders alike. It was a really dire situation. But Arthur was undaunted and committed to getting these boards in, claiming he had various connections with the government. The whole situation was fairly intriguing, so I thought I’d try to document the process.
What was it about Israel that drew you there?
Israel is a pretty magical country. It’s a land steeped in history and culture and conflict, and makes for a good backdrop to any story. One thing I’d noticed about the media coverage from the Middle East though, is that it tends to be pretty rote, just this endless repetition of conflict footage and bombings. I was interested to examine and report on how real people lived and dealt with the conflict.
Did your religious roots have any bearing on your interest in the area?
We’re all mixed. Collectively our four-person crew has one Jewish father, one Arab father, one Jewish mother, a few Christian parents and a few Catholic parents. I don’t know that it was a sense of culture or identity that drove our interest in the region. I think we were more interested in the humanity of it all. That this group of young guys, who were supposed to be enemies, were instead trying to come together and surf with each other. That seemed like an important story to us, something that transcended any kind of personal ties to the people or land.
Did you set out with a firm idea of the kind of story you wanted to tell, or did the narrative develop and change along the way?
We didn’t have an agenda at all. We were curious to let the story reveal itself to us. When we arrived, we just set out to meet as many people as possible, and then we honed in on the stories we felt were most compelling. In addition to following the journey of the twenty-four surfboards into Gaza, we also explored the lives of various surfers in the region, from a young Jewish surf champion who lives in a wealthy suburb, to a poor Arab-Israeli surfer who lives in a shanty with chickens running around. I learned that a lot of documentary filmmaking is just letting go of preconceptions and allowing the story to emerge on its own. I think when you have filmmakers going in with a fixed hypothesis, and then setting out to prove that hypothesis, you get problems. First of all it’s disingenuous, second of all it’s boring. For us, the most interesting people appeared when we least expected it. Like this random guy approached us on the sidewalk and started talking to us, and we all thought he was this crazy, kooky weirdo, but we let him talk on camera anyway, just to appease him so that he’d go away. But then 45 minutes later we were still filming him, and it turned out he was completely fascinating and relevant to the story. But this was a person whom initially I completely resisted interviewing. He looked like George Washington on drugs.
What does surfing mean to the people you met?
For the Jewish guys, surfing is a huge escape. Everyone in Israel serves in the army. The country is constantly under the threat of attack, and every single guy we talked to had either seen combat or knew somebody who’d been killed in combat. So that’s a pretty heavy weight to carry around, and for a lot of them, surfing is an escape. For the Arab-Israeli guys, their life is often an uphill battle against poverty and discrimination, by virtue of being Arabs in a Jewish state. For them as well, surfing is a way to put all that behind them.
Did you travel outside Tel Aviv at all?
Besides Gaza, we travelled around the south of Israel, to Asheklon and Sderot. Both places have been under heavy rocket attack from Palestinian militants, and we wanted to talk to people about that. Sderot has been getting hit with these homemade Qassam rockets for years, something like 6,000 in the last five years. The town is constantly under attack, with bomb shelters on every corner. The IDF [Israeli Army] has this large zeppelin that sits at the border of Gaza and monitors incoming rocket fire. Usually it’s one of two groups, either Islamic Jihad or Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. The militants can set up a tripod pretty quickly and fire a bunch of rockets into Israel. This trips an alarm system that tells residents in Sderot that they have twenty seconds to run to a bomb shelter. Any time the militants launch rockets, the Israeli Air Force is pretty quick to respond with a counterstrike. Usually an Apache helicopter takes off after the militants, who by this time are fleeing from the border in a pick-up truck. The helicopter then tries to hunt them down and kill them. This is how you get a lot of innocent Palestinian deaths, because the missiles will miss the militants and hit a bunch of kids playing in the street, or accidentally blow up a house. One of the first weeks we got there, an Israeli helicopter killed a vehicle full of militants whose jeep happened to be packed with explosives. The secondary blast ended up collapsing a nearby house and killing a woman and her five children. The papers there report on these kinds of tragedies daily. So anyway, that’s Sderot. No surf there, just rockets.
Ashkelon is noteworthy because it’s a larger city, around 100,000 people, and it only recently came into missile range in March, when the militants acquired these larger, long-range missiles. For the citizens of Ashkelon, they’re dealing with the reality that suddenly they are very vulnerable to daily terror attacks. For the surfers in Ashkelon it’s even more dangerous, because the force of a missile exploding in the water is five times greater than if it explodes on land. Though it didn’t take place in the water, one of the first people to be injured in one of these rocket attacks on Ashkelon was a surfer, who suffered very serious injuries after a rocket exploded in the beach parking lot. We talked to him about it, and saw the scars from his injuries, saw the site where the blast occurred. While we were there we could hear the fighting going on, the ‘boom’ of explosions in the distance and the sound of machine gun fire. You can actually sit there eating an ice-cream cone, listening to a war being fought a few miles away.
That’s the strangest thing to understand. Ashkelon and Gaza are only 7km apart, and Sderot and Gaza are only 3km apart. That’s like if the Lower East Side in New York declared war on Brooklyn. You can actually see Ashkelon from the beach in Gaza, or look into Gaza from Sderot. They’re all eerily close.
Do you think the American public – and the world at large – have a warped image of what is happening in Israel and Gaza?
Sure. Most Americans have no idea that there is basically a low-level war being fought between Gaza and Israel, one that almost exclusively targets civilian populations. The Palestinian militants target everyday Israeli citizens, and the Israelis respond by placing all of Gaza under siege, crippling the economy and severely damaging the lives of all the residents there, militants or otherwise. Even within the region there are tremendously warped views. For the Israelis, there is very little understanding of who the Palestinians really are. Many feel that the population is rife with terrorists, all of whom have declared a jihad on Western life. Before we went into Gaza, numerous Israelis warned us that we would get kidnapped or killed if Hamas discovered us. People genuinely feared for our lives. In reality, the Palestinians are tremendously hospitable and tremendously well educated, many possessing graduate degrees and PhDs. Lots of them mourned the siege because the lack of fuel meant the school buses couldn’t take them to class, and the lack of electricity meant they couldn’t study at night. The majority of the people there are really regular, they’re just being held hostage by a very radical government. That’s the thing most people don’t understand: that it doesn’t take a lot of guys with AK-47s to seize control of a population. We felt that ourselves. When a bunch of Hamas gunmen surrounded us on the street and told us to get in the car and go down to the police headquarters with them, we went. You tend not to argue with a guy carrying an assault rifle, or in our case, six guys with assault rifles.
What is the surf scene really like out there?
The surf scene in Israel is great. Surfing and beach culture in general are really popular. People are stoked on it. They all complain about the lack of waves, but other than that it’s good. In Gaza the surf scene is really young. The guys there literally had nothing when we went to visit. I think they had two beat-up shortboards and a couple windsurfing boards that they used as surfboards. Together about fifteen guys would share these. None of the Palestinian guys had boardshorts or even swim trunks, they’d surf in jean cut-offs or biker shorts or capri pants. Most of the people there are really poor. There’s something like seventy per cent unemployment, and if you do have a job, you’re likely earning two dollars a day doing construction. Beyond that, even if you do manage to scrape some money together, there’s nothing to buy in the markets. No goods, no clothes, nothing. But the surfers there make do, building fins out of random pieces of wood, and forging leashes out of spare pieces of rope. It was pretty inspirational to see. Together they share their boards and surf every day they can, catching waves with each other, loving every second of it.
Do you believe that surfing can be this great equalizing force that brings people together?
All the surfers we met just wanted to surf and travel and make friends. There was no talk of politics or religion with any of them, Palestinian or Israeli. They all just want to meet and surf together, something they’ve never been able to do in the past. It’s actually really funny, because none of the surfers in Israel have ever been to Gaza, and yet somehow there are these persistent rumors that Gaza has the best surf around, that it’s like this Shangri-La for surfing. It’s this ‘grass is always greener’ syndrome that’s somehow snowballed out of control. If you hear Israelis talk about it, Gaza is like Indonesia or something.
What do you hope people take away from the film?
I hope people are marginally enlightened and entertained. I think most documentaries are hopelessly depressing, so ideally God Went Surfing With The Devil will convey a sense of optimism, that it’s possible to make the world a better place, even if it’s in a small way.