‘The Belle From Gaza’ Review: A Blinkered Search for a Palestinian Trans Woman in Israel

The transgender subjects of “The Belle from Gaza” speak with a disarming frankness. This in turn implies the approachable and intimate nature of its production, but any dangers posed to its subjects — the risk of revealing their identities or drawing too much local attention — is verbalized far more than it’s depicted or felt. The need to infer and intellectualize are frequent prerequisites when watching Yolande Zauberman’s gentle documentary, in which she searches the clubs and red-light districts of Tel Aviv for a trans woman rumored to have traveled there secretly from Gaza on foot. While the camera remains trained on various women through piercing close-ups, rare are the moments when the movie widens its scope, despite gesturing toward a larger picture.

Zauberman has long explored the fault lines in Israeli society. Her 2011 documentary “Would You Have Sex With an Arab?” similarly pierces the veil of Tel Aviv’s nightlife and its branding as a bastion of queer progress and refuge in the Middle East. “The Belle from Gaza” marks a kind of pilgrimage through the French’s director’s previous works, especially her most recent documentary, “M,” in which 2016 Miss Trans Israel winner Talleen Abu Hanna played a supporting role. Abu Hanna, this time, is the camera’s guide and its window into the hidden corners of Israeli trans life, illuminated through personal confessions, and expressions of joy, desire, and fear.

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An old photograph captured by Zauberman (captioned “the Belle from Gaza”) and a half-remembered backstory send the filmmaker through a mystery of sorts, to find a rumored trans woman who escaped the militarized confines of Gaza. The exact story of this phantom beauty seems to shift with each new person interviewed — one subject leads to the next in search of the Belle — and whether she exists at all, as a real person or a political fantasy, is frequently in doubt.

This fascination with the Belle begins from a place of curiosity. As numerous trans sex workers (most of them Arab Muslim or Arab Catholic) illuminate their family dynamics, a discomforting dynamic appears to initially take hold, framing Israel’s Arab towns and neighborhoods as de facto anti-queer factions, compared to the more liberal Tel Aviv. However, the hushed whispers of these subjects often tell a different story, implying what might happen to this Belle were she or her Palestinian origins discovered — deportation, or worse — while hinting toward the nightly troubles each of these women must navigate.

One anecdote is especially striking. As an Arab trans woman narrates a hate crime from her youth, she recalls being driven by a lynch mob toward an IDF military checkpoint, which she assumes was so that Israeli soldiers might mistake her for a terrorist and shoot her dead. The onus of this traumatic event is placed on her assailants and their nefarious plan, but the lingering subtext of this story, and the chilling implication of a deadly institutionalized racism, is never broached.

Such political portraits tends to linger in the movie’s background and its darkened spaces, and while they force a closer reading of these otherwise casual interviews, Zauberman’s own examination is seldom inquisitive enough to illuminate these disguised dimensions. Of course, any film set in Israel today dealing with a Palestinian subject is bound to be seen in the context of the ongoing war in Gaza, and the numerous protests against the Israeli government. But even documentaries like this one, filmed many months ago, can function as Rorschach tests for the political temperature as it existed prior to Oct. 7.

However, this requirement from the audience, to project political viewpoints onto pauses and dramatic silences, is where “The Belle of Gaza” most falters as personal inquiry. That its frame is locked so intimately and unflinchingly on the daily routines of trans subjects is, in its own way, a radical act that unveils their inner lives. But their portraits end up flattened by the film’s refusal to remove its blinkers, and probe the defining social fabrics they constantly hint toward, but seem reticent to expand upon for fear of reprisal. Instead, the fills their silences with even more silence.

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