While Covid still rampaged, and the world was hardly looking, last summer saw the bloodiest escalation of hostilities in Gaza since 2014. Trying for a two-sided overview of this particular spate of bombardments would probably have doomed any documentary: no striving for editorial balance could ever be universally embraced.
The huge virtue of Eleven Days in May is avoiding any such attempt. It concentrates, with devastating simplicity, on the deaths of Gaza’s children, and only Gaza’s children, in that fray: the 60 of those innocent lives lost from May 10, 2021 until the ceasefire on May 21, amid an overall death toll of at least 243 people, according to Gaza’s health ministry.
The film, co-directed by Michael Winterbottom and a Palestinian filmmaker called Mohammed Sawwaf, has Kate Winslet supplying the unfussy narration. Not one word isn’t a bald fact about where a bomb landed and who died. It takes us through, day by day, and puts not only names, but faces – laughing, on phone footage, when they were still alive – to the statistics.
On some of those days, whole families were all but wiped out, leaving only, in one instance, a pair of grandparents behind. Other days, pieces of shrapnel from Israel’s airstrikes took away a single oldest brother, or a youngest sister, an unborn baby.
With each new name comes a family. They are grouped and singled out, in portraits, gazing straight into the lens. Young siblings squirm or giggle while the shots are planned: they do what children do. They and their parents tell us about the ones they’ve lost – a little girl obsessed with cats, a lad whose favorite footballer was Sergio Ramos. They reminisce, with barely a trace of bitterness, sometimes smiling, sometimes through tears.
TikTok videos and selfie filters, presumably treasured now by the survivors, bring the victims briefly back to life on screen. But then we see the rubble, the blood, and the broken limbs, captured by strangers’ phones on the streets, with chaos and grief intermingled. Images of the bodies form only a tiny fraction of what’s shown, but of course their weight is infinite.
Assembling a memorial to the dead is all this film is doing, and everything it needs to do. We’re not embroiled in disputing anything: in terms of what’s strictly on screen, there’s nothing to dispute. A woman sent her daughter out on a shopping errand one afternoon, a bomb landed, and she died, meters away from their front door. The mother carries around unthinkable sadness, as well as the guilty burden of having put her child in harm’s way. Nowhere is safe in Gaza, as we’re often reminded: the same bomb could just as easily have obliterated that family’s building with everyone inside. It’s the cosmically cruel randomness of this injustice that hits home.
Winterbottom has lately gone to ground a little, after losing final cut on his comedy-satire Greed (2019), where the jokes sat uneasily next to the moral protest. This project, comparatively underheralded, has brought out his most focused, humane, non-showboating instincts, and holds up his finest work in years.
It’s a desperately upsetting litany of losses, gravely scored to Max Richter’s liturgical music, with its hints of Fauré’s Requiem. The film doesn’t rage or rant; rhetoric forms no part of it. But the many hundreds of testimonies it presents, even from those just standing there silently, mount an impressively straightforward reason for its existence. There’s simply no way you could watch it unmoved.
18 cert, 85 min; in Picturehouse Cinemas from tomorrow
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.