‘La Belle de Gaza’ Review: Documentary About Palestinian Trans Women in Israel Falls Short

Somewhere in Yolande Zauberman’s overly diffuse documentary La Belle de Gaza is a sturdier and more clarifying film. But as it stands, the project, which premiered at Cannes, is a sprawling mass of missed opportunities. 

The film loosely follows a group of Arab trans women on Hatnufa Street, an under-lit back street in Tel Aviv. Zauberman encountered her subjects while shooting her documentary M . In that project, which premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in 2018, the director investigated sexual abuse in an Orthodox community in Israel. According to press notes for her new doc, in order to make a scene in M work, Zauberman needed to film a trans woman walking away from the camera. The girls she met on Hatnufa agreed. It wasn’t until later, when Zauberman returned to Paris, that her partner Sélim Nassib, who did sound for La Belle de Gaza and was present, told her about the woman who said she walked from Gaza all the way to Tel Aviv. 

La Belle de Gaza

The Bottom Line

Too sprawling for its own good.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Director: Yolande Zauberman

1 hour 16 minutes

With that whisper of a truth, Zauberman returns to Hatnufa in search of this Palestinian woman. The journey frames La Belle de Gaza, but the question of occupied territory looms large (the doc was shot entirely before October 7, 2023). Gaza represents a kind of unspeakable topic in the relationship between the viewers, Zauberman and her subjects. The area is a living contradiction of Israel’s professed democratic ideals, and that tension can be felt in the pauses, the silences and the sharp intakes of breath by the interviewees, as well as their occasional refusal to comment. There is also the question and subtext of safety. Even if this beauty of Gaza is real, she could never say. 

The women in La Belle de Gaza confront layers of oppression. Not only are many of them Palestinians living in Israel, but they are also trans. They wrestle with a dual displacement, from both state and family. Zauberman is more interested in, and most comfortable, exploring the latter subject. Her documentary gains a greater vivacity and texture when broaching the personal journeys of these women. When confronting cruel familial rejection, the logistics of transition, the clash between sexual identity and faith, La Belle de Gaza sheds its skittishness for a bold curiosity. 

Zauberman opens the film with a frank conversation between two central figures: Talleen, a younger trans woman, and Israela, an older trans woman who is a mother figure to Talleen. They speak with ease about sex and transition, imbuing La Belle de Gaza with a radical spirit reminiscent of D. Smith’s gutsy documentary Kokomo City . Israela tells a humorous story about a relationship and eventual marriage to a rabbi, to whom she only confessed being trans when she wanted a divorce.

The bond between Talleen and Israela is indeed one of the strongest threads in La Belle de Gaza. Some of the film’s most poignant moments include when both women recount Talleen’s “birth,” and how Israela shepherded the her through transition and surgeries in Thailand; their conversations around sexual pleasure pre- and post-transition; and scenes in which Talleen and her father speak openly about her identity. 

Zauberman shifts between Israela and Talleen’s stories and her search for the Gazan Beauty. She returns to Hatnufa with the memory of this story and a blurry photo. It’s here that she meets Danièle and Nathalie, two trans women whose backgrounds offer more than this 76-minute film can hold. For self-protection, Nathalie wears a veil during her interviews; over the course of the film, she returns to her faith. How she reconciles her transition and being a Muslim is a site of rich investigation that the documentary, because of its style and distance, doesn’t engage with much. 

When asked about the woman who walked from Gaza, Danièle tells Zauberman point blank that she has been lied to. “That is bullshit,” she says quickly. And when the director asks about Gaza, Danièle is the subject who outright refuses. There’s pain in her eyes when she talks about survival, as though she is on the verge of tears, and a sobering and devastating reality hits when she says, “I don’t want to speak about that.” Zauberman’s film is filled with many scenes that testify to the generosity of the trans women at its center. But it leaves one craving more acuity, greater sharpness. It’s the “that” — weighted with the history of occupation — which feels like the unexplored heart of La Belle de Gaza.

Full credits

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Production companies: Unité, Phobics, Arte France Cinema
Director: Yolande Zauberman
Producers: Bruno Nahon, Olivier Père, Yolande Zauberman
Cinematographer: Yolande Zauberman
Editor: Rafael Torres Calderon, Léo Richard
Composer: Selim Nassib
Sales: Pyramide International

1 hour 16 minutes

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