PRECIOUS LIFE Shlomi Eldar (35mm; 90 min.)
Screens Saturday, November 6, 9:30 p.m., Mann's Chinese 3
“The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to go in that hospital…”
These are the words spoken by Israeli television war correspondent Shlomi Eldar that open his coolly devastating documentary Precious Life, in which Eldar sets out to raise awareness of the plight of tiny baby Muhammad, the third child born without an immune system to Palestinian parents Raida and Fauzi, and perhaps the third who will die from it. They seek help from Dr. Raz Somech in an Israeli hospital, an act which may indeed save their son’s life but which eventually foments suspicion and distrust among the family’s neighbors in Gaza over whether or not Raida and Fauzi’s sympathies have transferred to the Jews.
Precious Life is remarkable in many ways, not least of which for the profound empathy with which it manages to cut across political and religious lines, but for its simply complex humanity. Documentaries detailing the financial and practical difficulties of dealing with familial disease are plentiful and often worth spending time with, but in Precious Life the emphasis on the relationship between Muhammad’s family and the filmmaker Eldar necessarily becomes part of the picture and enriches it. It is his initial news reports that focus attention on the baby’s situation and inspire an anonymous donor to fund the entire $55,000 operation. Eldar then continues his involvement by securing his connections in Gaza to help facilitate the gathering of blood donations from 25 of little Muhammad’s cousins when it is determined that none of the baby’s three living siblings are a match for his blood type.
By this point the movie could have turned into a Michael Moore stunt, a rhetorical rallying cry wondering why both sides can’t just get along with its morally self-righteous director leading the viewer by the nose. But Eldar, following a natural pulse (his own and that of the film’s), resists such easy posturing. Muhammad’s cousin Sausana proves a match, but arranging her safe arrival to the hospital becomes even more difficult when full-on war breaks out, effectively closing off the checkpoint passage from Gaza into Israel. And when Sausana finally does arrive, the family spends agonizing months worrying over whether Muhammad’s body will accept or reject the graft that will bolster his immune system and save his life. It is here that Eldar’s sensitivity as a documentarian is best exemplified, for what emerges in Precious Life is not simply one personal story adorned with statistics and chatter. As described by Dr. Somech, in the transplant process initially the bone marrow graft reacts adversely to the patient, and at the same time the body tries to reject the graft because it experiences it as invasion by a foreign organism. There is, therefore, a struggle between two components which must coexist in order for the patient to survive, each with its own desires and aspirations. Indeed, within little Muhammad’s struggling body is discovered a potent metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself which helps translate the arguments from the abstract into a critically human dimension, a metaphor the medically non-conversant Eldar most likely could have never anticipated.
But even that discovery might feel almost too pat if it weren’t for what happens next. In a moment of repose as Muhammad heals, Eldar allows himself to be drawn into a conversation with Raida regarding how the Palestinian people look upon life, and he is horrified by what he hears. Raida is a woman who has grown up in a society where even the children speak as if they are doomed old men-- One child interviewed early on proclaims, “Whatever happens, praise be to Allah. Whatever happens, we’re dead already.” She tries, clearly uncomfortably, to explain to Eldar on camera that for her, death is natural, normal. She speaks from the same perspective as that matter-of-fact child when she says that for her people life is not precious, that from being surrounded by it every day they do not fear death, and neither do their children. And she loses Eldar’s sympathy altogether when she explains that she would rejoice if her little Muhammad could survive his current situation and live to become a shahid, one who dies for the cause of Palestine, presumably taking many Israelis with him.
Of course, Eldar cannot bear the thought of this child being saved only to one day become an agent of death for people who might every well be close to him. It's a credit to his courage as a filmmaker that he never backs away from his own anger, and given his history as a critical correspondent of Israel's own aggressive military policies it's no surprise that he shouldn't be hesitant to expose his own internal conflicts. But what is remarkable about Precious Life is how the rest of the film is dedicated to navigating that seemingly unchartable space between Eldar and Raida, and the Israelis and Palestinians, to coming to some kind of understanding of how people who so profoundly disagree could possibly help each other, love each other, live together in peace. The movie doesn’t pretend to have the answers that have eluded generations, and Eldar certainly, as a documentarian, a reporter and an Israeli, wears his qualifications on his sleeve. But awareness of these facts are not gained at the expense of Raida, who emerges as one of the most complex and compelling characters I’ve seen in a film, fiction or nonfiction, in many years. By the time she gives birth again, Precious Life has become less about saving Muhammad than about forging and maintaining the connection for this woman between the unfamiliar world of Israel in which she had spent several months but never understood. It’s a world so very different from the war-ravaged streets of Gaza that she calls home and to which she retains loyalty, a world about which she may very well teach her newborn daughter different things than what she has taught her other children in the past.
For the full schedule and more information on how to get tickets for Precious Life and other films at the AFI Fest, visit their web site. You can also see this review and many other festival film reviews posted at the AFI Fest blog.