Precious Life

By Shlomi Eldar
Produced by Ehud Bleiberg (Adam Ressurected)
Shortlisted for the Documentary Feature category of the 2011 Academy Awards
Recipient of the 2010 Ophir Award (Israeli Academy Awards) for Best Documentary

I must say, choosing Precious Life to open the festival, and inviting Dr. Raz Somech to Montreal to present the documentary in which he inadvertently “stars” is quite a coup. This year, in its 7th edition, the Montreal Israel Film Festival seems poised to turn some heads.

The festival is run by Eran Bester, who carefully selects each film himself, in order to more accurately reflect the cultural mosaic that represents Israeli life. The aim is to present Israel in another light than the conflict to which it is most often associated: “Beyond conflict, there is a huge spectrum of subjects,” says Bester.

The choice of presenting Precious Life, a remarkably powerful film, for the opening is a bold statement in itself, and seems to represent the direction that Bester wants to take his festival: towards mutual understanding. Precious Life is an extraordinary film, whose unscripted footage represents a priceless viewpoint on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It has been billed as moving, thought-provoking and sensitive, the movie to see to fully understand the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The premise is that life is precious and that everything must be done to save a life, including reversing beliefs to the contrary.

“There is a saying in Hebrew that says that if you save one life, you save the entire world. I did not save the entire world, I was just able to save one life. But I think I was able to change the life of one whole family and that allowed us to see eachother differently.” – Dr. Raz Somech

Precious Life was born of an idea by a renowned Israeli journalist, Shlomi Eldar, after hearing of an Israeli doctor’s outreach to institutions to help save the life of a Palestinian baby who has a deadly hereditary disease. The seasoned journalist, who had served many years as a correspondent covering war zones, sensed a hopeful story and offered to shoot a documentary of the proceedings. What ensues is a tight relationship that developped into a trust-driven bond between the immunologist, Dr. Raz Somech, the Palestinian parents, and the journalist, all of whom shared the common goal of saving a child’s life. The final piece of the puzzle is brought by an anonymous donor, an Israeli man who lost his own son in the ongoing war and who believes that saving this Palestinian child will add a stone to the altar of peace.

Everything is done to allow for a blood transfusion from one of the child’s cousins. Things get complicated because to get people and blood samples across the Erez check point in Tel Aviv can be tricky, especially when war breaks out again. Live footage of Kassam rockets, a car bomb exploding at the check point and the subsequent Israeli retaliation is bone-chilling. (Note: Propagandists will have to recognize the fact that the filmmaker does not hesitate to point out the IDF’s (Israeli Defense Force) excessive use of force.) Finally the operation goes through and the child survives.

Raida and Muhammad Ben Mustafa

Then the momentum of the entire documentary takes a drastic turn during a sequence where Shlomi has a random conversation with Raida (the child’s mother) about the territories, Jewish religious holidays and Jerusalem. There, the conversation turns to the means by which Jerusalem, she says, will be regained by the lives of all Palestinians. To which Shlomi, camera rolling, asks: “Would you let your son become a shahid (martyr)?” The response was unequivocal: “Yes!”

“Every single person can die for that, no problem. We know we are going to die, we are used to it. We do not value life the way you do.”

At that point, Shlomi’s resolve falters completely. “I had lost all compassion for a woman whose child’s life was saved by Israelis and who will allow him to become a shahid on Israeli soil.”

He decides to confront her and her husband, Fauzi, and it is only then that he begins to understand what motivates Raida, whom he sees caught between protecting her reputation as a true Arab, having to answer to Gazawi as to her “association” with the Jews, and her newly acquired appreciation for Israelis as a people that she no longer fears.

I have heard people come out of this film saying that it is Israeli propaganda. Could be. But there is no hatred here, from either side. And what is undeniable is that it is a true story. That there are no actors and no script. That enduring friendships have been formed between Israelis and Palestinians in this particular situation. That a Palestinian child’s life was saved.* That kindness between people involved in a deadly conflict is possible. That understanding does tend towards easing ideological barriers and prejudicial thinking. And we have to believe that this eventually does lead to peace. Although, it must be said, some do not believe it.

So if a message of peace is received as propaganda, well then, so be it.

But one must also recognize the effort and courage of those who have made this film happen: From Dr. Raz Somech, whose only goal was to save a child’s life; to Shlomi Eldar who moved mountains and used his contacts from years as a war correspondent in the Gaza Strip; to Fauzi and Raida Abu Mustafa, Muhammad’s parents who confronted conflicting ideologies in their Gaza neighborhood; to the bereft Israeli father of a fallen soldier who anonymously donated $55,000 to cover the medical costs of an operation that saved a Palestinian’s life.

At one point in the film, Dr. Somech explains to Raida the side effects associated with the blood transfusion, in a sentence that to me sums up the underlying theme and enormous potential of this documentary, an analogy that speaks as much to the fragility of the political situation as to the resilience of life and good will once it decides to take hold:

“The graft may be rejected by Muhammad’s organism because it’s perceived as a foreign body. So there’s a struggle between the two elements. Each has its own will and wishes. He will survive only if they can co-exist.

Dr. Raz Somech at the Corona Theatre, on Opening Night. Photo S. Pascal

I met briefly with Dr. Somech at the opening night of the Festival. If there was any doubt as to the sincerity of this man and to his motivations to do this film, they vanish immediately upon meeting him. He radiates a humanity I have rarely seen. In his own words, this is a film about friendship and the reality of life in Israel.

Precious Life will be screened again tonight in Montreal at Concordia University, West Room H-110, at 6:30 pm in the presence of Dr. Somech.

Otherwise Precious Life will also be screened on May 24, 9 pm, at Cinéma du Parc, during the mostly francophone Festival du cinéma israélien.

* Muhammad is 3 1/2 today [as of April 2011], and healthy

Montreal Israel Film Festival Official Website