The most moving and memorable documentaries about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict illuminate the bigger picture by focusing on everyday people.
Israeli television journalist Shlomi Eldar was unwittingly presented with a splendid example when a surgeon asked him for help raising $55,000 for a bone marrow transplant for a Palestinian baby. Eldar’s on-air announcement elicited a call from an Israeli (who’d lost his son in the Army, incidentally) donating the full amount.
“It was the beginning of light between all the darkness in the Middle East,” Eldar recalls. “I wanted to see how a baby from Gaza could get treatment in an Israeli hospital.”
But Eldar’s TV network wasn’t interested in a film, nor was anyone else in Israel. He proceeded, and persisted, nonetheless.
“Precious Life,” which won the Ophir Award for Best Israeli Documentary and was short-listed for the Academy Award for Documentary Feature, screens in the Hartford Jewish Film Festival. It has been acquired by HBO, and presumably will air later this year.
Eldar was at a crux in his career when Muhammad Abu Mustaffa and his parents entered his life. He had covered Gaza as a television correspondent since 1991, and was ready for a change. The book he was writing about Hamas was almost finished.
So he grabbed his camera in the spring of 2008 and started chronicling the Mustaffas’ saga. It was complicated, at first, by the difficulty of transporting family members to the Sheba Medical Center at Tel HaShomer for testing as potential donors. So Eldar became more than an observer, pulling strings to facilitate their passage through checkpoints.
“I didn’t realize it would be a huge story,” Eldar recalls. “After they finished the treatment and I escorted them to Gaza, I sold my camera. I didn’t need it any more. When I saw the story was still going on, I rushed to buy a new camera,” he says with a wry laugh during an interview last fall, when the film played the Mill Valley Film Festival in Marin County
The Mustaffas’ experience in Israel had gone far beyond a simple feel-good episode. Some of their neighbors spread rumors that the family received the transplant in exchange for collaborating. Then the Gaza War broke out, putting the family in a different kind of danger.
Eldar adamantly defends Israel’s right to defend itself—in the case of the proximate cause of that war, from Katyusha missiles—but he decries the degree of military force used in Gaza.
“I was the only Israeli TV war correspondent that was against the war,” he asserts, “and on Israeli television, day and night for 21 days, on every single show, I said that I’m against this kind of war.”
There are other major, unexpected twists in “Precious Love,” notably a conversation where the mother, Ra’ida, tells Eldar she’d be quite satisfied if Muhammad grew up to become a suicide bomber.
You can imagine Eldar’s response, given his extraordinary commitment to the family. From the filmmaking standpoint, Ra’ida’s shocking comment confirmed Eldar’s transition from objective journalist to participant. It was a role shift that the Israeli-American producer Ehud Bleiberg had emphasized from the time he joined the project in its early stages.
“’You have to understand,’ he told me, ‘that you are part of the story,’” Eldar recalls. “You’re not only the director, you’re a character. You have to understand, if you had not acted like you acted, Mohammad would have died.”
“Precious Life” will be screened twice at the Mandell JCC Hartford Jewish Film Festival: The first screening is on Sunday, March 27, 7:30 p.m. at K&G Theatres in Bloomfield; a second screening has been added to the schedule on Friday, April 1, 1 p.m. at the Mandell JCC, with a post-film discussion led by Ronny Siegel.
Michael Fox is a freelance film critic.