Shlomi Eldar, a TV journalist in Israel, thought he had created a simple feel-good documentary about saving the life of a Palestinian baby. Then, the plot thickened like a Hollywood drama.
“Precious Life” begins optimistically enough. An anonymous Israeli whose soldier son was killed by Palestinians agrees to put up $50,000 for a bone marrow transplant to heal a Gaza boy named Muhammad. A frantic cross-border hunt for a donor match pays off. Surgery is eventually successful. Muhammad begins a tricky recovery from what might have otherwise been a fatal autoimmune disease.
But in a jolt to the film’s established vibe of kinship, the boy’s mother, Raida, declares that she would be happy for her son to someday strap on explosives, blow up Israelis and himself, and reclaim Jerusalem for the Palestinians. Eldar could not hide his sense of betrayal.
“It was a paradox,” he told the Forward at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie screened in the Real to Reel category. “First I saw how much she cared for Muhammad. And then she told me that life is nothing. How could she be fighting for his life, yet life is nothing? And send Muhammad to be a suicide bomber?”
A demoralized Eldar walked away from the project for a day, but Muhammad’s father, Faozi, convinced him to finish “Precious Life.” The filmmaker in Eldar eventually realized he had captured a transcendent moment. The humanist in him tried to make sense of it.
“Maybe we have to understand that life has become very cheap because of the war, the way of life, the everyday survival in Gaza,” he said during the interview. “I can’t blame her when she talked about it.”
The film has been bought by HBO and will air in 2011. It is doubtful that the cable network would have snatched it up had it not been for the shocking revelations about the mother’s attitudes. Perhaps Eldar’s own television station would not have rejected his story proposal had it known foreseen these developments. Eldar himself only originally figured he had material for a 30-minute heart tugger at best, “a light in all the darkness.”
But whenever the Israelis and Palestinians are involved, darkness is not far behind. Families back in Gaza cursed Raida as a traitor for accepting Jewish help. The eruption of tensions — and then outright war — threatened to put the kibosh on the entire rescue mission.
Eldar began pursuing the story when his access to Gaza was cut off after Hamas took power and Israel established a blockade. No longer could he commute to Gaza, which had been fertile ground for Eldar’s human interest reporting. To cast light on the Palestinians’ plight, Eldar turned to hospitals on the Israel side.
Muhammad’s Jewish pediatrician, Raz Somech, told Eldar that without urgent action, the baby in his care would soon die. Eldar used his platform to issue a public plea for donors, and he was able to secure a financial benefactor. He then orchestrated the delicate politics of a hunt for a blood match among Muhammad’s relatives in Gaza, and the relay of samples at the border crossing.
Eldar has been criticized in some camps, including the Hollywood trade daily Variety, for being self-aggrandizing and for occupying too much film time. He said it all was unavoidable. As a crucial facilitator of the boy’s treatment, how could he not be a focus of the narrative?
“I realized that I am a part of it,” he said. “I can bring the blood from Gaza. I’m the only one who has a connection with the Palestinians, with the Israelis at the checkpoint. I can do it. I can save a life. This was when I became part of the story.”
Eldar recalled an off-camera moment when Muhammad slept in a car on the way back to Gaza — head on Raida’s lap, legs on Eldar’s lap. The filmmaker said: “I told Raida, ‘You know, this is the first time I feel like part of his life.’ And she says: ‘Are you kidding? A little part? A big part. You are one of the men who saved Muhammad.’’”
The filmmaker once remarked that there was no message in the movie, but he has since taken a new stance. “When I finished, I thought there was a chance for peace between these people. I don’t think the government will do anything for peace, the Israeli side or the Palestinian side. But I think the message of this film is that it is possible. We are looking to understand, even to love, each other.”
There was little sense of optimism during the filming. In what it said was retaliation for repeated rocket attacks, the Israelis launched a bloody three-week offensive on Gaza in December 2008. The fighting took the lives of more than 1,100 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. A Palestinian doctor ruefully observes in the film that while the Israelis struggle for years to save the life of one Arab boy, they can kill scores of Arabs in an instant.
The postscript is encouraging. Mother and healthy son, the latter now 3, attended the premiere of the film with Eldar at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. Raida then had a conversation on Skype with Eldar when he was at the Telluride Film Festival. Mohammad has a checkup in Jerusalem every six months, so Eldar and the family get a chance to catch up in person.
Eldar and Raida are friends, he said, but the filmmaker will not likely forget her fateful words. “A small story about healing a sick baby became something else,” Eldar said.
Ron Dicker is a freelance writer based in New York who writes regularly for the Forward.
“Precious Life” will be shown at the Other Israel Film Festival on November 18, at the JCC in Manhattan.