'3000 Nights': Film Review

3000 Nights Still 2 - H 2015
Courtesy of Nour Prods., Orjouane Prods.
There’s not enough fire in this pointed depiction of injustice

Documentarian Mai Masri’s first narrative feature centers on a wrongly accused Palestinian woman who gives birth to a son while serving her sentence in an Israeli prison.

A Palestinian woman’s random good deed leads to her arrest and imprisonment in 3000 Nights, a feature that illustrates the plight of political prisoners in Israel through one character’s experience. Mai Masri’s film unfolds in low-key fashion, admirably avoiding sensationalism but never digging in deep. Well-observed details and a keen, mournful awareness of the region’s political realities aren’t enough to make the protagonist’s story involving. The movie too often feels like a standard, if underpowered, prison drama.

The debut narrative effort by writer-director Masri, a California-educated Palestinian filmmaker whose documentaries include Beirut Diaries, was picked up by Egyptian distributor Mad Solutions just before its world premiere in Toronto. Theatrical play beyond Arab-speaking regions might be a tougher sell, but continued festival invitations are a given, with Busan and London next on the itinerary.

The story begins in 1980 Nablus, in the occupied West Bank, with the brutal, middle-of-the-night arrest of newly married schoolteacher Layal (Maisa Abd Elhadi). Her crime: giving a ride to a teenage boy who’s accused of executing a lethal attack on a military checkpoint. Under suspicion as an accomplice, she ignores the advice of her husband (Ahmad Al Omari), who urges her to lie during the trial, where she has a sympathetic Israeli defense attorney (Laura Hawa). Refusing to claim that the boy threatened her with violence, she’s sentenced to eight years in a prison that houses both Palestinians (political prisoners) and Israelis (convicted criminals).

The most striking aspect of the story, which is drawn from Masri’s interviews with former prisoners and was shot in a military prison in Jordan, is that Layal, who learns she’s pregnant soon after she’s locked up, is permitted to give birth to her child and raise him while incarcerated. That she chooses to have the baby rather than terminate the pregnancy, as both her husband and the warden (Izabel Ramadan) encourage her to do, is an act of defiance and an obvious stake in life and hope in the midst of grim surroundings. It’s a powerful metaphor in a film whose entire design is clearly symbolic.

An Israeli prisoner dubs the baby “another little terrorist” while Layal’s five Palestinian cellmates, who range widely in age, nurture and adore him. As a beautiful longhaired toddler, the boy, Nour (Zaid Qoda), is joy personified. He delights at the toys the women make for him from rags and the drawings that transform grimy walls into storybook illustrations.

Also taking an interest in the boy is Ayman (Karim Saleh), a fellow prisoner who happens to be a handsome, sensitive doctor. (In a lovely visual touch that’s also tinged with painful irony, the carved bird he makes for the boy comes to life for an instant.) With Layal’s husband having fled to Canada not long after her trial, Ayman steps into the drama as the all-too-evident Right One.

Even more than Layal, Ayman embodies purity and gentleness amid the expected assortment of hardened prisoners and staff, from the merciless head guard (Abeer Haddad) to the Israeli heroin addict (Raida Adon) and committed Palestinian nationalist (Nadira Omran). Most of the actors deliver capable performances, but apart from its underlying political commentary, however astute, Masri’s screenplay doesn’t penetrate the surface. There’s little sense of flesh-and-blood tension.

That’s especially disappointing in Abd Elhadi’s Layal, who remains a cipher despite her courageous stances — not only when she has her child, but when her fellow Palestinians stage a hunger strike and the deal-making warden puts her in a terrible position. The dilemma Layal faces, with its personal and political repercussions, is the most emotionally gripping part of the narrative. But the documentary footage that closes 3000 Nights has far more impact.

Production companies: Nour Prods., Orjouane Prods., Les Films d’Ici
Cast: Maisa Abd Elhadi, Nadera Omran, Karim Saleh, Abeer Haddad, Raida Adon, Laura Hawa, Izabel Ramadan, Ahmad Al Omari, Hussein Nakhleh, Zaid Qoda
Director: Mai Masri
Screenwriter: Mai Masri
Producers: Mai Masri, Sabine Sidawi, Charlotte Uzu
Director of photography: Gilles Porte
Production designer: Hussein Baydoun
Costume designer: Hamada Atallah
Editor: Michele Tyan
Casting: Salim Abu Jabal, Najwa Mubarki

No rating, 103 minutes