Precious Life -- Film Review

Magnificent documentary puts a human face on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Telluride, Colo. -- Shlomi Eldar's documentary Precious Life examines a theme that also illuminated several dramatic features shown at this year's Telluride Film Festival: It focuses on people trying to make a positive difference in societies dominated by chaos and destruction.

The hero here is an Israeli doctor, Raz Somech, working to save the life of a Palestinian baby born without a normal immune system. Another hero is the filmmaker. Eldar is a journalist based in Israel, and in making this film, he surely hoped to build more understanding among people who have been at war for decades. If the film is widely seen, he just might succeed. It will be shown on HBO next year and also will stir audiences at film festivals around the world.

Eldar had covered the story of young Muhammad Abu Mustaffa for Israeli television, and with the help of producers Ehud Bleiberg and Yoav Ze'evi, he decided to expand his coverage into a feature documentary. The result is one of the most moving films of the past several years.

Muhammad was born in Gaza and transferred to the intensive care ward of an Israeli hospital. To survive, he needed a bone marrow transplant, but the family was unable to pay for the costly procedure. When Eldar broadcast the story, a Jewish donor contributed $50,000 and demanded anonymity. We learn that the donor had a son killed by the Palestinians, but rather than inflaming his hatred, this tragedy motivated him to search for rapport between the two warring factions. Even after the hospital received his donation, more problems arose. Muhammad's siblings did not provide a match for the operation, so Dr. Somech had to test several of his cousins still living in Gaza, and this meant bringing these people past the blockade into Israel.

As the film follows this medical cliffhanger, another obstacle erupts: War breaks out in Gaza, and the blockade is tightened. The film has as much tension as a good thriller and more honest emotion than most Hollywood tear-jerkers.

And it's suffused with moral intelligence. One of the most astonishing sections in the film is a debate between Eldar and the boy's mother, Raida. Despite the help she is getting from Israeli doctors, she expresses fierce anti-Israeli sentiments and also expresses a completely different philosophy from Eldar's. When he tells her that Jews believe life is precious, she counters that to Arabs, death is normal, and she would not be upset if Muhammad were to grow up to be a "martyr" to the cause. Although she later apologizes for her comments, they reflect a deep-seated anger that is hard to dismiss.

Another fascinating interlude occurs when we learn that Raida is pregnant again. (This is despite the fact that two previous children died of the immune disorder that threatens Muhammad.) Raida comments rather bitterly that women in her society do not have a lot of control over their own bodies.

All in all, the film is remarkably even-handed in presenting Israeli and Palestinian societies. Suspicions between the two sides will not be easy to overcome, but the people involved in this story offer a glimmer of hope. At the end, Eldar helps Raida to realize one of her dreams when he takes her to visit Jerusalem for the first time in her life. This film is a humanist document of the highest order. It earns the audience's tears without simplifying the underlying issues.

Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Director-director of photography: Shlomi Eldar
Producers: Ehud Bleiberg, Yoav Ze'evi
Music: Yehuda Poliker
Editor: Dror Reshef
No rating, 85 minutes