Telluride 2010: 'Precious Life' gives hope where there's darkness
Peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are stalled over settlements, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says the negotiations are doomed to fail, and Gaza militant groups are promising to increase Israeli attacks.
It’s hard to find much immediate hope for an end to Middle East hostilities—unless you look toward this weekend’s Telluride Film Festival, which is showing the new documentary “Precious Life.”
At first glance, the nonfiction film is a story about modern medicine: how a bone marrow transplant can save the life of an infant born without a functioning immune system. Yet the circumstances of the specific situation—the patient is an Arab from Gaza, while his doctor and caregivers are Jews in Israel—turn “Precious Life” into a complex human and political drama, where healing isn’t limited to hospital treatments.
The movie, which was recently acquired by cable television’s Home Box Office and will have an Academy Award qualifying run in Los Angeles and New York on Sept. 10, opens with Muhammad, not yet 5 months old but doomed to die unless two kinds of donors can be located: one to supply the marrow, another to underwrite the $50,000 operation.
Shlomi Eldar, an Israeli television journalist known for his critical coverage of the conflict, is summoned by Muhammad’s pediatrician, Dr. Raz Somech, to broadcast an appeal to raise the money for the operation. The results are nearly instantaneous—an anonymous Israeli man says he will pay for the Palestinian boy’s procedure, even though the donor’s son had been killed in the conflict several years earlier.
“The Israelis do strange things for us,” Muhammad’s impressive mother, Raida, remarks. Before long, the nurses are singing Muhammad to bed with Hebrew lullabies, while Raida is being denounced by some in Gaza as a collaborator.
Eldar not only continues to film the search for Muhammad’s marrow donor (complicated as tensions along the border spark an outright war) but also inserts himself into the story, pushing Raida to explain how she can be so determined to save her son’s life (two of her daughters died from a similar condition) so that he might grow up to perish as a martyr in the war. “We don’t fear death,” she says. “It’s natural for us. Life isn’t precious.”
Eldar said in an interview that he was so confused and angered by Raida’s answers that he quit making the documentary—for one day. “Who could be changed if she’s not?” he says. He found himself drawn back into a narrative that showed how much Jews and Muslims have in common, rather than what divides them.
“I thought it was something else—a new angle about the conflict—that you could accomplish something between people, not between governments,” Eldar says. “All of my coverage of the news in Gaza has been to help people—to show the conflict in another way.”
Producer Ehud Bleiberg, whose “The Band’s Visit” and “Adam Resurrected” were shown in previous Telluride festivals, said he insisted that Eldar be a part of the story himself. “My condition in producing the film was that Shlomi should be actively a part of the film. He’s not an observer.” Bleiberg says that if the film is not released in Arabic-speaking countries, “I will cause it to be pirated there.”
Now a healthy 3-year-old, Muhammad joined his mother at the film’s premiere in Jerusalem a few days ago. The positive reception the film received there, both Bleiberg and Eldar believe, can help send a message of conciliation and hope in indisputably dark times. “The movie shows that there are people in Israel that care, and want to have peace,” Bleiberg says. Adds Eldar: “Maybe what happens in hospitals can be the beginning of the next peace agreement.”
--John Horn, from Telluride, Colo.Photo: "Precious Life." Credit: Shlomi Eldar