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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Israel's 'Precious Life': Middle East politics seen through a personal lens

November 8, 2010 |  5:34 pm

Shlomi_eldarFor nearly 40 minutes, I thought that “Precious Life” was going to be a feel-good documentary about how, if you just put aside the bitterness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you could imagine that an individual act of compassion might offer some hope for the future. The film, which screened Sunday at the 25th Israel Film Festival, was made by Israeli TV news reporter Shlomi Eldar. It chronicles how he helped get a 4-month-old Palestinian baby out of Gaza at the height of Israel’s blockade to receive treatment in an Israeli hospital for a rare immune disorder.

At first, everyone, from the baby’s mother, Ra’ida, to the Israeli medical specialist, Dr. Raz Somech, is on their best behavior —Ra’ida is full of appreciation, while Dr. Somech is a model of graciousness. But then Eldar, his camera always rolling, begins an innocuous conversation with Ra’ida about the Jewish holidays that quickly unravels all of the studied politeness on display. The discussion turns to the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, which raises the issue of who has rightful title to the holy city.

With a sweet smile, Ra’ida warns Eldar: “Let’s not discuss the Temple. It is the source of all our problems.” But Eldar keeps probing until Ra’ida unleashes a bombshell: If her baby, Mohammed, then clinging to life, were to survive and grow up to be a man, it would be his rightful destiny to become a suicide bomber to help the Palestinians regain Jerusalem.

Ra’ida knows Eldar is reeling in disbelief. A serene smile still on her face, she says to him, so, “how was the surprise?”

I won’t give away what happens in the rest of the documentary, which will air on HBO early next year and is in contention for a best documentary Oscar, having already won Israel’s equivalent of the award. But the film, which I saw several weeks ago, unnerved me, perhaps because it offers such a deeply personal portrait of the tribal hostility at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Apparently I wasn’t alone. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who spent years covering the Middle East as a young reporter, wrote a column raving about the film several months ago. He said it “reflects the Middle East I know — one full of amazing compassion, even among enemies, and breathtaking cruelty, even among neighbors.”

“Precious Life” is also groundbreaking in the way it puts its reporter-director front and center. Eldar doesn’t just comment directly on the events transpiring, he shapes the events himself, being the person who uses his contacts to obtain safe passage out of Gaza for Mohammed and Ra’ida. He also finds a way to get blood samples from Mohammed’s relatives for a live-saving bone marrow treatment.

It’s one thing for Oprah to manufacture emotional excitement by buying cars for everyone in her studio audience. It’s another thing to see a reporter acting as artist, benefactor and astute observer. As it turns out, Eldar felt uncomfortable about having so many divided loyalties.

“I’m a journalist,” Eldar told me Friday at lunch, sitting at a beachside cafe with the film’s producer, Ehud Bleiberg, who is best known in Israel for making action thrillers like “The Assassin Next Door,” featuring Bond girl Olga Kurylenko. “I never wanted to be in the middle of the story.”

It was Bleiberg who persuaded Eldar to become an active presence in the film. “I’ve never produced a documentary before,” Bleiberg said. “But I know a good story. I said, ‘Shlomi, this story isn’t just about the baby. It’s about the mother, the doctor and you. You’re not a reporter anymore.’ This was a movie. And the important thing is the story, not the rules of journalism.”

Having spent two decades reporting on Gaza issues to Israeli audiences, Eldar has developed a reputation as a critic of the army’s tactic of massive retaliation against Hamas rocket attacks. When it came to the Gaza blockade of 2008-09, he said, “I’m not so much against the war as against the way it was waged. People say, ‘But they kill our civilians,’ and I say, ‘But we don’t have to be like them.’”

Eldar’s criticism of the Israeli war strategy puts him in the same camp with a host of filmmakers from the nation who have created a striking body of work questioning Israel’s war aims — even as the country’s political leaders have increasingly moved to the right on issues involving the Palestinians.

In recent years, a number of prominent Israeli films, including “Beaufort,” “Waltz With Bashir” and “Lebanon,” have taken issue with the country’s military actions, especially during the traumatic early 1980s war in Lebanon. Other films, like “Ajami,” have sympathetically examined the plight of the Palestinians, while “The Band’s Visit,” also produced by Bleiberg, dramatized the cultural divide between Israel and Egypt.

It’s hardly unusual to see filmmakers taking the lead when it comes to a critical re-examination of a country’s ill-fated war aims. In the U.S., at a time when most politicians still refused to speak frankly about the trauma of Vietnam, such films as “The Deer Hunter,” “Coming Home,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon” were supplying emotionally wrenching portraits of a war gone sour.

Of course, there also have been several attempts to dramatize and reassess the war in Iraq, but with few exceptions, those have failed at the box office, while Israel’s movies have nearly all enjoyed great commercial success.

Why have Israeli audiences been more receptive to their filmmakers’ critiques? For starters, Israelis are passionate about politics, with 70% or more of the populace typically voting in major elections. Bleiberg believes another factor is at work as well. “Every male in Israel has been in the army, so when they see these movies, they are about their lives. It’s very personal to them,” he said.

That interest extends to Hollywood’s Vietnam-era films. Bleiberg estimates that he’s seen “Apocalypse Now” 70 times. “It felt very familiar,” he said. “Its war was a lot like the wars I’ve experienced.”

Eldar acknowledges that no one film is going to change the world, but he remains optimistic that “Precious Life” will have some positive impact. “I think we can make a difference. Artists and filmmakers can express something that can’t be easily expressed in the newspaper or even on TV. You can say it in a personal way, not a political way, so it’s easier for people to hear it in their hearts, not just in their mind.”

Bleiberg nods his head in agreement. “My dream is to take this film to every leader in the Middle East and let them see it, from the men behind Hamas to Ahmadinejad. I believe it would change them.”

Eldar waved his arms wildly in the air, asking his partner, “Ehud, are you crazy? Ahmadinejad? You won’t get very far convincing him.”

Apparently, even for a man dedicated to bridging the gulf between Jews and Arabs, the power of film extends only so far.

Photo: From left, producer Yoav Ze'evi, director Shlomi Eldar and producer Ehud Bleiberg at the "Precious Life" premiere at the Toronto FIlm Festival.

Credit: Les Wawrow/Getty Images