Set against the backdrop of Israel’s 2008-09 blockade of Gaza and its military offensive there, Israeli television correspondent Shlomi Eldar’s personal, provocative docu “Precious Life” offers a feast for debate. Pic begins with a Palestinian infant being treated for a rare immune disorder at an Israeli hospital; Eldar, who narrates throughout, lets the ironies and paradoxes develop from there, as a bigger picture emerges of the dynamics of the contempo Middle East. Fest and Jewish-interest circuit play is assured, with niche theatrical a possibility in some markets. Israeli theatrical release starts in September.
Before the title even appears onscreen, helmer-writer Eldar (whom some may perceive as pompous and patronizing) makes a point to establish his bona fides as a prominent reporter dedicated to publicizing Palestinian problems and making a difference. With Gaza closed to him after Hamas comes to power and Israel starts the blockade, he looks to hospitals — one of the few remaining bridges left between Israelis and Palestinians — for stories.
The central tale comes to Eldar by way of likable pediatric oncology surgeon Dr. Raz Somech (from the Sheba Medical Center at Tel HaShomer), who wants his help to raise the $55,000 necessary to perform a critically needed bone marrow transplant on the immune-disorder baby. After Eldar’s report airs, the father of a dead Israeli soldier anonymously contributes the entire amount, and Eldar decides to focus his camera on baby Muhammad and his religiously observant parents, Ra’ida (always maintaining hijab in scarf and coat) and Faozi Abu Mustaffa, and their experience in the hospital.
When it turns out none of the couple’s other children are suitable donors, Eldar pulls strings so that Ra’ida’s brother Naim can bring blood samples from extended family members. Eldar also uses his connection to the Erez checkpoint director to enable Naim’s daughter Sausan, the eventual donor, to enter Israel at the height of tensions over a car bombing.
Documenting the staff’s sincere care for both Jew and Arab, the film suggests hospitals are one of the places where the nascent peace process can take shape. Even Somech’s description of how the bone marrow transfer works (“There’s a struggle between two elements which must live side by side and each has its own wishes and ambitions, but only if they coexist they’ll survive”) echoes outside governments’ prescription to end the hostilities.
During the long weeks of waiting to see if the bone marrow transplant will activate Muhammad’s immune system, Eldar provokes some drama of his own as he pushes Ra’ida into a conversation about life, death and martyrdom. Filming her literally backed into a corner, he becomes upset with her insistence that, “We feel life isn’t worth anything … that’s why we have suicide bombers,” and her admission that she would be pleased if Muhammad died fighting to keep Jerusalem for the Palestinians.
Though Eldar later admits he should have been more sensitive to Ra’ida’s situation and outlook, some viewers may consider it preposterous for him to lecture her on the value of life. It’s a point succinctly made by Dr. Iz a-din Abu al-Aish, a Gaza physician who lost three daughters to an errant Israeli shell, who notes, “For years the whole staff is working to save one person, but in one second you can ruin many people’s lives.”
Although Eldar claims in interviews that his producer insisted he include himself in the film, he tends to dominate it through his narration, sometimes to the point of self-aggrandizement, certainly making the pic as much about himself as it is about the Abu Mustaffa family. Meanwhile, the rhythm of Ra’ida’s story unfolds mainly through silent actions beneath the grandiosity of his rhetoric, her point of view not fully examined.
Mostly shot on a Sony 400 Camcorder, the simple tech credits suffice for the majority of scenes, which take place in hospital rooms and halls and inside cars. Like Eldar’s narration, Yehuda Poliker’s score frequently has too much bombast.