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Precious Life

As troubling as Raida's assertions may be, you also understand an unspoken and persistent context, an existence shaped by loss and pain.

Precious Life (Chaim Yakarim)

Director: Shlomi Eldar
Cast: Raida Abu Mustafa, Fauzi Abu Mustafa, Dr. Raz Sommech, Shlomi Eldar
Rated: NR
Studio: HBO Documentaries
Year: 2010
US date: 2011-05-05 (HBO)

"We'll get killed, we'll get shot. We'll be butchered. We'll die," says a young boy, his face smudged with dirt. "Whatever happens, praise be to Allah. Whatever happens, we're already dead." The handheld camera hovers at a slightly high angle, suggesting an adult's view of this child in Gaza. But the view offers no judgment and little context, only an empty market -- empty stalls and brown dirt -- stretching behind him.

The nameless boy introduces a way of thinking, a combination of resignation and faith that becomes the focus of Precious Life (Chaim Yakarim). As Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar puts it, such thinking pervades Gaza. "For more than two decades," he explains, "I've provided in-depth coverage of a place that's the dream of any war correspondent: 1,200,000 residents crammed into 360 square km in tumultuous, seething Gaza, where even children talk like old people waiting to die." If the battles can seem exciting, the effects are devastating, a point Eldar underlines by his reporting from Israel's Tel Hashomer hospital, which he calls "the last bridge left between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza."

One such story becomes the focus of Precious Life, winner of 2010 Ophir Award (the Israeli Academy Award) for Best Documentary and airing this month on HBO. Mohammad Abu Mustaffa, suffering from severe autoimmune deficiency, needs a bone marrow transplant. Summoned by Dr. Raz Sommech, Eldar tapes a TV report from the child's double-isolation room, hoping to raise funds for the procedure. When a single donor offers to pay the full $50,000, Mohammad's parents, Raida and Fauzi, are surprised to learn he is Israeli, and moreover that he's made the offering in memory of his son, a soldier killed in the war. Raida muses, "He donated to a Palestinian boy even though his son was killed? The Israelis do strange things for us."

Intrigued, Eldar presses Raida. Her feelings about the Israelis are understandably mixed, a point emphasized by a scene featuring Israeli soldiers who visit the hospital, with gifts for (visibly frightened) children in one hand and weapons in the other. But Eldar is repeatedly perplexed by what she says about her own child. He seizes on her hope that Mohammad will grow up to be a shahid, a martyr for Palestine. How could a mother want this for her son, he wonders.

Explaining that she's lost two daughters before Mohammad, two young girls who "died in my arms," she describes death as a "natural thing" for Palestinians. "To us," Eldar pushes, "life is precious." Raida smiles, her expression hard to read: perhaps she's nervous before the camera, maybe the questions make her uncomfortable. "Life is precious," she says, "but not to us. We feel that life is nothing life isn't worth a thing. That's why we have suicide bombers, they're not afraid to die. It's natural. None of us fear death, not even our children."

As Eldar and Raida appear t share this premise -- that there are differences defining the sides, differences based in respects for life and death -- the debate appears to take the usual shape, each believing no compromise is possible. The conversation both expands and contracts when Raida receives a stroller for Mohammad. The camera closes on her hand, touching the fabric and the handles. She answers another question with one of her own: "You kill people in Gaza by the dozens, right? When one of yours gets killed, it shakes up your entire world. We cry out in joy and celebrate when someone becomes a shahid." The camera remains fixed on her face as she looks back at Eldar: his expression apparently upsets her. "Any more questions?" she asks. "So stop filming. Are you going to show this too?"

As troubling as Raida's assertions may be, you also understand an unspoken and persistent context, an existence shaped by loss and pain, just as you do for the nameless boy whose comments open the film. Beyond this, the film frames Eldar's interviews with Raida with the ongoing drama of saving Mohammad, an effort complicated at each step. When his parents prove unsuitable donors, a search ensues among relatives in Gaza, followed by difficulties in bringing two possible donors to the hospital: they must come through the Erez checkpoint during a blockade.

Both extraordinary and commonplace in Gaza, this story doesn't so much explain Raida's perspective as it offers still more refractions, more ways to understand what she's saying. To the film's credit, most of these nuances are suggested in images rather than words. Eldar explains himself to you repeatedly, expressing his outrage at what he's hearing. "I was angry that I allowed myself to cross the line from journalism to personal involvement in Mohammad's story," he says while driving home from the hospital one evening.

When Raida and Fauzi move Mohammad to a new facility, the camera follows close on her back as she walks; inside, Eldar sits across the room, watching the parents with their child. They've been troubled by complaints in the press and emails, characterizing them as sympathetic to the enemy because they've taken an Israeli's money to save their baby. "I'm still a good Arab," Raida says, while Eldar tells her, "Maybe it's because you're in a complicated situation."

As the film goes on to show, he has no idea how complicated. It's not only that she might feel pressured by his questions ("I didn’t believe her, but she kept squirming, trying to find excuses," he says in voiceover during one session, as the shot seems to confirm his version of events). Again and again, the film assumes Fauzi agrees with Eldar. "I decided to break my silence and tell her in front of her husband what I thought of a mother who raises her son to be a shahid," says Eldar, as if the husband's view will be more like his own. In part, this assumption is a function of Fauzi's self-presentation, as well as his entreaty to Eldar: "You’ve seen what she's been through, you must forgive her." What you don't see, however, is what she goes through away from the hospital, outside the story of Mohammad.

Some months later, Raida reveals that she's pregnant, and Eldar wonders how, given the extreme difficulties she's facing day to day. They're riding in an ambulance with Mohammad, as he's run into complications following the bone marrow graft. "You know how it is," she smiles, again not a little inscrutably. "Women in Gaza don’t have a say. The husband makes all the decisions." No matter how closely the camera frames Raida, "what she's been through" remains unknowable.


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