It is a convention of epic poetry to begin in the middle, what Horace called in media res. The great epic poems, from Homer to Virgil, from Milton to Pope, and including Beowulf, the Mahabharata and the Nibelungenlied, are stories embedded in histories that already exist. They start out in the middle of a situation that arrives full of import, meaning and difficulty. While Precious Life, Shlomi Eldar’s 2010 documentary about the attempts to save the life of a Palestinian boy in an Israeli hospital didn’t aspire to this historic tradition, by the time it ends after 86 minutes, it traverses a moral and political journey that becomes epic in its implications.
The film opens with a shot inside a car driving on a highway in Israel and we hear a man saying, “I didn’t feel like going to the hospital. I don’t like hospitals, nor hospital stories, it’s not for me, but I had no choice. I made my journalistic career in the Gaza Strip, which I could no longer enter.” We are most definitely in the middle of something.
The voiceover belongs to Shlomi Eldar, an Israeli television reporter and the film’s director. He is on his way to a hospital on the outskirts of Tel Aviv where Muhammad Abu-Mustafa, a four-and-a-half-month-old Palestinian child, is in hospital waiting for a bone marrow transplant that might save his life. Born with a severe immune system deficiency, he will die, as did his two sisters, unless a genetically suitable donor can be found. What also needs to be found is $55,000, the cost of the operation. With him in hospital are his parents, Raida and Fauzi, and they are being attended to by Doctor Raz Somech, an Israeli pediatrician determined to save the infant’s life. Everyone is invested in this story: the child, his family, the doctor and the journalist. Everyone is in the middle of something bigger than they are.
Precious Life never lets you forget that it is a story unfolding in one of the most closely watched countries in the world, and Eldar constantly makes us aware that he is a working journalist who has to provide stories to his news station. “The hospital is the only bridge left between Israelis and Palestinians,” he says, as always, in voiceover, “because all the other bridges have been burned or blocked.” The film ends up being an inquiry into the possibility of building bridges in an extremely difficult situation. It becomes apparent early in the film that Muhammad and his fate is a metonymy for a much larger story being told about Israel and its relationship to the Palestinians. The film uses Eldar’s history, which includes 20 years as the Arab affairs correspondent for Channel 10 News, to set the context for the situation in which the hospital story unfolds. We see footage of various conflicts and hear Eldar’s voiceover telling us that, “Gaza is a place where even the children talk like old people awaiting their deaths.” To support this claim, he includes an interview with a young Palestinian, during which the boy says, almost matter-of-factly, “We’ll get killed, get shot, butchered, we’ll die. Whatever happens, I thank Allah. Either way, we’re already dead.” The death of children and the circumstances surrounding that possibility are among the questions raised by Precious Life. We think of children as innocent and we want to cocoon their fate in a similar faultless ring of protection. But as the film makes clear, nothing touching on the co-existence of Israelis and Palestinians is free of politics. Nor is it ever simple. Every utterance and situation in this film is implicated in situations, utterances and decisions already made. It is a country in which history is a labyrinth and where simplicity is impossible.
As a result, what is happening outside the hospital has a dramatic effect on what happens inside it. During the four months that Raida and Mohammad are waiting in the hospital, suicide bombings, Arab rocket attacks and Israeli retaliation all figure prominently in the news, which she watches on a tv monitor inside the isolation unit, the bubble of her world. Dr Somech explains that children like Muhammad use to be called “bubble children” because of the way they were kept isolated from the world. The metaphor is picked up in a pop song that Shlomi hears on one of his many highway trips. “This is the new Middle East, this is Jaffa-Tel Aviv,” the singers says, “It’s a small bubble, only you and me inside, if you touch the bubble, it’ll explode.”
The recognition of the fragility and explosiveness of the situation the film documents is brought forcefully home in a scene where Raida is waiting for blood results that will indicate whether any of her immediate family is a match for Muhammad. She has been on a roller coaster of alternating good and disappointing news. She watches a broadcast (Eldar is the reporter) about a Palestinian mother and her four children in Gaza who have been killed in an idf rocket attack. Raida is surrounded by the best technology and the promise of money to pay for a life-changing operation. Her husband comes in and tells her that the anonymous donor who has put up the money lost a son in the war, and she asks if it was in 1948? “No, it was recent,” he says, and you can see her trying to connect what she has witnessed on the tv monitor with what she has just been told by her husband. Behind her response, a simple declaration, gathers a storm of bewilderment: “The Israelis do strange things for us.”
This kind of contradiction is everywhere. At one point, a group of Israeli soldiers, in full uniform and carrying weapons, comes to the hospital to distribute presents. One of Muhammad’s sisters points to a gun and asks, “What’s that?” She is frightened because she is used to seeing soldiers just like these patrolling the streets of Gaza, and now she encounters them as bearers of gifts. Later in the film, when Raida and her family have returned to Gaza and Dr Somech is serving his compulsory stint in the army, his Brigade Commander tells him during one attack that he is ordering increased bombardment of the Palestinians, “to show the other side the landlord is angry.” Somech is incredulous. He tells the commander that the exaggerated force they are using is “not acceptable in my world view.” His plea for restraint has no effect.
But the film’s cruelest irony is embodied in the figure of Abu El-Eish, a Palestinian doctor who also works in the Tel Hashomer Hospital. We have heard him earlier in the film, from his home in Gaza during a rocket attack, where he and his family are trying to protect themselves from the operations of the angry landlord. He is live on air talking to Eldar when a rocket hits, killing his three daughters. We hear his unbelieving, anguished reaction; it is the most shocking and searing sequence in the documentary. Later in the hospital Dr El-Eish is introduced to Raida and we see them both through the lens of Shlomi’s camera. “How long have you been working on your film?” Dr El-Eish asks and then answers his own question: “For years, the whole staff is working to save one person. But in one second you can ruin people’s lives. Not for one person but for as many as possible.”
Precious Life is deceptively simple in that the film’s forward movement is so riveting you are unaware of its careful construction. In the opening minutes we are looking at Gaza, and Shlomi tells us it is a “one-hour drive away to another world.” Our initial reaction is to think this observation is a way of underlining the economic and military imbalance between the two places. But its truth is brought home when Sausan, the cousin whose bone marrow is a match for Mohammad, is walking toward the hospital with Fauzi. “These 10 days will be the best of your life,” he tells her and then asks if she knows what is below her feet. “You are walking on plants,” he says, something she has never before experienced. Gaza and Israel really are worlds apart when their separateness can be measured in something as unexceptional as a young woman’s footfall on a patch of grass.
Precious Life is about saving Muhammad, but it is Raida who emerges as the central figure in the story. (Dr Somech is its guiding spirit, proof as Eldar says, and no viewer would disagree, that “there are angels amongst men.”) Raida is the protagonist, wrestling with Muhammad’s illness, her history of lost children, and the divisive tensions between her Arab identity and a situation in which she and her family find themselves the beneficiaries of Israeli expertise and generosity. Throughout the earliest parts of the film, she is a sympathetic character, and there is a moment when Eldar’s subtly probing camera catches a tear falling from her eye to the top of the mask she wears to protect her son. She has just been told that none of the blood samples match and she carries Muhammad over to the glass door behind which his older brother gestures with open arms. The simplest things resonate: a mother’s grief, a child’s loving gesture, a family’s cohesion. It makes you think things can be uncomplicated.
But the film’s ethical divide centres on a conversation that Shlomi and Raida have that starts out innocently enough. There is talk of gift giving and generosity and religious holidays, and then the subject of Jerusalem comes up. Everything changes; Raida’s smile disappears, her jaw hardens, she folds her arms across her chest. “It cannot be divided and it is heresy to say it isn’t ours,” she says about the contentious city, and her terms are absolutely non-negotiable. The exchange spirals into the vortex of the Shahid–suicide bombers to some, martyrs to others. Raida says if Mohammad grew up to be a suicide bomber, she would accept it as Allah’s will. Life is not precious, she says, and then repeats that declaration. Eldar is devastated, and for the first time we actually see him in his car, where he tells us he has lost compassion for the boy and his mother.
It is a tricky moment for the film. Later on Eldar will find ways to allow Raida to explain her position as a necessary degree of self-protection. But contradictions remain: the firmness of Raida’s jaw and her brightening eyes when she says that all Palestinians are martyrs for Jerusalem is softened somewhat in her believable explanation that she is caught between the rock of benefiting from Israeli care and the hard place of being criticized for collaborating with Jews. But she changes as the film progresses, and she repeats Somech’s wish that their children will play together in peace. “If not, then our grandchildren will play. One day it will happen.” At the end of the film, Eldar again poses what he understands as the film’s central question: “Is Muhammad’s life precious?” he asks Raida, and her response, “his life is very precious to me.” Here the film focuses on the only place that has any chance of success: in the mutual trust, regard and respect one human being holds for another. It’s a small hope and it is susceptible to incredible and unpredictable influences from outside, but on the evidence provided by this profoundly compassionate documentary, it is a bridge worth building.