This reticence confounded Eldar, even as he finally succeeded in winning her over. Raida, as she is called throughout the film, had already lost two baby daughters to the same autoimmune deficiency that now threatened her 5-month-old son, and the baby was in desperate need of bone marrow transplant surgery. It was Eldar who had gotten her story heard on the evening news, which in turn had led to an outpouring of Israeli sympathy, as well as full coverage of the $55,000 treatment from just one anonymous donor. Eldar had spent 20 years reporting from the Gaza strip for Channel 10 and was trusted by on both sides of the border for his objectivity and journalistic integrity. Here was a chance to participate in a story that could bridge the gap between enemies and show the world that Israelis and Palestinians can work together in pursuit of a shared dream. What was there to fear?
The chief physician, Dr. Raz Somech, viewed Raida’s resistance more philosophically. A born healer with a worldview that tends toward medical metaphor, he has his own interpretation for the mistrust and mutual superstition that separate Israelis and Palestinians, one he states in the film while explaining the risks of Muhammad’s surgery. “After a transplant,” he says, “the graft reacts adversely to the transplant. The body, on the other hand, also tries to reject the graft. So there is a struggle between the two elements, which must live side by side…. Each has its own wishes and ambitions, but only if they co-exist will the body survive.”
In the troubled body politic of the Middle East, which side is the graft, and which side the host? Dr. Somech wisely leaves it to others to answer that question, both in the film and in subsequent interviews. He is a healer, not a politician, and in fact he also sees the room that protects Muhammad from infection as a metaphor for the hospital that protects his staff and patients from politics: “At the hospital we built a big bubble, not just around Muhammad, but around his whole family. Inside the bubble we were able to live normally, to speak together and to communicate.”
Bubbles break, however, and the outside world invades. Just three months after Muhammad’s first surgery, Israel launched an air strike in Gaza. Bombs pounded the region for three weeks, and the war killed thousands of Palestinians and devastated the area’s economy. Dr. Somech was called to the front, forced to face the irony of receiving texts and calls from his Palestinian patients, even as he stood in uniform at the border waiting for orders to invade. Eldar reported nightly on the news, frustrated that none of his broadcasts about the human cost of the invasion seemed to be moving a population that was exhausted and angry after more than a year of Kassam rockets hitting Israel from within Gaza.
As for Raida, her husband Fawsi and their children, they hid from the air strikes with their terrified children. A week after the ceasefire, Muhammad suffered a relapse, and by the time authorities allowed the family back to Israel for treatment, his life was once more in danger.
But as Precious Life vividly reveals, the biggest threat to Dr. Somech’s “bubble of peace” would come not from the world outside but from within—in a dramatic confrontation between Raida and Eldar that almost derailed both the film and their fragile friendship.
Eldar had always believed that it was his duty to keep himself out of the stories he reported. But his producer, Ehud Bleiberg (the producer of previous TFF hits Adam Resurrected and The Band’s Visit) insisted that this time Eldar must recognize himself as a character in his film. In fact, Bleiberg made it a condition of his involvement. “This time,” he told the skeptical director, “you are not a reporter but a participant. You form part of a triangle: Raida, Dr. Somech, and you.”
And what a triangle! Over the course of shooting, Eldar uses his contacts to assist in the frantic search for a matching donor, and the transport of blood samples from Gaza to the hospital. After they finally find a donor, he begs checkpoint directors for help when a car bomb explodes and threatens her crossing. He spends his days learning to admire Dr. Somech, love Muhammad and care about his parents. We rarely see Eldar’s face, but through his eyes, we develop a strong connection with Raida, sharing in her tenderness for her son, her growing connection to her son’s Israeli caregivers, and the moments when her defenses break down and she collapses from the pressure of waiting. Mostly, we experience glimmers of hope, the belief that saving Muhammad can bring us all one step closer to peace and mutual trust.
So we are as shocked as Eldar when one day, apparently out of the blue, Raida announces that she hopes Muhammad will grow up to be a suicide bomber.
“When one of yours dies,” she says, her dark eyes flaming, “it rocks your world. To us it’s normal. We do ululations and rejoice when a shahid [martyr] dies.”
There is a pause. We don’t see Eldar’s face, but we can tell from her expression that he is angry.
“You’re surprised, aren’t you,” she says. “How was the surprise?”
She concludes with a direct challenge to Eldar, his motivations, his entire project: “Are you going to broadcast this as well?”
Eldar is forced to reevaluate everything he thought he knew about the loving mother who suddenly addresses him in the voice of The Enemy. Her words feel like a “knife in the back.” Devastated by what he sees as a betrayal of all his trust and good intentions, furious with himself for becoming personally involved with one of his stories, he vows to quit the project, and never speak with Raida again.
It would be unfair to reveal any more about the film. Suffice it to say that the rift with between Eldar and Raida marks the beginning, not end, of Precious Life. After the end of what the director now calls his “lovely story” about the bereaved mother and her sick baby, Eldar has constructed a different story that is in the end much more powerful: An honest account of flawed human beings taking the first steps toward reconciliation without the protection of artificial safety nets. As the great novelist Yoram Kaniuk told Haaretz magazine after the film premiered to stunned audiences at the Jerusalem Film Festival, Precious Life is a tragedy, but a tragedy with hope.
Sheerly Avni is a writer living in San Francisco.