Life-Saving Amid Bloodshed

Award-winning film about a Gaza boy and his Israeli doctor wins fans from all sides of the conflict.

05/10/2011
Staff Writer
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In 2008, Shlomi Eldar, a prominent Israeli television journalist, was asked to do a segment on a baby Palestinian boy suffering from a lethal blood disease, and an Israeli doctor’s attempt to save him. But Eldar was reluctant.

Eldar had recently won Israel’s equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize for his humane depictions of everyday life in Gaza. But at the time he was as frustrated by his own government as he was by the Palestinians. Hamas continued to bomb Israeli towns, the Israeli government was threatening all-out war and a resigned, disillusioned Eldar could barely muster the will to report a feel-good story.

“I came here without any desire,” Eldar says in his award-winning documentary, “Precious Life,” which grew out of the segment and premieres on HBO this month. “It’s not for me, but I had no choice.”

Eldar took the assignment out of necessity: the Gaza border was closed, cutting him off from his daily line of work, and he needed a story to cover fast. But he did not imagine that a short news segment about a boy named Mohammad needing $55,000 for a potentially life-saving operation would catch anyone’s attention.

It did. An anonymous Israeli donated the full sum, not only paying for Mohammad’s life-saving operation but also giving Eldar the idea for a full-length film. Commenting on his decision to turn the segment into a documentary, Eldar, 54, said in an interview that the donor’s tremendous generosity, even amid widespread despair, reminded him that basic human goodness still existed.

Eldar added that when the initial segment aired in late 2008, “The Israelis started to demonize the Palestinians, and the Palestinians were demonizing the Israelis. But if we wanted reconciliation, if we want to make peace, [I felt] we [had] to figure out we’re talking about human beings.”

“Precious Life” shows how difficult that can be.

The film has many dramatic moments, from a closed border preventing Mohammad’s blood-donating cousin from getting into Israel, to his Israeli doctor, Raz Somech, being called up to serve in the Gaza war while the boy is still in a tenuous recovery. Yet few match the heated confrontation between Eldar and the boy’s militant mother, Raida.

Weeks into the operation, Mohammad’s recovery still uncertain, Eldar asks Raida if she thinks Israelis and Palestinians can share Jerusalem in a future peace deal. “Let’s split it,” Eldar says, “half yours, half ours.” “No,” Raida replies. “Jerusalem is ours.”

Eldar ups the ante, asking her if she is willing to allow her child, Mohammad, to become a martyr for the cause.

“Absolutely,” she replies. “Life is precious, but not to us. We feel that life is nothing. Life isn’t worth anything. That’s why we have suicide bombers. They’re not afraid to die. It’s natural. None of us fear death. Even our children.”

At that point Eldar is so disgusted that he thinks about ending the project.

“I considered it,” he said in an interview, “but I kept filming and said I would decide [whether to complete the film] before the editing process.”

In the film, viewers see Eldar mulling over his decision to continue. In large part he seems pulled back by Raida’s husband, Faozi. A more secular Gazan who has spent time in Israel before, Faozi cools Eldar’s anger by telling him that Raida is only venting her frustration.

Her nerves are frayed by their son’s perilous condition, Faozi says, but also by taunts they are facing back home: Palestinians in Gaza have begun calling them collaborators for seeking the help of an Israeli doctor.

But reconciliation comes. On camera, as Eldar and Raida read Palestinian websites demeaning her, she apologies for her earlier outburst, saying, “It makes no sense for me to want my son to die like that ... I’d hope [Mohammad would] be a shahid” — a martyr — “but in a peaceful march.”

When asked what he felt Raida’s true feelings were — Did she support violent martyrdom? Or merely peaceful protest? — Eldar did not parse words.

“My point of view is that when Raida said what she said, she truly believed it. She’s a religious woman, and she’s been taught to hate Israelis. But I also think she got afraid what would happen to her if she would begin to like Israelis — me, Dr. Somech, the people in the hospital.”

Somech conceded that he too was taken aback by Raida’s militancy. “For me, it’s very easy to say, ‘I’m a physician and I don’t distinguish between race or creed,’” he said in an interview from Israel. “But I don’t really think she wanted her son to die.”

Yet Somech, 45, never allows his misgivings to show on camera. He is the film’s buoyant soul, as much a part of Mohammad’s survival as the anonymous donor and Eldar are. His hospital, the Edmond and Lily Safra Children’s Hospital on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, frequently treats children from Gaza. “We’re very proud of that,” he said.

But the Palestinian Authority, which usually pays for treatment, told him that Mohammad’s chance of survival was too slim to pay the formidable fee. That is when Somech decided to reach out to prominent journalists, including Eldar, who might get the message out to potential donors. “Being a young doctor, I decided to write an appeal letter and sent it to everyone I know.”

In the film, the recovery of Mohammad is as much a relief as Raida’s softened views. Towards the end, audiences see Raida warm to Eldar and the hospital staff, as well as the anonymous donor, who, though never seen, speaks with Raida over the phone. “Raida has been changed,” Eldar said in the interview. “She said it in the film — ‘Why can’t we set our problems aside and help our children?’”

Eldar still keeps in touch with Raida, Faozi and Mohammad. He said that since the film was released in Israel last year — it won Best Documentary in the Ophir’s, the country’s Oscar equivalent; was short-listed for the 2011 American Oscars; and was even the subject of a Thomas Friedman op-ed in the New York Times — Raida has been quietly rebutting the vitriolic things she often hears about Israelis back home. “She tells her family that Israelis are not like what they say about them.”

Many Palestinians saw the film last month, too, when it was aired on public Israeli television for the first time. Eldar said the Gazans he’s spoken with have also said encouraging things. “Now, we can understand what the Israelis did for her,” he said some told him.

Sara Bernstein, the vice president of HBO Documentary Films who was partly responsible for acquiring the film, said she found the film resonant to all audiences, no matter their view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “In our documentary department we don’t shy away from controversial topics,” she said. “But this film is really about saving a life and the value of human life.”

The widespread support from Israelis has also been somewhat surprising to Eldar. During the Gaza war, he was an outspoken critic of what he perceived to be Israel’s excessive use of force.

The film is set during the war, and viewers see one of Eldar’s most memorable evening broadcasts. An Israeli bomb hits the home of a Palestinian doctor, Izzeldin Abuelaish, who works in the same hospital as Somech, and kills three of Abuelaish’s daughters. Eldar gets Abuelaish on the phone and broadcasts his anguished cries live on television.

(Abuelaish has since written a widely discussed memoir of his daughters’ deaths titled, “I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity.”)

At that moment, Eldar says many Israelis realized how devastating the war was. “I said it clearly, and I said it for 22 days during the war in the studio, and I still think [how the Israelis fought the war] was a mistake,” Eldar said in the interview. “Two years later, I think many Israelis agree with me too. …I think the target of the war was right — we had to stop the Kassam rockets — but I think we didn’t do it the right way.”

After the film premiered in Israel last year, Eldar heard back from a resident of Ashkelon, the southern Israeli city heavily bombed during the Gaza war. Eldar said he still remembers the man’s words: “He said that during the war in Gaza, ‘I wanted to kill them all. But after I saw the film, I felt ashamed of myself.’”

"Precious Life,” which is in Hebrew with English subtitles, airs on HBO on May 14 (2:30 p.m.); May 18 (1 p.m.); and May 22 (9:30 a.m.). The film also plays on HBO 2 on May 17 (5:10 a.m.) and May 25 (1:30 p.m.), and screens on HBO OnDemand for the next few months.

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