Precious Life debuts tonight on HBO at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
There’s a moment about halfway into Precious Life, the Israeli documentary premiering tonight on HBO, that I’m loath to spoil in a review, but it is an astonishing moment, the point at which this documentary ceases to be a fairly good medical drama and becomes a bareknuckled glimpse into the raw bloody festering hatred of the Middle East. It is a horrible moment that happens so casually that one can hardly believe what just transpired. I would liken it to the key moment in Michael Haneke’s Caché, albeit with a blade that is psychological rather than physical. Haneke’s movie is fiction, however, and fiction allows for heightened truths. In the real world, an unscripted moment that cuts so far to the quick is a profound rarity.
There are challenges and little revelations in the first half that should prepare the viewer, if one is paying attention. The story revolves around a four-month-old from the Gaza Strip who has been brought to Tel Hasomer Hospital in Israel, only one hour and two thousand years of bitter conflict away. This baby has been born without a functioning immune system and will definitely die without a bone marrow transplant. The baby’s doctor asks the filmmaker, a journalist named Schlomi Eldar, if he will help raise the necessary $55,000 for the operation, a tremendous sum for a family from a country with an annual per capita income of around $3,000. Eldar is a former war reporter based in Gaza, but with current political realities preventing him from entering the area, he is a man in constant search for a news story. The baby’s mother, Raida Mustaffa, explains that she lost two daughters to the same condition. As she describes losing her children, it appears there is something more she wants to say but will not.
The conflicts of the early movie are overcome with surprising ease. They raise the money quickly, thanks to an anonymous Israeli donor who lost his son in Gaza. None of baby Mohammad’s siblings are a good match, but because his family has a lot of fairly close intermarriage, one of his adult cousins is a perfect genetic match. Everyone expects significant difficulty in getting blood samples from Gaza to Israel, but it goes off without a hitch. In fact, in a sequence hard to fathom for those of us who can travel from place to place at will, everyone marvels when a relative is allowed to bring the blood samples in person from Gaza through the checkpoint to hospital, one hour away. After a short setback, the cousin is also allowed to come to the hospital. There’s a revealing shot of her walking outside the hospital, trying to find the word for the unfamiliar turf. (“Plants?,” she asks, “Am I walking on plants?” “Grass,” Eldar tells her.)
All of this is interesting enough, but then we hit the moment, which I will spoil for you now. Raida is reading comments on the Internet accusing her of having lost her identity as a Palestinian for seeking help from the Israelis. She is exhausted, stressed, and very upset. Mohammad has had the transplant, but they are still waiting to see if he will accept it and improve or if all of this has been for nothing. Eldar, perhaps unwisely, starts talking about Jerusalem. Raida is smiling, trying to conceal what’s bubbling up inside of her. Finally, still smiling, she snaps. Jerusalem is ours, she says. Can we share it?, asks Eldar. No, she says, it is ours. She talks approvingly of suicide bombers. Eldar is taken aback. What about Mohammad?, he asks, would you want him to be a martyr? Yes, she says, I would be proud if he grows up to be martyr. She is still smiling, and unpacking that smile would take all day and perhaps a few thousand years.
This is the moment that gives meaning to the banality of the film’s title. Eldar asks her if she thinks life is precious. No, she says, life is not precious and death is normal. Eldar knows this about the residents of Gaza; in fact, in his introduction, he showed a film of a child talking about the inevitability of death with the grizzled fatalism of a soldier in a foxhole. But the notion that this woman is fighting for the life of her son because she wants him to grow up and kill himself in a terrorist attack on the very people who are helping them is nearly insurmountable for Eldar, and he suspends the film for a while.
There’s more knotty greatness in the second half. War breaks out between Israel and Gaza, which dates the timeline of this film to 2008-2009. The doctor who has been struggling to save Mohammad is drafted to serve in the invasion force. Eldar himself helps to bring about a cease-fire when, live on the air, he takes a phone call from a friend, a different doctor who lives in Gaza and works in Israel, who has just lost three of his children in an Israeli missile attack. Mohammad, facing a relapse of some kind, is returned to the hospital, where Raida meets this friend of Eldar’s. The doctor is still grief-stricken and points out how much effort they are putting into saving one child’s life while destroying countless others in the conflict. He, too, is smiling as he points this out. If this weren’t a real person making a real point out of real suffering in a real unscripted moment, this would be too on the nose. As is, it is devastating.
As the film progresses, Eldar keeps pushing Raida to talk about what she said about martyrdom, and she keeps trying to back away from it. Those of us who spend time on the Internet have our share of opportunities to make stupid, poorly-thought-out, regrettable comments, and we will presumably feel for her. She can’t unsay the things she said, and it’s unclear how she really feels about her words and suggestions, but it is clear that she regrets speaking the sentiment aloud, let alone on film. It is also clear that life is actually quite precious to her. She dotes on Mohammad. During the war, she protected the rest of her children. She is expecting another baby and is very relieved that this one does not share the autoimmune disorder that has killed two of her children and created such a problem for a third.
The film ends on a hopeful note, but this is where the central question of the movie doesn’t really have an answer. Of course life is precious. Of course parents want better for their children. But when people live in a state of struggle and conflict, the preciousness of life becomes horribly conditional. Life in Gaza, as presented in this film and on the news, looks like a miserable existence, with an ever-increasing population packed into a tiny, half-demolished, walled-in, and grassless place. And life in Israel means living with a constant stream of terror acts and neighbors on all sides who have vowed to destroy you. Simply mentioning either Israel or Gaza in even the politest company can cause conversation to overheat in seconds, and I hope that people on both sides can restrain themselves in the comments.
Because, on the other hand, although it is banal to assert that life is precious, it is also profound. Especially if, like the people in this film, a person can find not only the lives of their loved ones precious, but the lives of people on the other side. That is what Eldar is reaching for. If this is the only reason for hope, then it will have to be enough.
Last thought: as with so many films that address the roots of terror, Precious Life would make a powerful but perhaps overwhelming double-feature with Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. Haneke’s Caché, as mentioned, also has a stealth plot about terror and struggle, but the aims of that film are far more cerebral and removed from the bare emotionalism of Precious Life. Either way, this documentary puts in the work to humanize people on either side of the conflict, even as the conflict itself pushes them to dehumanize and demonize each other. It is an astonishing film for how well it captures both the urge to understand and the urge to cast out understanding.