Saturday, November 6, 2010
'Precious Life': AFI FEST 2010 Review
As a parent, I come to some movies with a completely different perspective from when I was, say, a teenager or a single twentysomething. Some films, particularly those that involve children or parents faced with life-altering choices, touch me on such a visceral level because I know what it's like to be responsible for a tiny human being.
"Precious Life," directed by Israeli journalist/filmmaker Shlomi Eldar is one of those films.
In his fascinating and thoughtful 90-minute documentary, screening tonight at 9:30 p.m. at Mann Chinese Theater 3 as part of the AFI FEST 2010 presented by Audi, Eldar follows a Palestinian family whose infant son, Mohammad Abu Mustaffa, has been diagnosed with a severe immune system deficiency and whose only chance of survival lies in the hands of an Israeli doctor.
For anyone who's followed news about Israeli-Palestinian tensions, you know how risky and potentially maddening this proposition would be for anyone involved. After all, these cultures aren't exactly on peaceful terms.
Eldar brings his camera into the Israeli hospital and sees the optimistic Dr. Raz Somech at work, assuring Mohammad's parents, Ra'ida and Faozi Abu Mustaffa, that their 4-month-old son will pull through.
The Gaza Strip-based family is also waiting to hear about funding -- the operation is said to cost $55,000, and they need a generous benefactor. Eldar then takes to the airwaves of his own Israeli TV station to tell the public about their plight.
While the premise itself is compelling -- despite cultural differences, people can work together when it comes to saving a child's life -- it's when Eldar becomes less the journalist at arm's length and an actual opinionated character in the film that things really get tense.
After all, Eldar is not unfamiliar with suicide bombers and what if Baby Mohammad is encouraged in that direction -- even after he has been treated by Israeli doctors and his operation has been funded by an Israeli man whose son was killed in the army?
In fact, in one nail-biter of a scene, which takes place in the antiseptic and banal hospital hallway, Mohammad's mother, Ra'ida, even tells Eldar that she would be proud of her son for giving up his life, because life doesn't mean anything to her or her culture. Not even the life of her child.
The moral complexities and ironies of this mere 10-minute conversation are explosive. Was Ra'ida serious? Was she just at the end of her tether and saying things she didn't really mean? Could Eldar continue to support this family emotionally?
And, consider what is later explored: Ra'ida and Faozi, who have already lost two daughters to this immune-deficiency disorder, have been labeled as traitors by their own people for accepting Israeli help.
When documentaries confront these kinds of thorny situations and delve far beneath the surface, they cross the line from being merely good to great. And "Precious Life" crosses lines -- both literally and metaphorically -- to become a fascinating and truly great documentary.