AFI Fest 2010
By Don Simpson | December 3, 2010
Director: Shlomi Eldar
Writer(s): Shlomi Eldar
At first it seems as though our director Shlomi Eldar — a veteran Israeli TV journalist — might just be trying to prove to whoever will listen that the media does wield tremendous power and influence. Eldar is recruited by his friend, Doctor Raz Somech, to save the life of a Palestinian baby hospitalized on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. The baby, Mohammad Abu Mustaffa, was born in Gaza without an immune system and he is in dire need of a bone marrow transplant — a procedure which cannot be done in Gaza, but is possible in Israel. Eldar uses his journalistic powers to raise $55,000 to finance the operation (a sole anonymous donor — an Israeli who recently lost his soldier son in a fight against Palestinian forces — comes to the rescue). Then, when Somech needs to test the baby’s extended family to find someone with matching bone marrow in Gaza, Eldar once again leaps to the rescue by using his influence with the local border guards. It seems as though whenever the baby needs help, Eldar uses his powers to save the day. I am not intending to discredit Eldar’s humanitarian actions, however it seems to me to be a bit pompous and self-aggrandizing to film yourself doing great deeds. I quickly found myself questioning Eldar’s motives in making this documentary and wondering why he did not just go one step further and title the film something like Mr. Awesome Saves Babies.
Eventually, the direction and tone of Precious Life does change — the documentary is not just about Eldar’s awesomeness after all!
The baby’s mother, Ra’ida Abu Mustaffa, is thrust to the center of the narrative. Mustaffa has lived her entire life fearing and distrusting Jews. Now her baby boy’s life is being saved by the hands of Jewish doctors, a Jewish journalist and an anonymous Jewish donor. Mustaffa is visibly perplexed by the outpouring of generosity from the Jewish community. Simultaneously, she must contend with the hateful accusations from her homeland that her family is depending too much on Israelis for assistance.
Despite her obviously fragile mental state — with her sick baby teetering on the fine line between life and death, and having already lost two daughters to the very same rare genetic disease — Eldar commences a deep philosophical discussion with Mustaffa concerning the significance of life and Israel-Palestine relations. When Mustaffa comments that she does not believe that life is precious — she would happily sacrifice her son as a suicide bomber for the Palestinian ownership of Jerusalem — Eldar quickly becomes agitated. Always a central figure in his documentary’s narrative, Eldar cannot resist drawing Mustaffa into an incredibly intense debate.
The relationship between the filmmaker and his subject grows increasingly complex as Precious Life evolves quite literally into a microcosm of the Israel-Palestine conflict. If Mustaffa and Eldar’s relationship can weather this storm, we might be given hope for eventual peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
Personally, Eldar’s too cool for school attitude during the first half of Precious Life left me with a bitter taste in my mouth for the remainder of the film. Even Mustaffa and Eldar’s fiery discussions — though interesting — come off as too aggressive and purposeful on the part of the director. Eldar seems to be pushing Mustaffa’s buttons in order to incite some more crazy talk — and in doing so he successfully kick-starts the film, rocketing it into high gear. With a deft hand in direction and a keen eye for drama, Eldar might just take Precious Life all the way to the 83rd Academy Awards (as of today Precious Life has made it to the shortlist of 15 contenders for the Best Feature Documentary category).