If a reporter is lucky, he or she will have one moment in their career – to ask for more would be greedy – where an interview subject makes a graceful speech that amounts to a perfect metaphor for the story being told.
Shlomi Eldar, Gaza correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10 News, found his once-in-a-lifetime quote filming Precious Life, the engrossing story of a Palestinian infant with a rare and deadly disease who can only be saved by a Jewish doctor in the Tel-Hashomer Hospital in Jerusalem.
After performing a complex transplant, the surgeon talks to the nervous, exhausted mother, Raida Abu Mustafa, explaining what must happen for her baby, Mohammed, to survive: “After the transplant, the graft reacts adversely to the patient. And the body, on the other hand, also tries to reject the graft, because it’s perceived as a foreign body. So there’s a struggle between the two elements, which must live side by side. And each has its hopes and ambitions. But if they co-exist, they’ll survive.”
The doctor is talking specifically about little Mohammed’s chances, but he’s also referencing a more complex transplant: the state of Israel, a country grafted onto the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea in a 1948 operation that was perceived as the intrusion of a foreign body by the surrounding Arab world.
Both elements have separate hopes and dreams, live side by side, yet must ultimately co-exist to survive.
Eldar is a bluff, working reporter, not a documentary filmmaker. He seldom waits at the periphery, quietly recording fragments of a puzzle he hopes to solve in an editing room. More often, he charges in, all smiles, badgering his subjects with short, sharp queries – the Mike Wallace, 60 Minutes interviewing approach.
The technique gets the job done, telling the early part of Mohammed’s story: Eldar reveals the child’s dire situation to Israel, explaining the infant needs a $55,000 operation. A Jewish man who lost his son in a battle with Palestinians offers to pay for the surgery. The reporter gets the infant’s family through a war zone to the hospital and helps choreograph the modern miracle cure.
It’s a feel-good story Raida seemingly ruins with the film’s big, second-act surprise. Asked in the middle of a chat about religious holidays how she feels about shahids (suicide bombers), Raida startles us by saying, “For you life is precious, but not for us.… After Mohammed gets well, I will certainly want him to be a shahid. If it’s for Jerusalem, then there’s no problem.”
“Then why are you fighting to save your son’s life, if you say that death is a usual thing for your people?” a crestfallen, angry Eldar demands.
Raida’s going off script may darken Precious Life’s utopian glow, but naked emotion is what makes the film work. The threat of fireworks between Raida and Eldar makes the film more compelling, while reminding us of the perilous nature of Middle East borders.
Eventually, we come to wonder if Raida, a physically beautiful, compassionate woman, believes her own shahid story. In some ways, the mother is shrewder than her TV saviour, a humanitarian who wants to tell a story of Jewish benevolence featuring a grateful Palestinian. All to further the cause of Middle East peace: Look how we can all get along!
It’s a wonderful story. But what would happen to Raida and her child if she returned home a traitor?
Precious Life is short-listed for best documentary film at this year’s Academy Awards. Given Hollywood’s liberal politics, it may well win – and it’s a fascinating, troubling, ultimately hopeful film. Here’s hoping two good people, Raida Abu Mustafa and Shlomi Eldar, survive its success.