YOUNG Muhammad Abu Mustaffa was born into difficult circumstances indeed. His parents, Ra’ida and Faozi are Palestinians, live in deprived conditions in Gaza, one of the world’s most volatile regions. The family faces additional adversity, when Muhammad is diagnosed with a genetic condition that requires a bone marrow transplant – a complicated procedure which can only be performed over the border in an Israeli hospital. Precious Life is an Israeli documentary that follows Ra’ida and Faozi’s struggle to save their son.
Shlomi Eldar is credited as director and cameraman for Precious Life, but he is well and truly involved in the story, and in fact drives much of the action. A well-known Israeli journalist, Eldar was approached by his friend Dr Raz Somech – Muhammad’s paediatrician – for help in drawing attention to the boy’s plight. Muhammad’s lifesaving operation would cost more than $50,000, an impossible sum for his impoverished family.
When Eldar uses his profile to publicly appeal for donations to save Muhammad’s life, an anonymous Israeli donor responds almost immediately, contributing the entire cost of the operation. Touchingly, we learn that the donor himself had lost a son in the ongoing violence between Israel and Palestine, and was driven to help save another family’s child. It’s just the start of the journey for the Abu Mustaffa family though, as they and Dr Somech struggle to find a bone marrow donor among relatives in Gaza. While willing volunteers are just a few kilometres away, near impossible border crossings separate the boy from the help he needs.
Eldar not only documents their struggle, he befriends the Abu Mustaffa family and uses his contacts to help them when he can. A closeness clearly develops, and when Faozi needs to return to Gaza, he urges Eldar to visit Ra’ida at the hospital, as she knows no-one else in Israel.
However Eldar’s input is not always an asset to the film. He positions himself front and centre, yet he is condescending towards the Abu Mustaffa family at times, and occasionally quite rude. Meanwhile divisions begin to appear as Eldar and Ra’ida argue over historic land claims, and then Ra’ida reveals that she happily endorses the use of suicide bombers in the fight for Palestinian self determination.
In making a film about a story in which he is intimately involved, Eldar exposes his own biases, both good and bad. The role of the documentary maker is traditionally to record events with as little intrusion as possible, and Eldar could be accused of manufacturing drama by pressing Ra’ida for her disturbing views.
However, for viewers like me, with limited knowledge of this part of the world, it is fascinating to observe how the complexities of politics, history and circumstance influence the characters’ personal relationships. Nothing is quite what it seems – even after Ra’ida makes her startling claims, we learn of the criticism she is receiving from some of her fellow Palestinians for accepting help from Jews. We are left wondering about her actual state of mind, and perhaps she herself is torn over how she feels.
“You Israelis treat us Palestinians in strange ways,” she says.
While this film is not quite the uplifting tale that Eldar may have wanted it to be, it is moving to see the adults in the film find ways to work together to give Muhammad the best possible chance.
Precious Life is an imperfect film, but it succeeds as a compelling slice of real life, played out against a tragic backdrop of ongoing violence and grief. It’s a memorable document of flawed humanity, and for the film’s revealing honesty at least, Precious Life is definitely worth a look.
Precious Life is now showing in cinemas across Australia.