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Friday, January 7, 2011

Precious Life: Changing lives one heart at a time

A documentary directed by Shlomi Eldar. 88 minutes. PG

Buried somewhere in Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar’s compelling documentary, Precious Life, is a kernel of hope for eventual peace in the Middle East. But it’s the startling revelation halfway through the movie — about the efforts of an Israeli doctor to save the life of a 4-month-old Palestinian boy suffering from a severe immune deficiency condition — that gives the story a quite horrifying wallop and underscores the madness of that appalling conflict.

During a conversation with the filmmaker outside the sanitized Israeli hospital room in which the baby is awaiting the arrival of blood test results that will reveal the identity of a possible bone marrow donor among his Arab relatives in walled-off Gaza, the boy’s mother, Raida, declares her fundamentalist Muslim convictions, and confesses with some pride that it wouldn’t trouble her if someday her child became a martyr to the Palestinian cause.

“Life isn’t precious,” Raida says to the stunned interviewer, a well-known TV personality there whose efforts to publicize the child’s plight resulted in a huge cash gift from an anonymous Jewish donor that financed the operation and a long hospital stay, along with the attention of a brilliant pediatrician, Dr. Raz Somech, who saved the boy’s life.

In that shocking moment, reason and empathy fly out the window. That this loving young mother could so easily dismiss the enormous compassion that has sustained her through her ordeal — she had already lost two infant daughters with the same syndrome and would soon become pregnant again — defeats comprehension.

It’s only when Eldar takes a call while on the air delivering his evening newscast from a Palestinian doctor in Gaza whose three daughters have just been killed during a brutal Israeli military offensive, that he begins to question whether life does have any value in a world torn apart by never-ending war.

Soon after, he meets the caller, Dr. El-Eish (now an associate professor of medicine at the University of Toronto), who points out the sad paradox that while a whole medical team in Israel has been devoted for months to saving the life of one Palestinian child, the lives of so many others were taken “in a second” during the blockade and assault in Gaza.

The somber tone of the film improves slightly when Raida’s son returns to the hospital several months later for more surgery, and when she gives birth to a healthy daughter. On her trip back home to Gaza in a cab, Raida admits to Eldar that she has seen enough death and fear, and expresses a faint belief that someday both sides should start talking about peace. Quietly, almost reluctantly, she acknowledges that life — so carefully nurtured during her time in hospital — may be precious after all.

It’s not much to hang hope on, but maybe that’s the way wars like this end — changed one heart at a time.