Shlomi Eldar’s documentary is, at least on the surface, about one life, that of an infant who desperately needs a bone marrow transplant in order to hopefully cure a genetic disorder that will otherwise kill him. The child is a Palestinian boy but the hospital is in Israel and the hospital staff are all Israeli. Just a short distance from the hospital there is fierce conflict waging between Israelis and Palestinians and yet everyone is happy to come together to save this one life. This is the first of many complex contradictions that make Precious Life such a compelling documentary.
Contradictions and complications mount up throughout Precious Life as Israeli soldiers visit the hospital to give gifts, an anonymous Israeli donor gives the family hope with a finacial donation, the doctor who has been instrumental in helping the family is drafted as a combat doctor and in the film’s most heart-stopping moment the mother comments that she would be happy for her son to grow up to be a Shahid (a martyr). This comment from the mother is one that it is certainly hard to stomach when watching the film but her true belief in this statement is in question and the film is also ultimately about the gradual shifts in her attitudes to life.
Shlomi Eldar clearly cares about his subjects, he admits part way through that he has crossed a journalistic line, and it’s also obvious that he believes that their lives are precious regardless of their race or religious and political beliefs. One further problematic aspect to the film though is that Eldar is Israeli and therefore obviously very much seeing the subject he is dealing with from his viewpoint, one that falls on one side in particular.
The mother is at first reluctant for her son’s story to even be shown by Eldar on television, the aim of which is to find a donor, as she is worried that it may be seen as Israeli propaganda. The inclusion of this comment, which comes early in the film, is important as it highlights the way in which Eldar does not shy away from accusations of bias in the film. It’s clear throughout that this is a personal story, one told by him, from his point of view and it is therefore saddled with a significant amount of personal baggage. This baggage thankfully actually makes the tricky subject matter of the film easier to traverse as we are fully aware of the subjective nature the documentary, with no attempts from Eldar to provide easy objective answers.
The roots of this documentary lie in television journalism though, Shlomi Eldar is well-known for reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on television, and as a film it is a little underwhelming stylistically. There are far too many moments in which Eldar relies on a mawkish score or obviously manipulative, overly sentimental editing to ensure the audience’s heart-strings are tugged in all the right places. This may be essential in a news programme competing with hundreds of other channels and remote control clicking viewers but in the cinema these constant efforts to grab the audience’s attention are more annoying than vital. The gripping story and compelling subject matter of Precious Life are enough to ensure anyone is riveted to their seat and as the heated Q&A following the screening at UKJFF attested to, the film raises plenty of important but complicated and controversial questions.
Whilst too tied to the televisual roots of Eldar’s background Precious Life is nonetheless a heartbreaking and gripping documentary which treats a dense political and religious subject in a vitally important personal way.
Precious Life played as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival.