Telluride Film Festival: Conversation with Shlomi Eldar of "Precious Life"

Telluride Film Festival: Conversation with Shlomi Eldar of "Precious Life"

IMG_7909 Telluride Inside… and Out immediately called Shlomi Eldar's "Precious Life" one of the most powerful films we saw at the Telluride Film Festival last month.

"Precious Life" is a documentary about a Palestinian family trying to save the life of their infant son in an Israeli hospital. Susan had only a few moments to chat with Shlomi after the screening, as he was being rushed off to another event. Shlomi promised to take some time after the dust settled (he was headed for the Toronto Film Festival immediately after Telluride) to do an interview with Telluride Inside… and Out. This article, conducted by email, is the result of that conversation.

S_1 Susan Viebrock: At any point in your life did you imagine yourself directing a major documentary?

Shlomi Eldar: I started this project only because I couldn't get into Gaza Strip after Gilad Shalit has been kidnapped and after the blocked of Gaza by Israel. I had to find new stories so when I have got the e-mail from Dr. Raz Somech I said to myself "let's try and make a piece about it, it might be interesting." Only when one single person donated the whole amount of money I found myself following the process and the journey of saving Muhammad. Something inside me told me that it can become a film. In short I didn’t think or mean to make a major documentary and I didn’t realized that I could take 3 years working on that film.

S_5 SV: Describe how your day job as a TV reporter informed your directing.

SE: My background as a journalist not only helped me, but without it this film would have never become fact. I know the people in Erez check point, I know some people from the IDF, and I know Gaza better than I know many cities in Israel. This knowledge and those contacts helped things happen. In the film I even saying that I couldn't get to Gaza any more but I could still use my contacts. Without my job as a reporter and good connection I'm sure that not only the film wouldn't become true but even the baby, the lovely Muhammad  wasn't survive, and it's much important to me than any film and any success. 

S_6 SV: What were your greatest challenges in directing "A Precious Life"? What were your biggest surprises?

SE:  I believe the most complicated moments for me were the moments after the talk with Raida and the things she said to me. All that time I thought I control the situation, that I'm doing something good, that it's a film about kindness and compassion. And then it turns upside down. And I'm not only a film director, I'm also Israeli that lives in Israel. I'm a father. What should I think? What should I do? How can I bridge those gaps?

SV: Talk about the team you mobilized to make Precious Life.

SE: I met Ehud Blieberg ( My producer) in a  party. He wanted to know more details about the situation in Gaza Strip and I told him about a film that I started to film in Sheba hospital. Ehud asked me to see materials that I filmed before and after he saw it he said : "that's the documentary story that I will love to produce".

Then I recruited my editor Dror Reshef that I "picked up" from channel 10 and we started to edit even before the story about the family ended.

S_7 The music soundtrack is by Yehuda Poliker and the way I recruited him very interesting.  Poliker is a very very famous musician in Israel, when we finished editing the film my dream was that Poliker will write and perform the music soundtracks, but I was too shy or embraced to ask him. He is my favorite and very busy and unreachable, I thought.  One day I had to film extra shot for the film; driving by car direct to the hospital; I had to film the shot late afternoon on Friday when the traffic was low and I took my child 2 years old in my car. I put the camera on the front of the car to shoot the road and he was [yelling] to hear music, but I wanted the sound of the cars, and driving, but his cry prevented me to record the real sound and I give up. I pushed on the c.d. and Poliker started to sing. When we took the materials to the editing we knew that this is it. It will be in the final rough-cut. I called Poliker but as I expected he said that he is very busy these days and can't write music, but I suggested to send him DVD. Late night he called me back and said: I saw your film; it's really touched me. I will do it whatever, I will find the time.

SV:  Talk about the reception your film has received in the U.S. (in Telluride) and Canada. And the emotions surrounding the response.

S_2 SE: The greatest compliment I got was from Tom Friedman who recommended his readers to watch the film in order to understand the real situation in the Middle East. His column was incredible, something that you can't expect to be real. It was the first time that me and my team realized that the film work outside our country.

In Telluride it was the international première and the reception of the film was beyond any imagination, it's America the land of the movies and it's Telluride the most important and unique festival in America and maybe all over the world. It was amazing the most exciting weeke
nd of my life. The reviewers, the audience, the warm reception, everything. Everything.

It really was and still GREAT.    

Of course, when we reached Toronto everyone heard the Buzz from Telluride , all the screening were sold-out and "Precious Life" sold to distribution ( theatrical ) in Canada, Australia, Benelux and more.

IMG_7890 SV: What is your spin on the Mideast situation? Do you really believe individuals like Raida, etc. mobilizing is the only road towards peace. Is peace an option in your mind?  Is it an option only if the grassroots come together?

SE: I think the peace starting between people, I don’t believe today in leaders or government's proposal. I really believe when people met people all the walls of demonization and religion and superstition collapse.

After the first screening in Jerusalem I received a mail from a man living in Ashkelon near the border of Gaza, he wrote me: During the war I was so angry and wanted that we will destroy Gaza, bomb them all to stop the Qasam rockets that have been fired on us. I was so angry that I didn’t care if we kill them all, all the people there. But after I saw your film I was so ashamed that I had that kind of feelings, I understood the first time in my life that there are people in Gaza are like us,  human being, children's and women and families and they also afraid.   And I think this is the achievement of the film.

SV: What is your relationship today with Raida and her family and the doctor? Do you remain in touch? Will you when the noise settles down?

IMG_7907 SE: We are still in touch. Muhammad will always be part of my life and even my kid's life that know him, met him and care about him. This family is remarkable. No matter what I care about them and I feel they are part of me which I like and respect and love.

If they will ever need anything I hope and believe they will not hesitate to ask. I hope Ra'ida will get the chance to study in the university and also the other kids and especially Muhammad.
Doctor Somech today is my best friend.

SV: How do you feel about the Oscar buzz?

SE: Wow Oscar!!! What can I say more?

(editor's note: Shlomi's English is excellent, but necessarily idiomatic. I have intentionally left his syntax intact with a few minor changes if comprehension would be compromised. The buzz from Telluride carried on to Toronto: HBO picked up the rights to "Precious Life."

Photos of Shlomi Eldar are from the first screening in Telluride and include the Skype call in the theatre with Raida and her family. Click on photos to enlarge.)


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