After last year's untimely choice of Tel Aviv as the Toronto International Film Festival's City to City focus, just months after Israel had committed a major crime against humanity in Gaza, the presence of three great films in support of the Palestinian struggle was highly welcomed at this year's festival last month.
They each resemble previous films on the same subjects, but raise the bar of quality films dealing with the liberation of Palestinians from Israeli occupation.
A heartwarming documentary, "Precious Life," focuses on the attempt to save the life of a Palestinian child dying from a lack of an immune system in an Israeli hospital. The search for a bone marrow donor becomes a political and social nightmare with obstacles on both sides of The Wall. The theme is similar to last year's poignant saga of a Palestinian man's attempt to locate recipients for the living organs from his young son killed by Israeli soldiers. In "Heart of Jenin" the decision to select Israeli children as a gesture of peace was met by obstacles on both sides of the Israeli-constructed separation wall.
In the events depicted in this year's "Precious Life," a plea for help was made to the Israeli public with the aid of a prominent Israeli journalist, Shlomi Eldar, a war correspondent in the Gaza Strip for over 20 years. An Israeli man choosing to remain anonymous donated the $55,000 necessary for the operation and the search began for the proper donor. Eldar also directed the film, which centers around two committed doctors at the Israeli hospital located near the Gaza border, and Eldar's humane approach to the subject, transcending the political divide, is near heroic. The baby's mother, Raida, is ostracized from her family which feels she has betrayed her people by working with Israeli doctors, and Eldar is confronted by his fears that the baby that he is trying to save could possibly grow up to be a "terrorist" bomber who will kill his people. The irony is that the Palestinian doctor featured in the film lost his three daughters in the Israeli bombing of Gaza, during the making of the film. He is now a resident physician in Toronto and appeared at the public screening along with Eldar and the Israeli doctor who helped save the child. The capacity for forgiveness can be overwhelming and the audience benefited from the display of humanity at its best in this powerful feature documentary that deserves, along with "Heart of Jenin," massive public exposure.
The Gaza massacre and the massive wanton destruction of homes and public buildings has never been more powerfully captured than in the film "Tears of Gaza" by Norwegian filmmaker Vibeke Lokkeberg. The unbelievably inhuman bombardment by Israeli forces (reminiscent of the Nazi bombings of Guernica) was a grossly disproportionate response to the rocket shellings into Israel and was condemned by the whole world including many Israeli activists. Unlike the criminal boarding and killing on the Gaza Flotilla ship and the confiscation of all its video footage to prevent world condemnation of the atrocious act, Israel was unable to prevent cameramen from capturing the brutality of its powerful assault on innocent people in Gaza. It's hard to believe that people can hold a camera while chaos, destruction and mass murder are going on before their very eyes, but thanks to these few brave souls the images of this tragedy will never be forgotten. Lokkeberg, aided by rare footage from these cameramen, structures a powerful story following the lives of three young people, before, during and after the massacre. The film uses similar footage as last year's "To Shoot an Elephant," a film that follows an emergency medical vehicle through the carnage. That film is available for free download online at toshootanelephant.com and offers another view of the same assault. But Lokkeberg's film is masterfully edited with a moving score by award-winning Lisa Gerrard ("The Gladiators"), whose haunting contralto voice is unforgettable, as are the images of this film that will be etched in your memory.
The Toronto festival treated the public to the premiere of artist/filmmaker Julian Schnabel's newest film, "Miral," based on the best-selling biography by Palestinian writer/journalist Rula Jebreal. Told in four segments, the film chronicles the history of the Palestinian people from the day of their expulsion from their homes in the 1940s to the mid-1990s through the lives of four women. The real-life story of the dedicated Hind Husseini, who began a school for orphans left from the 1948 war, is portrayed with passion by the talented Hiam Abbass ("Amreeka," "Lemon Tree"). The last segment features Frieda Pinto ("Slumdog Millionaire") as Miral, a teen enticed to join the liberation movement but held back by the cautious schoolmistress Husseini in an attempt to save her from the brutal realities of occupation. Of course, author Jebreal eventually left her homeland to become a successful journalist, gaining the opportunity to work on behalf of her people back home.
Like previous films mentioned here, "Miral" is similar to one from last year - the autobiographical "The Time That Remains," directed by another world renowned filmmaker, Palestinian Elia Suleiman. In this equally artistic masterpiece, Suleiman records the Israeli occupation from day one to the present day, told through members of his family as they each fall victim to the expansionist policies of the Israeli state.
Jewish director Schnabel in his opening remarks at the Toronto screening of his film explained his attraction to the story. He remembered as a child in Brooklyn his mother raising funds for the Jews expelled from Europe after World War II and saw the tragic parallels to the Palestinians driven from their homeland as depicted in Jebreal's book.
The festival offered probably unintentional signs of hope for the struggling Palestinians. The Algerian epic "Outside the Law" gave powerful claim to the eventual victory over occupation rightfully owed to any nation of people determined to regain their homeland. At the screening of "Miral" a definite turning point was sensed in the attempt to bring the Palestinian struggle to the world stage. The sold out audience of filmgoers, most not Palestinian or Jewish, gave the film a long standing ovation for its sympathetic portrayal of ordinary people under extreme oppression, cementing the notion that the tide is finally turning for public support for the plight of Palestinians.
And another positive result came from the protests of last year's choice of Tel Aviv as the city of focus. This year the 2nd annual Toronto Palestine Film Festival continues its presentation of some of the finest films dealing with the subject of this column. It runs from Oct. 2 to 8 at several venues including the Bloor Theater and the newly built Beit Zatoun cultural center.
www.tiff.net (Toronto International Film Festival)
www.cinephil.co.il (Precious Life)
www.tpff.ca (Toronto Palestine Film Festival)
www.cinemajenin.org (Cinema Jenin)
www.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/episodes/heart-of-jenin/video-full-episode/5120/ (Heart of Jenin)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5-mhBWBfDg (Tears of Gaza)
www.toshootanelephant.com/ (To Shoot an Elephant)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmUPHXAC3Lk (Time That Remains)
http://www.shadowandact.com/?p=24125 (Outside the Law)
Photo: Scene from "Precious Life." (Cinephil)