Strong and Moving Film on Political and Religious Oppression

in 16th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Annika Gustafsson

In one of the last scenes of Life Sentences (Mishpatei Hahaim), by Israel’s Nurit Kedar and Yaron Shani, on of the the off-screen filmmakers poses a question to the main character: “Do you love your father?” The answer: “I don’t know, because I don’t know him.” What else could Nucer have said? His whole life has been filled with lies, but today he refuses to lie. A long, complicated relationship between Nucer and his father, the well-known PLO member Fauzi Nimer, is about to be over. The father suffers from Parkinson’s disease and dementia, and does not recognize his son. Life Sentences, which premiered internationally in Thessaloniki, tells an utterly complex father-and-son story where the main characters remain distant from each other.

The story begins in the ’60s, in the city of Acre in northern Israel. Here, Palestinians and Israelis have lived together for centuries. Here, the charismatic Fauzi Nimer falls in love with a beautiful Jewish woman, they marry and have a daughter and a son. After the six day war the husband is radicalized and takes part in as many as 22 acts of terrorism. Fauzi’s wife is unaware of his activities and badly shocked when her husband is arrested together with several brothers, and convicted to 22 life sentences in prison. She forbids her children from speaking of their father and places them in daycare, where Nucer is called names like “the dirty Arab” and has no one to play with. Two years later she emigrates with the children to Montreal, Canada, and puts them in a Jewish orthodox school. Nucer gets a Jewish name, never settles in and discovers yet another form of racism. For many years to come he seeks an identity and tries to understand who he really is. Does he belong in a Jewish or an Arabic environment? Today, Nucer is married to an Arabic cousin, has two children and is yet again living in Acre.

For this moving, many-layered story about various kinds of oppression, Nurit Kedar and Yaron Shani employ a functional form. There are many “talking heads”, necessary in this type of documentary, which relies to a great extent on interviews. Nucer’s life story is filled with sorrow, disappointment and depression with ensuing drug abuse, but in the midst of the darkness there is also room for a love story. His tale contains so many unexpected, almost unbelievable, turns and such suspense that it can almost be thought of as a thriller, and one forgets the conventional style.

The title Life Sentences is metaphorical. Fauzi Nimer wants to break out of his closed-in Arabic environment and marries a Jewish woman, but is caught up by the PLO, ends up behind prison walls and then — after a prisoner exchange between Israelis and Palestinians — in Tunisia. He feels trapped by politics and wants to break loose, but the chance eludes him and he ends up in yet another prison, in Gaza. Towards the end he is a prisoner in his own body, due to disease. The movie is a commentary on the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, on fanaticism within religions and all types of racism. Nucer says he is anti-religious and anti-racist. He only wishes to live in freedom.

Life Sentences is not a movie which makes an impression solely by its style, but mostly because it brings light to a destiny cut down and shaped by politics and religion. The theme is the same as in Ajami, the feature film Yaron Shani made together with the palestinian Scandar Copti in 2009, when it was awarded the Golden Alexander at the Thessaloniki Festival in November. Shani dedicates his life and his work to fighting against oppression in all its forms. His movies deserve to be spread across the world.

Edited by Michael Pattison