“I Want You To See My Life”: Mohamed Jabaly Discusses ‘Life Is Beautiful’
Amidst the ongoing genocide in Gaza, one of the IDFA’s most high-profile Palestinian films, Mohamed Jabaly’s Life Is Beautiful documents roughly seven years of the director’s life via a diaristic structure. The film covers his forced separation from his family in Gaza; the support from his second family in Gaza’s sister city, Tromsø, Norway; and the making of his first feature documentary, Ambulance, about his time volunteering in an ambulance unit during the 2014 war on Gaza. The film won the Best Director jury prize in the international competition.
After pro-Palestinian demonstrators holding banners with the phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” took to the stage at IDFA’s opening night ceremony and a letter from 16 members of the Isareli filmmaking community condemning the demonstration, IDFA released a statement two days later denouncing the use of the slogan “in any way and by anybody anymore.” IDFA’s statement broke a bond of trust with the festival’s numerous attending Palestinian filmmakers and their allies and resulted in a number of withdrawals by filmmakers in the festival. Jabaly went ahead with Life Is Beautiful’s world premiere on November 13. It was in this context that Documentary caught up with Jabaly the day after to discuss the film, solidarity, and the pain that Palestinian filmmakers are feeling at this moment in history.
DOCUMENTARY: Considering you just had a phone call with your family in Gaza, how are you doing right now?
MOHAMED JABALY: It’s so difficult. I feel it in my head, I feel it in my body, I feel it in every nerve I have. We are not okay. We’re trying to be okay. But we cannot just leave, escape, or hide—it’s important to be able to be visible and be seen, otherwise nobody will hear us. And that’s one of the reasons that also I insisted, even though I'm an active member of the Palestine Film Institute (PFI)—to show my film. It was amazing to see all the people watching the film. And at the same time, I feel like my heart is stopping. I only want to read the news, I want to feel my family and be with them. And sometimes, when I’m taking a shower, or drinking water I think, okay, my family is not doing that.
D: In a time where solidarity against oppression somehow seems to be controversial, it was refreshing and important to see in this film how solidarity is good for everyone. Can you talk about your second family in Norway, and how they’ve been there for you during the making of this film?
MJ: I always go to Hermann [Greuel, Nordic Youth Film Festival organizer who hosted Jabaly in Norway] when I struggle. For example, Hermann is not only a friend, he is like a brother or a dad to me. He’s open to any conversation. We just sit and talk just to have a safe space to be able to reflect and share. But it’s not only him, it’s Tromsø. Tromsø plays a big role in the solidarity movement with Gaza.
You don’t need to explain yourself—people just understand you. If you saw Tromsø on a map, you would laugh at how Gaza ended up the twin city with this faraway little island town in the middle of the Arctic circle. But despite the distance, they inherited this solidarity. It was a key element for me to show how people stand with other people when they are struggling.
D: Despite the specific challenges of your situation in the film—being separated from family, the bureaucracy of the immigration offices—the overwhelming atmosphere in the film is positive and affirming. Why did you choose to emphasize those aspects of your life over the last several years?
MJ: I’ve always been driven by this hope and positivity as a person. There are difficult moments where you don’t want to see anybody, but this is not the majority of my days. For example, these days it’s really tough and really dark but the only way that I’m dealing with it is to talk. I needed a space to reflect and recharge because this energy has been pulled out over the last 40 days. But that’s why the film is called Life Is Beautiful. I don’t want to make a film about war, but if I’m forced to, I will. I still will try to find this hope in between the rubble, and that's what I tried to do in Ambulance, too.
D: How has the making of Life Is Beautiful compared with your first feature?
MJ: It was a decision from the beginning of my time in Tromsø to record everything. My diary has always been my camera. It was a process to go through all the material and make a selection that my editor could work with, because a story stands on important moments. Here, you could start with the moment when I left Gaza, or the moment when I started making Ambulance. So it all stands on this series of moments that I managed to document myself.
I don’t know how I managed to document everything, but I was strict. Watching and selecting all this footage was not easy, because it’s you. How do you get the courage to share your privacy, to split yourself into two, and to see yourself on two levels? I brought my editors 10 hours of footage and we started testing the scenes, putting this and that together. First, we thought maybe a chronological narrative was best. But this kind of film is time-based, so we didn't want to put many time stamps, to have it be more open. Even this strategy is limited because we see the Tromsø filmmakers come to Gaza in 2013, that I go to Tromsø in 2014, and the war starts, things like that.
D: I want to talk a little bit more about what’s been happening over the last few days at IDFA. You’ve talked about this a lot at the events that you’ve helped organize. Can you give some brief reflections on the last few days?
MJ: Our Palestinian struggle has always been based on a narrative fight for existence, on oppression, and control. That’s why, for us, the last few days were really heavy. What if this statement, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” was shown in a film at the festival? Would they take the film out of the festival? We felt like this statement [from IDFA denouncing the phrase] was a kind of institutional violence, or at least institutional censorship. This festival is family to us. When your family is harmed, the least you can say is, I’m sorry for you, I feel you. Gaza was living this genocide a month before the festival started, and I’m sure they expected some activism on the opening night. So to come out with a statement two days after the demonstration, of course it wasn’t enough for us as Palestinian filmmakers.
The PFI has given freedom to filmmakers to choose what they want to do in response. For example, myself, I felt like taking my film out of the festival would erase my voice. I wanted to grab my chance, so it was important to show the film. The only thing left for us is freedom of speech, and if we lose that, too, there is nothing left. Ultimately, it’s clear what the filmmakers want. We want to talk and share our pain, because we live it at the moment. Many of the filmmakers the festival brought here were in pain. They’ve been harmed by the last 40 days.
D: Given there are a lot of Palestinian filmmakers who feel like the trust between them and IDFA has been broken, what should huge cultural institutions like IDFA do to repair that trust?
MJ: They should highlight our pain and what’s happening on the ground. They have to acknowledge and see the genocide that is happening, because it’s about power. This isn’t about the festival workers or the programmers, but the institution—those who fund the festival but aren’t interested in our struggle and don't want to give us this space. My fellow filmmakers spoke in the Forum, saying, “If you admire my films and you admire me as a filmmaker, but at the same time you don’t acknowledge my reality, I don’t need to show my film.”
I want you to see my life. That’s why I’m making my film, not to make a piece of entertainment. You have to see the film as a tool for change. And that’s why IDFA has been a key festival across the world, and this is what we believe, hopefully, will continue. Otherwise, which festival or which platform should we use to insist on our behalf? That’s why we need to feel solidarity from everyone.
Chris Cassingham is a film critic and programmer based in Milwaukee. His writing can be found in outlets such as Little White Lies, Alt/Kino, and Journey Into Cinema. He currently programs an ongoing series of American independent films, Beyond Interpretation, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London.