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IDFA 2023

Review: Life Is Beautiful


- Palestinian documentarian Mohamed Jabaly narrates his experience of political limbo, having been stranded in Norway once the 2014 Gaza War commenced

Review: Life Is Beautiful
Mohamed Jabaly in Life Is Beautiful

Life Is Beautiful is a study of national belonging and identity in absentia, the tale of an individual who learns what it means to be Palestinian despite never fully residing there – of course, also the tragic predicament of many of his countrymen. In 2014, filmmaker Mohamed Jabaly travelled to Tromsø, following a cultural initiative pairing the Norwegian city with Gaza; soon after, the latest of many successive wars with Israel broke out, leaving the Rafah border crossing with Egypt – the sole method by which he could potentially return home – closed. That location’s centrality to the ongoing and even bloodier war will not go unnoticed by viewers.

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The unfortunate timeliness of this film has had consequences for its international festival launch. IDFA, where the film premiered in competition and garnered the Award for Best Directing (see the news), has been plunged into controversy as opposing factions have contested the most appropriate way to pledge support and solidarity to Palestine, and several filmmakers of that nationality (and not) have withdrawn their work in protest. Jabaly has maintained his film’s slot, telling The Guardian, “I want to be heard. […] Because now that everything has been destroyed, what is left are our stories and freedom of expression.”

Although Life Is Beautiful doesn’t further indict the brutal occupation and Israel’s military dominance – which may disappoint viewers after more immediate political relevance – it provides an articulate outlook on an ordinary Palestinian (albeit one blessed with real filmmaking skill), interested in being neither an agitator nor a fighter, and only wanting to exist with dignity in the territory he’s always known.

As the war ramped up – which in that year saw Israel merely contain the threat of Hamas, rather than attempting to annihilate it, as we see now – Jabaly found himself caught between a sole border crossing he couldn’t return to and a host country growing gradually more hostile to his presence there. With the indefatigable help of Hermann Greuel from the Nordic Youth Film Festival, Jabaly is offered a de facto residency, giving him the space to assemble Ambulance, his award-winning 2016 film following his time shadowing the Gazan ambulance services at the beginning of the war, as well as a comfortable roof over his head and legal assistance to make his case for a work visa. He was initially rejected for the latter owing to the fact that Norway does not fully recognise Palestine, alongside his lack of a formal filmmaking education – which would have fully proven him as an accredited and “working” director, over and above his illustrious, already-existing filmography. Jabaly’s fluid, handheld camerawork and up-tempo editing patterns make this stasis feel like the trigger for his filmmaking identity and resilience to fully blossom.

It’s a chronicle of the festival community and filmmaking network that this outlet assiduously covers itself: there’s a note of glee as we see Jabaly and his team roll into their Sheffield Doc/Fest screening, or him being feted at a BBC Arab journalism awards ceremony in London; at its best, the film community engenders supranational belonging as well, especially in its ongoing commitment to justice for Palestine. With his educational status in Norway secure by the documentary’s end, and film-degree courses in progress, he’s able to finally hug his Gazan family (and especially his mother, addressed in voiceover across the film) after seven years in exile. With sorrow, current events provide an additional sense of closure, as Palestinian life struggles for its beauty and sanctity, as it too often has done.

Life Is Beautiful is a Norwegian-Palestinian co-production staged by Stray Dogs Norway and Jabali Film. Its world sales are overseen by First Hand Films.

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