In a documentary now making the rounds of film festivals, an Israeli photojournalist trained her lens on a small Gazan child whose remarkably paradoxical existence reflects the complicated mix of humanitarianism, hatred and bureaucracy that governs relations between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
Rina Castelnuovo, who spent 24 years as a New York Times photographer in Israel, devoted four years to closely documenting Muhammed El-Farrah, known as Muhi, an 8-year-old Palestinian boy from Gaza who has spent most of his life in limbo at Tel Aviv’s Tel Hashomer hospital.
The result of that closeup lens is “Muhi — Generally Temporary,” a documentary film in Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles that she co-directed with Tamir Elterman focusing on the quirky, funny semi-permanent resident of Tel Hashomer, along with his grandfather and caretaker, Hamuda Abu Naim El Farrah.
It is a troubling, even devastating film, yet it offers hope in the figure of Muhi, who perseveres despite the amputation of his hands and feet. He scrambles around the hospital with his prosthetic limbs, and holes up with his grandfather in the hospital room that became his home.
Castelnuovo made her way into the story of Muhi through a project about bereaved people for The New York Times. While researching Israeli and Palestinian support groups, she met Buma Inbar, an Israeli whose soldier son was killed in action. He became an activist as a result, and was deeply involved with Muhi and Abu Naim.
“It took almost a year before I agreed to photograph them,” said Castelnuovo, “and it was clear their story had to be told through a film. So I started filming them and things got more and more intense.”
Muhi’s story was complicated from the start. He was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease at a young age, and by the time he received a transfer to Israel from the Gaza Strip, his hands and feet had to be amputated.
Further complications kept him at the hospital, and it became clear that it was never going to be tenable to send Muhi back to the Gaza Strip, where medical supplies and medications cannot be guaranteed.
And so, Muhi and Abu Naim fell into an extraordinary reality familiar to a few other Palestinian families dealing with life-threatening health issues, living their lives in an Israeli hospital. When the patient is a child, like Muhi, the caretaker is often a grandparent, as the parents, generally young Palestinians, are not allowed in and out of Israel for security reasons.
“There are not as many [Gazans receiving medical treatment in Israel] as there used to be,” said Castelnuovo. “The Palestinian Authority does not provide as much medical financial backing as they used to for Gazans in need of care in Israel.”
Palestinian doctors must give permission for a child to leave, and then obtain authorization from Palestinian agencies in Ramallah, because they provide a portion of the financial backing to send the patient to Israel.
Hamas and/or Fatah have to allow the family to exit Gaza, and then the patient and caregiver are finally called to the Erez crossing point for questioning by the Israeli security forces.
“It’s like that every time,” said Castelnuovo.
Israel unilaterally withdrew all its forces and civilian residents from Gaza in 2005, and for the past decade has maintained a blockade on the Strip — as does the enclave’s other neighbor, Egypt — to keep weapons from making their way to Hamas, the terror group that rules Gaza since it wrested control from Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority in a bloody coup in 2007.
In Israel, Muhi and Abu Naim live in a bubble of coexistence, with deeply personal, loving care offered by Israeli Jewish doctors, nurses, social workers and volunteers.
Before he started school at the bilingual Arab-Jewish school in Jaffa last year, Muhi was taught the alphabet in both languages as well as Jewish prayers, holiday rituals and birthday celebrations.
He’s far more fluent in Hebrew than Arabic, usually speaking in Hebrew even with his grandfather.
“Muhi really is so Israeli,” said Castelnuovo. “He knows more prayers by heart than I do.”
Abu Naim, too, adopted certain Israeli mannerisms and characteristics, and speaks Hebrew fluently, which is not common for a Palestinian from Gaza. He also has a particularly Israeli appearance, wearing a large crocheted yarmulke as his head covering, and growing a bushy beard that makes him look like a Jewish settler.
“People [at the hospital] sometimes say to him, ‘Quick, quick, come to minhah,’” said Castelnuovo, referring to the daily afternoon Jewish prayers. “He doesn’t want to say he’s an Arab.’”
Muhi’s father cannot stand these developments. In the film, he appears to be closely linked to the Hamas terror group; he has the flags of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades — the military wing of Hamas — on his living room and office walls. He is not allowed into Israel, and never tries to gain permission, either. Hamas is sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state.
But Muhi’s mother knows that her son’s presence in Israel is his only chance of remaining alive.
It took years for Muhi, and then Abu Naim, to obtain temporary residency in Israel, which provided the relief of knowing they would not be summarily sent back to Gaza.
The story is so complicated that Castelnuovo could not delve into every angle. As an Israeli, she was not allowed to go into Gaza to film the family, so she used a local Gazan videographer to capture some moments.
Nor is Muhi’s condition the only drama affecting his extended family. One of Abu Naim’s younger sons suffered a fatal accident that could not be described in the film.
The 2014 war in Gaza also took place during Castelnuovo’s four years of filming. Muhi’s father’s cement factory, a facility of the sort often used in building the cross-border attack tunnels used to terrorize Israelis, was bombed, killing 11 members of his extended family, said Castelnuovo.
“It was reduced to powder,” said Castelnuovo.
But Muhi and Abu Naim’s temporary life continued, despite the reverberations in the world around them, with additional freedoms granted after they received the temporary permits that allowed them to leave the hospital. Abu Naim’s permit renewal every six months leaves him “walking around with terrible fear,” said Castelnuovo, and he cannot go back to Gaza because he fears he will be detained, which would leave Muhi alone.
When the film ends, Muhi is attending second grade at the Jaffa bilingual school and has not seen his mother in two years.
In another ironic twist, he and his grandfather are now being hosted at the hospital by an ultra-Orthodox nonprofit organization that pays all of their living expenses.
The hospital will never throw them out, said Castelnuovo.
As for Muhi, he finally told Castelnuovo to stop filming him because he did not want her following him around school. He enjoys school and has friends, she said, but it is not easy to invite friends home when you live in a hospital room and have a colostomy bag, which frequently falls apart.
And so, the film Muhi’s story ends there.
“It was a natural ending of a chapter,” said Castelnuovo. “It’s a story about choices people make — of Muhi’s mother and grandfather, the choices of his father, and the only one not making a choice is Muhi.”
The movie is currently making the rounds of film festivals in Europe. It is showing in next month’s Chicago Jewish Film FEstival. It can be seen in theaters throughout Israel and on satellite service YES VOD. Screening locations and times worldwide are posted on the film’s Facebook page.