Despite growing up in the confines of an Israeli hospital, Muhi finds joy in the smallest of things. But, as he gets older how will he learn to cope not just with his physical disability, but the emotional trauma of being separated from his family his entire life...?
Image via Sputnik Kino
We have all read the reports and heard the news, but unless your lives have been personally touched by the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it is hard to understand the scale of the misery and estrangement this is causing. 'Muhi - Generally Temporary' (the name taken from Muhi's residency status), sheds light on the human tragedy of the situation by documenting the life of Muhi, a disabled Palestinian boy who lives in an Israeli hospital, permanently separated from his family who are trapped in the Gaza strip.
This film, directed by Tamir Elterman and Rina Castelnuovo, was without a doubt the most harrowing out of the twelve I watched during last weekend's Berlin Human Rights Film festival. Whilst all the films depicted human suffering in one form or another - and some were extremely violent - the sight of one little boy, happy yet lonely, living with his Grandfather in an Israeli hospital drew more tears than the rest combined – in fact, I cried the whole way through. It was was something to do with the sweetness of Muhi, the paraplegic Palestinian boy who has been living apart from his family nearly his whole life, and the beautiful relationship he has with his Grandfather, Abu Naim.
Muhi got sick when he was very young. In order to save him, doctors had to cut off his hands and feet - “Why don’t I have any hands?”, Muhi asks Abu Naim at one point in the film. He is not angry, or sad, just a little confused. For Muhi, this is his reality, and like any young child, he quickly adapts to his new limitations - learning how to eat a yogurt by holding a spoon in the crook of his elbow, or fold his prosthetic hands together just like Abu Naim. Of course, for anybody watching him struggle to lift a spoon or walk properly, it is almost too painful to watch.
Due to the severity of his condition, Muhi requires extensive care which cannot be provided by hospitals in the Gaza strip. So, he is moved to the Tel HaShomer hospital, Israel. This strange twist of fate leaves Palestinian Muhi growing up surrounded by Jewish people, with only Abu Naim to remind him of his heritage. This peculiar environment leaves Muhi isolated from his Palestinian roots and conflicted between his love for the people that take care of him at Tel HaShomer and a vague knowledge of the wider conflict between his own people and theirs. We often witness glimpses of this confusion - in one scene, Muhi's grandfather asks Muhi who he would like to be - "Ruski" (Russian) replies Muhi.
Muhi's identity disorientation is exacerbated by lack of contact with his family - "To him, I am like a stranger", his mother tells Abu Naim on the phone. Muhi loves his mother very much, but he never gets to see her due to the stringency of Israeli laws separating Israel from the Gaza strip. Muhi's mother tries her best to come and see him, but it is virtually impossible for Palestinian people to enter Israel via the infamous Erez/Beit Hanoun crossing. It is only with the help of Abu Naim's Israeli friend, Buma Inbar, who speaks on their behalf to the authorities, that she has managed to visit him at all. It is unclear whether Muhi's father has ever tried to visit. There is a small voice inside that questions whether perhaps it is just too painful to see their son in his physical condition...
Muhi and Abu Naim - Image via IndieWire
We can see the emotional effect Muhi's disability has on his mother in a scene during a rare hospital visit. The camera turns on Muhi's mother as she watches him run around on his prosthetic legs. There are tears in her eyes, and she hides her face - “Mother, why are you crying?”, Muhi asks her, running over and giving her a hug, “Because you have smudged my makeup”, she smiles, cuddling him and wiping away her tears.
Muhi's long separation from his mother is one of the most awful things about the whole film. You can see his effervescence suddenly diminish when he remembers her – if he is asked about her, he sometimes gets confused. When she greets him during her first visit, he is shy when she comes over to give him a cuddle. He doesn’t know how to behave with her - she is like a stranger. But he feels happy she is here and runs around the corridors delightedly, keen to show her his home.
The second time when they say goodbye, Muhi is quiet – this is not normal for him. His mother gets out of the car and asks if Muhi wants to come too, but he says “no”. Muhi watches her as she walks around the corner. When he can't see her anymore, he anxiously gets out of the car and starts to stumble awkwardly after her, scared that he will lose her again. Around the corner, he sees her, and they come together for one last hug. Then, she says "goodbye" and walks away through the gates. Muhi stands next to Abu Naim and begins to cry. Luckily, Abu Naim is there to comfort him.
It is Abu Naim's calmness, strength and unwavering love for Muhi which is the secret star of the show. Every day, he sits with Muhi, reading to him, walking around the hospital corridors, and praying in his little room. He is not allowed out of the hospital grounds, so for a change of scene he sometimes goes with Muhi to sit in the hospital car park and eat a picnic. Abu Naim also works as a janitor in the hospital. He has a wife and family of his own that he hardly ever gets to see.
What happens next to Abu Naim is truly horrific - one of his own sons has an accident at school and badly hurts his head. He is in a coma and undergoes emergency surgery. Abu Naim is beside himself and implores the Israeli authorities to allow his son to be transferred to the same hospital as Muhi. They refuse. There is some distressing footage of Abu's son being transported into an ambulance - the same boy who had been telling Abu Naim about his grades at school in a previous scene is now lying motionless, a vacant look on his face. For the first time in the film, Abu Naim breaks down in tears. He weeps as he follows his son into the ambulance. Later, we watch their final moments together. His son is in a vegetative state and the hospital says there is no hope he will recover. They all say their goodbyes to their son. The life support is switched off. Despite the unthinkable trauma of this event, Abu Naim returns immediately to Tel HaShomar.
In the last scene, Muhi is crying again. It is his seventh birthday, and everyone in the hospital ward has gathered to wish him a happy birthday. He has a cake with candles. He has presents. He has party games. But his family are not there, except for Abu Naim. In the end, it is this relationship which means the most to Muhi.
The film ends on a hopeful note for Muhi - he is going to school! We are shown footage of Muhi's first day of school. He bravely walks towards the school entrance, large backpack strapped to his back. He is wearing his prosthetic legs but no hands - he insisted he didn't want to wear them as they gave him sores and were uncomfortable to wear. Muhi is attending a Judeo-Muslim school, so hopefully he will meet other Palestinian children and have the opportunity to learn more about his culture. There are already some signs that Muhi is becoming more aware of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the affect this has had on his life - he has abandoned the name 'Muhi' and now wishes to be known as 'Mohammed'.
Who knows what the future will hold for Muhi or his family or for Abu Naim. Will Muhi ever be well enough to return to Gaza? Although it saved his life, will he end up resenting Israel for keeping him stuck in Tel HaShomar for almost his entire childhood? As the reality of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict slowly works its way into Muhi's consciousness, will this happy little boy manage to keep his joyful smile forever?
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