December 1, 2023

Palestinian filmmaker Mohamed Jabaly is leaving the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam with a major award: Best Director in International Competition for his film Life Is Beautiful. But where he goes next is uncertain – he can’t return to Gaza for the time being because the border is closed as the Israel-Hamas war rages on.

Amid the prestige and excitement of premiering a film at IDFA, the world’s biggest documentary festival, his thoughts, for obvious reasons, have been back in his homeland.

“Of course, it’s not easy when people come and ask you how are you? And then what should you say?” he tells Deadline. “It’s really difficult even to speak, but then silence also doesn’t help at this stage in our life.”

Director Mohamed Jabaly, at right, with camera.

Courtesy of IDFA

“Making films,” he continues, “or speaking about it became kind of heavy on our shoulders and then a moment where we just kind of feel our bodies are paralyzed. But then we insist that we should tell, we should insist on our storytelling and that’s the only way I see that we can move forward.”

In a sense, Life Is Beautiful is a film about a film. It revolves around the making of Jabaly’s earlier documentary, Ambulance, an examination of how he joined an ambulance crew in 2014 during another flareup of war between Israel and Hamas.

Two months after the 2014 hostilities eased with a ceasefire, Jabaly traveled to Norway on an exchange program. But while he was abroad, the borders to Gaza were shut indefinitely, stranding him in the Scandinavian country. 

Director Mohamed Jabaly's reflection in glass.

Director Mohamed Jabaly’s reflection in glass.

Courtesy of IDFA

“It was only supposed to be for a short visit, one month, and then just return to Gaza and continue my life,” Jabaly recalls. “That became kind of my dilemma, my limbo of life, not knowing what’s going to happen for me.” 

Life Is Beautiful returns to those days in 2014 when Jabaly became an unwitting exile, unable to return home. He attempted to apply for a visa to stay in Norway, but discovered the online application didn’t list Palestine as a country.

“You type ‘Palestine,’ it shows ‘stateless,’” Jabaly explains. “When you wanted to write it in [you couldn’t]. That was extra pain to carry and also try to fight for yourself as a filmmaker and then as your identity as a Palestinian.”

Director Mohamed Jabaly in Tromsø, Norway.

Director Mohamed Jabaly in Tromsø, Norway.

Courtesy of IDFA

Jabaly lived with a host in the frigid northern city of Tromsø ( enthusiastically describes the place as “where your Arctic adventure begins.”).

“I made a decision from the beginning to document everything that was happening to me,” he says. “I put this challenge to document basically my diary and it became kind of a series of moments that been developed over these years. At some point I said maybe I will use these materials… I saw it as a film.”

Director Mohamed Jabaly as a young man in Gaza.

Director Mohamed Jabaly as a young man in Gaza.

Courtesy of IDFA

Life Is Beautiful is what he made of the materials. The film illustrates the sharp contrast between Jabaly’s life in snowy Tromsø and the world he had left behind in Gaza, superheated in terms of temperature and political conflict.

In the new documentary, we see Jabaly at work on his previous one, Ambulance. As he made progress editing Ambulance in 2014 and 2015, he tried to resolve his legal status in Norway. Some friends counseled him to seek asylum, but the director says he rejected that idea because it would mean turning his back on Palestine. 

“It wasn’t an option for me,” Jabaly says. “Then, I decided to apply for an artist visa.” 

Norwegian authorities initially rejected that visa request because, as a self-taught filmmaker, Jabaly didn’t possess a film degree. But after an eight month wait, he finally got his visa. All the while, he hoped to return home.

IDFA’s International Competition jurors, in their citation of Jabaly for Best Director, called Life Is Beautiful “A timely cinematic expression of the universal need to be recognized in our full humanity. A compelling indictment of the bureaucratic and political structures that deny that. A directorial tone that, almost impossibly, manages to find hope and humor amid unimaginable pain. An urgent call for freedom, freedom of movement, freedom of opportunity and the freedom to pursue our dreams.”

Mohamed Jabaly receives a fond farewell as he leaves Norway.

Mohamed Jabaly receives a fond farewell as he leaves Norway.

Courtesy of IDFA

Jabaly’s sunny disposition and charm helped him form strong bonds in Norway with his host family and friendships with many other people he met there. The title of the film, Life Is Beautiful, may seem ironic given the grim living conditions for Gazans, but to the director, it represents a fundamental perspective.

“’Life is beautiful…’ This is what I always wanted; this is what I always say. I mean, I say it wherever I go,” Jabaly notes. “I wanted to spread this hope even though sometimes hope is hard, it’s difficult to see at a moment that we are living now.”

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