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IDFA Palestinian competitor Mohamed Jabaly on Life is Beautiful - “this is what I want to see”

13 NOVEMBER 2023

Life is Beautiful, Al haya helwa, Mohamed Jabaly / PHOTO: Courtesy IDFA, Stray Dogs Productions AS

Despite having his family fighting for survival in Gaza, the young documentary filmmaker, multi-awarded for Ambulance, wants to bring hope and trust in humanity with his IDFA competition entry.

Life is Beautiful (Al haya helwa), one of 11 documentary films world premiering this week at the main int'l competition in Amsterdam - is produced by Norway’s seasoned producers KriStine Ann Skaret and Sarah-Winge Sørensen of Stray Dogs Norway.

Mohamed Jabaly is lining up interviews in Amsterdam, hugging friends as we speak on zoom, a few days ahead of his film’s presentation in the Dutch capital.

At press time, Gaza’s Al-Shifa and Al Nasr Children’s hospitals close to where he used to live, are the centre of intense bombing from the Israeli army, but Jabaly is putting up a brave face. “It is hard”, he admits. “Speaking is hard, and I could have chosen to stay silent, in my hotel room. But speaking is a statement of resistance for me, for my people, a way to share what’s going on in our lives, and hopefully to still see the humanity in things.”

The title of his film Life is Beautiful might sit in stark contrast to the darkness falling over his native town of Gaza, but Jabaly is a born optimistic: “My motto has always been ‘life is beautiful’. This is what I want to see, who I am, and something I hope to continue to live and feel in the future”, says the director, now living in Tromsø, his adopted city, twinned with Gaza.

The arctic city of Tromsø in fact plays a crucial part in Life is Beautiful. This is where the young rising docu filmmaker first came in 2014, as part of a youth cultural exchange organised by Hermann Greue, head of Norway’s Nordic Young Film Festival.

But what was supposed to be a short visit turned into a life-transforming experience. When the borders to Gaza suddenly closed, Jabaly was forced to stay in Tromsø. It took him seven years to finally be reunited with his family and friends in Gaza.

In Life is beautiful, the director has meticulously documented every moment of his life in limbo. As a Palestinian and part of the largest stateless community in the world, Jabaly (who refused to ask for asylum in Norway) struggles with the Norwegian authorities to get the right to stay and a work permit, rejected on multiple occasions. We see him get accustomed to his new life in Tromsø, while keeping vital contacts with his Gaza-based family via mobile.

Meanwhile, his first feature length Ambulance - the director’s raw account of his 51 days spent with paramedics in the besieged city of Gaza-is touring world festivals and receiving kudos.


IDFA Palestinian competitor Mohamed Jabaly on Life is Beautiful - “this is what I want to see”

Life is Beautiful / PHOTO: Courtesy IDFA, Stray Dogs Norway

“I don’t want to make films about war, and I had hoped that Ambulance would be my last film about war-but unfortunately, that’s not the case,” the director told us.

As in Ambulance, Life is Beautiful is filled with adrenaline, as we follow Jabaly’s Kafkaesque struggle with the Norwegian authorities to get a work visa allowing him to stay, travel and get ahead with is life. The film also combines moments of humour and joy, shared with his Tromsø hosts, supportive film community and friends, moments of personal reflection through the voice over, and of deep emotion, as Jabaly shares self-recorded images of his youth in Gaza and mobile conversations with his parents, constantly interrupted by electricity shortage.

Speaking about his Palestinian father - a TV and radio repair shop owner - who first bought him a camera phone when he was 7, Jabaly says: “My siblings and I had access to all types of avant-garde electronic items in the late 90s, thanks to my dad who would bring us anything he could catch, such as and Atari VHS game, and movies that he would get at video clubs. He didn’t want me to do a job like him, never let me fix TV sets, and pushed me to do something else.“

Meanwhile Jabaly’s mother - who passed away in 2022 and to whom the film is dedicated - was the one who gave him confidence. “She always believed in me and facilitated anything I needed. Both my parents gave us a lot of trust and freedom,” says the director who early on, turned to artistic activities - painting, music, photography and filmmaking.

“My uncle was also a great painter so we’ve had artistic gifts in our family that we’ve developed”, said the 33-year-old.

The idea to make himself the central character in Life is Beautiful was not an easy choice, he admits and he is grateful to Greuel for his and his team’s guidance. “I have always been behind the camera in my previous works, so it was strange to be in front this time around,” he says.


IDFA Palestinian competitor Mohamed Jabaly on Life is Beautiful - “this is what I want to see”

Life is Beautiful / PHOTO: Stray Dogs Production, Courtesy IDFA

The film’s narrative structure, built with editors Erland Edenholm and Anne Fabini, was shaped around the dramatic key moments of Jabaly’s visa applications, rejections and final approval. But digging into ‘tons of footage” and selecting the material was hard, the director acknowledges, although looking back, he sees it as a formative and cathartic experience.

“It was very positive for me to believe in the whole process and while editing, my life continued, taking different shapes. What happens in Gaza and what happened before - this is our Palestinian people’s lives in limbo,” the director says.

The film’s selection at IDFA’s international competition programme - confirmed before Hamas’ deadly October 7 attack on Israel - was an immense joy for Jabaly. But finishing the post-production while the Israeli/Hamas conflict was unfolding and Gaza’s bombing was intensifying, was extremely challenging. “It was tough to try to concentrate on finalising the post-production, recording the voice-over, while hearing what was happening to my family,” Jabaly acknowledges, still very emotional.

Today, thinking of his father and siblings who were evacuated south of Gaza, to the Deir al Balah area, but still struggle to stay alive, is a daily ordeal for him. “Everything I do-drinking coffee, taking a shower when knowing that my family lacks everything, is super difficult. Even silence is difficult as I feel the pain inside of me.”

Talking about his beloved mother to whom he addresses his final words in the film [“I wish you could see the seven years that I lived without you-MOM I lived for you and I will live for you”] Jabaly notes. “It’s hard to say, but I’m glad she’s not witnessing what the rest of my family is witnessing. She’s perhaps in a better place.”

In a closing reflection about his IDFA main competition selection, - the ultimate achievement for a documentary filmmaker - Jabaly says it feels “like harvesting fruits but in the wrong season.” “I stand to see the fruits of my work - something my mom would have dreamt for me - but they don’t really taste as they should. Still, I hope this film will inspire other people to stand for their rights and their struggle. I wanted to inspire others and say-we are living this ordeal, but hey-life can be beautiful!”

The film was produced by Stray Dog Norway, with Mohanan Yaqubi serving as executive producer. It was supported by the Norwegian Film Institute, Fritt Ord, FilmFond Nord, Nordnorsk Filmsenter, Viken Filmsenter, the Audio and Visual Fund, Al Jazeera and International Media Support.

Esther van Messel who handled Ambulance for her sales outfit First Hand Films, is also representing Life is Beautiful worldwide.

Jabaly had hoped that the large impact campaign around the film, would have helped - among other things - rebuild a cinema in Gaza. “Now we have to rebuild the entire city. We have to save lives, then cinema. Let’s not forget that the symbol for Gaza city is a phoenix. It symbolises hope, rebirth so we have to keep up the fight.”