A scene from Muhi: Generally Temporary, which screens Nov. 21 as part of the Victoria International Jewish Film Festival. (photo from Medalia Productions)
Veteran Israeli photojournalistRina Castelnuovo-Hollander wasn’t looking to make a transition to movies when she was introduced to Muhi. In fact, she wasn’t remotely prepared for their chance meeting.
In 2013, she was working on a series of portraits for the New York Times of Israelis and Palestinians who had lost family members in the conflict. Palestinian elder Abu Naim and Israeli activist Buma Inbar arrived for their photo session with Naim’s grandson, a small boy named Muhi, whose limbs had been amputated.
“It was hard for me,” Castelnuovo-Hollander recalled with a bit of embarrassment. “‘How am I going to photograph him?’ The picture I published in the New York Times – I can’t believe it today – nobody can see that Muhi has no legs and no arms. He’s semi-concealed, because I wasn’t sure yet what the story was.”
The story, she soon learned, was that Muhi had been born in Gaza with a life-threatening immune disease. As a baby, he was brought to an Israeli hospital where the doctors deemed it necessary to amputate Muhi’s arms and legs to save his life.
Castelnuovo-Hollander and Tamir Elterman’s profoundly moving documentary, Muhi: Generally Temporary, screened at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival (which is on until Nov. 12) and is also part of the Victoria International Jewish Film Festival, which runs Nov. 18-21. The film depicts the complicated, absurdist existence of the boy and his grandfather – who continue to live at the hospital. If they go home to Gaza, Muhi will likely die without adequate care and facilities. So they stay, but Naim is unable to obtain a visa or work permit.
The poignancy of Muhi’s situation is exacerbated by the extraordinary difficulty that his mother encounters obtaining documents and navigating the checkpoints. This political backdrop informs Muhi, and Inbar plays a key supporting role in the film by reaching out to and negotiating with Israeli authorities in ways that neither Naim nor Muhi’s mother can.
The core of the film, however, is the strong-willed, funny and occasionally rebellious boy for whom it is named.
“I was around Abu Naim and Muhi for almost a year before I came up with the idea that we want to do a film,” Castelnuovo-Hollander said during an interview this spring when the film had its world première at the San Francisco International Film Festival. “First, I did stills, then interviews just to research, then I started filming with an iPhone, and then with a camera. Then I joined forces with Tamir, and we said, ‘Let’s try and do a film.’ So there were a few stages and, by then, Abu Naim trusted me that I didn’t come to destroy his world or expose something.”
Castelnuovo-Hollander had long stopped seeing Muhi as a boy with a disability by that point, and related to him as she would anyone else. She also realized that a film was necessary to convey Muhi’s personality and character, along with his bizarre state of limbo.
“When we started speaking about this,” said Elterman, “Rina told me, ‘I’m taking photographs and this kid’s amazing and there are extraordinary relationships, but these people need to speak. People need to hear Muhi, and see him in action.’ He sees himself like anyone else and, when you interact with him, after five minutes, you see him as everyone else. But that’s a function of meeting him and getting to know him in a way that still photos don’t allow you to do.”
Elterman, who was born in Berkeley, Calif., to Mexican parents and moved to Israel after college – and then returned to New York to earn his master’s before returning to Tel Aviv for good – met Rina when he was making two- and three-minute films for the New York Times’ website.
“I’ve always been interested in the mixing of worlds coming together and what happens at that intersection,” Elterman explained. “It might have been serendipitous, but this story and this setting was perfect for what I’m interested in exploring.”
For her part, Castelnuovo-Hollander preferred a novice filmmaker to a veteran.
“He came without preconceived ideas, and that was a very important thing for me,” she said. “Tamir reacted enthusiastically to this story, so I knew he was going to be the right person to spend long hours with no pay. You can laugh, but that’s how it is. We did it for passion, basically.”
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.