Krakow Film Festival 2024

Living in limbo

Living in exile is hard, as we can experience in Mohamed Jabaly's award-winning Life Is Beautiful. Despite the hardships, this film is a feel-good story celebrating solidarity and friendship.

Currently screening as part of the 20th Biografilm Festival in Bologna.

Mohamed Jabaly is a Palestinian from Gaza. Ever since his father bought him a mobile phone with a camera for his 14th birthday, he has filmed his life as a digital diary. Being a self-taught filmmaker, he led courses at the Gaza Youth Center, introducing young people to media, and this is how he came in contact with the Tvibit Center in Tromsø, Norway.

Life is Beautiful Mohamed Jabaly
Life is Beautiful, a film by Mohamed Jabaly

Twin cities

Gaza became the twin city to Tromsø in 2001, leading to the creation of the Tromsø Gaza Twin City Cooperation at Tvibit, a creative production centre that allows youth from both cities to collaborate on cultural projects within media and arts. Jabaly was invited to stay for a month at the centre in Tromsø when the Israeli government suddenly closed the borders to Gaza, and he found himself stranded in north Norway for an uncertain timespan.

Fortunately, Herman Grevel, the host and project leader at the Tvibit, shows great solidarity by offering to share his home and small office with Jabaly. Over time, Herman takes on a fatherly role for the 25-year-old Palestinian, who has no experience living independently, nor can he cook or deal with Norwegian bureaucrats on his own – understandably. As time passes and summer turns into dark winter, Jabaly waits, although he is unsure of what he is actually waiting for as there are no signs that the borders of Gaza will open soon. With Herman’s help, he makes his first application for an artist visa, which he receives after an 8-month-long wait, although only with permission to stay for a year, meaning he needs to think of writing a new application right away. This turns out to be the beginning of an ongoing process leading to uncertainty and anxiety, as any planning for the future seems impossible. He has no idea how long he will be able to stay in Norway, nor does he have any other place to go.

Living in a state of limbo with prolonged uncertainty often leads to serious mental issues such as anxiety, stress, and, ultimately, depression. Studies have shown that many applicants wait a long time for permission to stay, isolating themselves and avoiding communication with others due to their uncertainty and inability to commit. In search of a purpose and with the solid encouragement of Herman, Mohammed decides to make something out of all the hundreds of hours of recordings he has. This has resulted in two films that have made headlines in film festival circuits.

In search of a purpose and with the solid encouragement of Herman, Mohammed decides to make something out of all the hundreds of hours of recordings he has.

Ambulance unit

At first, the mission is to make a film about the 51 days he spent with the Gaza ambulance unit during the Israeli airstrike attacks in 2014. Again, Herman demonstrates solid support by orchestrating a professional team and flies Jabaly to Copenhagen to work with an editor. Jabaly is going through growing pains as he transforms from an amateur to a professional filmmaker. After long hours in the editing room, the editor parts with him, saying, «You see now, Mohamed, the way we cut the film, it can not be called Ambulance. Do you feel that?» Jabaly nods, discouraged, while he records the whole process on his mobile as a digital letter to his mother, who encourages him not to give up his dream. Through persistent hard work, Ambulance became one of the most celebrated documentary films of 2017.

As Ambulance is travelling to film festivals worldwide and collecting awards, Jabaly can not attend the screenings personally because the Norwegian government will not grant him an artist visa. The reasoning is rather absurd, as they argue that he can not call himself a professional film director when he does not have an official film education. As Jabaly continues to film everything important that happens in his life in his digital diary, he is documenting what turns out to be a 7-year struggle with the Norwegian bureaucracy, which becomes the core of Jabaly’s second film, Life is Beautiful.

Life is Beautiful Mohamed Jabaly
Life is Beautiful, a film by Mohamed Jabaly

A second home

Jabaly receives great professional support from the experienced editor Erland Edenholm. The chronological storyline depicts Jabaly’s growing struggle with the Norwegian bureaucracy, while his memories and thoughts oscillate between Gaza and its traumatic memories of war destruction. In contrast, the film portrays everyday scenes from his life in Tromsø as he gradually adapts to living in a Nordic region where the sun never sets in the summer and never rises in the winter. In this way, the film draws attention to two important contemporary issues: the suffering of the people of Gaza and the mental anguish experienced by millions of asylum seekers worldwide. The film score composed by Gaute Barlindhaug sets the tone right away, indicating that this will be a feel-good movie despite the difficult topics. The feel-good aspect reflects Jabaly’s good-natured personality and the engagement his colleagues at Tvibit demonstrate in solidarity with his case. Today, Mohamed Jabaly works at the Tvibit Center as a project leader, and it seems he has found a place he can truly call his second home.

Life is Beautiful is a testament to hard work and talent, but its ultimate success is due to the fact that Jabaly, as a Palestinian filmmaker, has managed to resonate with the global community through his films. Without the connections and support of his colleagues at Tvibit, this film would never have been made, which reinforces a well-known fact in the film industry: you can’t create a film without strong support from your friends and a great team.

As of writing this review, Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas G. Støre made a historic statement, declaring that recognising Palestine as a state is essential for achieving peace in the Middle East. He urged other nations to do the same. Had Norway recognised Palestine as a nation decades ago, as India did in 1974, a peaceful two-state solution might have been more achievable today.

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Margareta Hruza
Margareta Hruza
Hruza is a Czech/Norwegian filmmaker and a regular film critic at Modern Times Review.

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