The extraordinary documentary film, “Life Sentences,” was many years in the planning, says co-director Yaron Shani. Winner of the best documentary film at last year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, it will receive its UK premiere in London later this month during SERET, the Israeli Film and Television Festival.
“Life Sentences” tells the story of Nimer Ahmed, the son of Fauzi al Nimer, an Arab from Acre and an Israeli Jewish woman from Nahariya who married in the early 1960s after a whirlwind romance, much to the wrath of both their families. They had two children, Nimer, and a daughter. But without his family knowing, Fauzi Nimer was a notorious Palestinian terrorist who was eventually convicted of carrying out 22 terror attacks in Israel.
Nimer’s mother took her young children to Montreal where they embedded themselves among the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, never discussing their father or the life they had left. Now married to his Muslim cousin living in Acre, Nimer has two children of his own, and although his story could be construed as yet another casualty of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the film manages to delve deeply into the complexities of a life that beggars belief.
“Life Sentences” follows Nimer’s journey from Israel to Canada, and from Tunisia back to Israel. It examines an isolated, tortured childhood and a conflicted adulthood. A profoundly affecting film, it addresses the question of identity, how we define ourselves and, perhaps more crucially, how others define us.
When co-director Nurit Kedar approached Shani, she had already tried unsuccessfully to make a documentary and a fictional film about Fauzi Nimer. At the time Shani had just finished making his first feature, Ajami, and his initial response was that the only way to make a film out of this story was as a documentary. But, as Kedar told him, Fauzi Nimer was by then too sick and neither his religious ex-wife nor his Haredi daughter would participate.
Shani explained that he had suggested Kedar made a film about the son, considering he was “the most interesting character in this story because he had made the most interesting choices.” They knew that he lived in Israel and once Kedar had located Nimer, she asked Shani to make the film with her.
At first, Shani was reluctant. “I thought the story was sensationalist and I’m not interested in sensation. [But] as I got to know Nimer I could see that he had a very important message to deliver to humanity. That’s when I understood it was a film that I wanted to make.”
The interviews that Shani conducted with Nimer took two years. At the beginning Nimer did not realize what was being asked of him, said Shani. “He’s a very, very big-hearted person — gentle and empathetic. [But] he was so unfamiliar with talking about feelings.”
Although Shani had told him that making the film meant talking about subjects that might be hurtful and exposing, after the first interview Nimer could not sleep for two days and was unsure whether to continue. “I told him that if you decide not to make it, it’s ok by me. But that he needed to understand if we didn’t touch the pain in his life, people would not understand the awful oppression he went through as a kid and the price that he and his family have had to pay.” Nimer was reticent to receive any therapeutic treatment despite Shani’s encouragement.
Shani believes that “Nimer [feels] a great pain but his father is not the real reason [for this]. It’s all the people who surrounded him, who wanted him to be something that he’s not.” At the end of the film Nimer makes it clear that he wants no part in any organized religion and rejects all patriotism and racism. Labels are fake to Nimer, Shani said. “He’s not willing to participate in the game of every society he goes to. As long as people kill each other because of their beliefs he will be caught in the crossfire and of course he will be affected, but in his mind he is [not a part of it]. That makes him very lonely but at the same time he’s very true to himself.’