Veteran Israeli photojournalist Rina 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 Abu Naim’s grandson, a small boy named Muhi whose arms and legs had been amputated.
“It was hard for me,” Castelnuovo-Hollander recalls with a bit of embarrassment. “How am I going to photograph him?” she thought.
“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,” she adds. “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 2017 documentary, “Muhi: Generally Temporary,” depicts the complicated, absurdist existence of the boy and his grandfather, who continue to live at the hospital more than six years later. If they go home to Gaza, Muhi will likely die without adequate care and facilities. So they stay, but Abu Naim is unable to obtain a visa or work permit.
The 89-minute film, in Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles, is playing twice in the next two weeks in two local Jewish film festivals: at 12:25 p.m. Tuesday, March 6 at the Century 16 Pleasant Hill in the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival and at 7:30 p.m. March 17 at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey in the Carmel Jewish Film Festival.
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 the aforementioned Buma Inbar plays a key supporting role in the film by reaching out to and negotiating with Israeli authorities in ways that neither Abu 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 recalled in an interview last year when the film had its world premiere 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 any human being. 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,” Elterman says, “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 was born in Berkeley 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. He was making two- and three-minute films for the New York Times’ website when he met Castelnuovo-Hollander.
“I’ve always been interested in the mixing of worlds coming together and what happens at that intersection,” Elterman explains. “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 says. “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.”