Review: Life Sentences (Shani & Kedar, 2013) – SVJFF 2014

Still from the movie Life Sentences

Life Sentences was the third and perhaps final film we will watch at this year’s Silicon Valley Jewish Film FestivalYaron Shani and Nurit Kedar‘s documentary about the family of a PLO leader and devout Jewish woman continues Arabani‘s theme of hybrid identities. Their son, Momi (also known as Nimer, Shlomo, Solomon, Ahmed, or Pinto at different times and by different people), is the main subject of the film. Through interviews and old photographs, the documentary explores the aftermath of the public’s discovery that, following the formation of Israel, Momi’s father was involved in several acts of terrorism against Israeli civilians. We follow Momi’s lonely childhood in Israel, branded as the son of an Arab terrorist; his confused adolescence at an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school in Toronto; and his uneasy early adulthood as he struggles to negotiate the complex, fraught, and pained relationships of his family.

Despite this potentially rich subject material, I was disappointed by the surface treatment given to Momi’s story. Perhaps because the filmmakers only had access to Momi, his Muslim wife, and his paternal uncle, the film glossed over many of the family’s mysteries. For example, what was the view of Momi’s mother’s family on her marriage to an Arab, and how did they treat her after they found out that he had been involved in acts of terrorism? The mother’s perspective is curiously absent throughout the film, though Momi maintains positive relations with her. The telltale black bar blocking her eyes in every family photograph is a clear sign of her disinclination to be involved in the film; nonetheless, it is not a complete story without her perspective. Similarly, Momi’s older sister is also not involved, despite the siblings’ former intimacy. Questions about her loom as well: Though she was initially closer to their father than Momi, who was only an infant when their father was jailed, she eventually broke relations with him and became an Orthodox Jew. What prompted this abrupt about-face? Again, Momi and the filmmakers leave us in the dark. Perhaps Momi can’t answer these questions, or perhaps he will not. Either way, the absence of any exploration is frustrating. The unanswered questions are not limited to the other members of the family. Momi himself remains a distant and vague figure. He speaks of loneliness, anger, confusion in generalities, but we’re never told anything concrete. As the film’s subject, he remains vexingly elusive. If the documentarians had picked up on this and explored it as a part of their project, if there had been any narrative cohesion in the film at all, the result might have been more interesting. Instead, they produced an ultimately unsatisfying documentary.

Q&A session with Momi after the film: