Hot Docs

Life Is Beautiful Review: Exiled from Home

Hot Dos 2024

5 mins read

Life Is Beautiful
(Norway/Qatar/Palestine, 2023)
Dir. Mohamed Jabaly
Programme: World Showcase (North American Premiere)


Mohamed Jabaly’s Life Is Beautiful is one of those profoundly effective self portraits that extends beyond its intimacy into universality. Here, the personal and the political are inextricably fused. Shot before the current crisis in the Middle East, the film provides invaluable background to the viewer and functions as a plea for understanding. This is an unforgettably poignant statement about beliefs around home and belonging, and acts as an appeal for the freedom to pursue one’s dreams.

When the film opens, Jabaly is attempting to ski for the first time in his life. The Palestinian filmmaker has travelled to a town in the northern part of Norway for a film festival. He is nervous but excited, and jokes about how very cold it is there.  Despite his upbeat tone, he soon reveals that he is essentially trapped there: the Israeli government has closed the Rafah border indefinitely, the only place for a Palestinian to re-enter the country.

While he waits for the border to reopen, the film goes on to chronicle Jabaly’s attempts to secure an International visa in Norway. He is stuck in limbo, a person with no country. As he logs on to the computer program to fill out the application, it does not even recognize Palestine as an option.  This is a painful time in the filmmaker’s life, exiled as he is from his homeland and forcibly separated from those that he loves, but he remains hopeful. Jabaly is surrounded by a supportive group of people in the Norwegian film community and his career is thriving.

Despite his artistic achievements, which include numerous awards, he has difficulties getting a visa that will allow him to stay in Norway long enough to have an official residence. Jabaly’s struggle lasts for years. It becomes increasingly painful to watch as his positive attitude falters due to yet another disappointment. Sharing his thoughts with the viewer, he relates his ups and downs with a piercing candour. He comforts himself with video calls to his beloved mother back home. It is evident that this is a completely inadequate replacement for being there in person, especially during special family times like Eid.

Jabaly addresses the camera directly at all times only turning it away to reveal details relevant to his current situation or to provide context. His voice-over is honest, eventually becoming poetic. The viewer becomes aware that he is sharing these thoughts with someone in particular: his mother. This creates the sense of a loving letter being written in real time. The film’s voice-over transforms from a straightforward record of his experiences into a heartfelt exclamation of his love for her. She represents the strongest bond to his homeland and it’s clear that despite his support and all of his career successes, he wants nothing more than to be home again. Who could blame him? Eventually, as he includes old footage of his friends in Gaza, the film becomes a love letter to his homeland as well.

While the film is a chronicle of Jabaly’s determination to both grow as an artist and to share stories of life in the Palestinian territory, Life Is Beautiful moves from a diary film to a statement on the idea of home as an unbreakable bond. It’s all the more poignant when that concept, which so many take for granted, becomes a right that has been forcibly removed. Since having a home base is such a fundamental concept, the film becomes a multifaceted statement about freedom. But it’s not just connected to an ability to choose one’s place of residence. Life Is Beautiful essentially proclaims the right to be oneself, to express oneself without restraints, and to live according to one’s identity.

Life Is Beautiful screened at Hot Docs 2024.

Barbara is co-host/co-producer of Frameline who joined during its CKLN days. As a freelance writer and film critic for the past 30 years, she has contributed to numerous dailies and magazines including The Globe and Mail, The Canadian Film Encyclopedia, Box Office Magazine as well as to several books. A veteran of the Canadian film industry, Barbara has worked in many key areas including distribution and programming, and has also served on various festival juries

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