A radio babbles unintelligibly in the background, the helmet of a soldier outlined against the grill of a military vehicle. The light flickers across nameless faces, bloodied and blindfolded as they wrestle futilely with their handcuffs.
This is Nablus, 1980. When Layal Asfour, a young Palestinian schoolteacher, finds herself being interrogated after giving an unknown boy a lift in her car, her ordeal at the Women’s Detention Centre for Israeli and Palestinian Prisoners is only just beginning. Although Layal’s lawyer, Rachel Steiner, works to have her released, her trial in the Israeli military court results in an eight-year sentence.
However, it quickly becomes apparent that Layal is, in fact, pregnant. Against pressure from the prison guards and her husband Farid to abort the child, Layal defies all pleas and, handcuffed to a wrought iron bed, gives birth to a baby boy called Nour. Wide-eyed with thick, dark curls, Layal’s struggle to raise her son away from the drugs and violence that characterise the prison paints a vivid picture of a normal human experience in the most abnormal of circumstances.
Running as a leitmotif throughout the film is the imagery of the bird. When the kind-faced and gentle prison doctor Ayman gives a small, hand-carved wooden bird to Nour as a gift, stories of a world beyond the prison walls provide an escape from the darkest of days. Through tales played out with shadows dancing on the wall or drawings reminiscent of a children’s nursery, scratched out on the prison cell wall with stones, Layal and her fellow inmates devote their days to entertaining Nour. Reminiscent of Mahmoud Darwish’s famous line of poetry “Where should we go after the last frontiers? Where should the birds fly after the last sky?” the bird acts as a visual representation of hope throughout the film.
Yet juxtaposed with such hope is the theme of struggle; of daily acts of resistance that challenge a bigger system. When conditions in the dank, dark prison begin to deteriorate further, the Palestinian inmates call for a hunger strike. Torn between her desire to support the resistance and protect Nour from the prison guard’s threats to take him away, Layal faces a difficult decision. Tensions reach a climax when, one day in the prison canteen, the news broadcasts an announcement about the 1982 Israeli war in Lebanon. As the Israeli inmates celebrate and boast of “kicking your ass in Beirut,” Sanaa, a feda’ieyah or resistance fighter from Lebanon who has spent the past 15 years in prison, calls the Palestinian inmates to have a general strike. As resistance reaches its peak, the sound of the inmates clanging metal on metal, rhythmic and unrelenting, leaves the viewer fuelled with adrenaline and a sense of the intractable nature of the struggle.
Although some of the characters in the film can feel a little caricatured, particularly the Israeli prison guard who takes visible pleasure in her iron-fisted rule over the institution, 3000 Nights manages to paint a complex picture of morality that goes beyond the binary representations of good and evil, right and wrong. Many of the side stories that are interwoven throughout the film serve to problematise and complicate a conflict and struggle that is so often the subject of reductionist discussions. The Israeli lawyer’s chastisement of the prison manager — “Haven’t you learned anything from history?” — and the Israeli heroin addict who, although belligerent and aggressive towards Layal upon her arrival, soon sees the error of her ways; or the spectre of an unknown informer in the Palestinian camp; all serve to present a multi-dimensional picture of the Israel-Palestine situation and human condition more broadly.
Telling the story of just one of the 700,000 Palestinians who have been detained in Israeli prisons since 1948, Mai Masri’s 3000 Nights weaves an intricate story of hope, resilience and survival. Based on true events and shot in a real prison, it is a simultaneously fast-paced but reflective, beautifully-shot film that anyone interested in the Israel-Palestine saga must see.
3000 Nights premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015 and has won over 24 Awards at other major film festivals. It was selected to represent Jordan at the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and Palestine at the Golden Globes. It is due to be released on Blu-ray and DVD in April 2018.