At this year’s Semana Internacional de Cine de Valladolid, the Meeting Point Audience Award went to Mai Masri’s 3000 Nights, a prison drama dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the story of a woman unjustly incarcerated for offering a ride to a terrorist. There are plenty of prison movies about sentencing innocent people, but this story focuses on the interior prison conflicts between regular Israeli criminals and political Palestinian convicts. 3000 Nights goes on without stressing the external conflicts or the outside sociopolitical context, as the plot centers around Layal, the Palestinian protagonist, who learns that she is pregnant and decides to keep the baby.
Inspired by actual events, the traumatic story of this innocent woman was intensely researched by Masri, a former documentarist. The title comes from Layal’s sentence, eight years in prison, or more precisely, 3000 nights. Though focusing on the personal drama of the protagonist, the director doesn’t forget the context — a hostile medium combining detained, opposing forces. Deeply touching, 3000 Nights chronicles a pregnant woman being treated as harshly as other prisoners, procreating behind bars (wearing chains and handcuffs) and struggling during child labour. Masri isn’t afraid of metaphoric imagery, emphasizing the dramatic moments with the help of lightning in this dark, oppressive place. At the beginning, Layal finds herself incarcerated among Israeli women and treated aggressively. After a few attacks, she is put in a cell with her Palestinian peers in order to spy on them, and even if she doesn’t cooperate with the authorities (and doesn’t denounce anyone), Layal is the target of everyone’s suspicions. She will find love and friendship in the aggressive environment, because in the end, a common goal (getting out of prison) will connect the women.
Masri builds up a just character with Layal, although she is advised by her husband to lie and save herself. Incidentally, Layal refuses to be a double agent and refrains from revealing the methods of her Palestinian inmates, simply to stay in touch with the exterior. The director succeeds in maintaining a balance between the experience of Layal’s child growing up in prison and the two opposing groups, while she explores the subjects with touching images of the little boy, Nour, playing in prison with improvised toys. Layal raises her child with love and sacrifice like any mother would do (free or incarcerated), and in this regard, she transforms the horrid, dirty walls of her cell into an innocent illustrated book for children. 3000 Nights doesn’t fully explore the topic of an innocent child being imprisoned, but this is a debate worth discussing. For the mother, what is the best parenting choice? Should the justice system make a humane decision by allowing a pregnant woman to give birth in freedom?
The low-key images help express the misery and accentuate the hope in a place where hope seizes to exist. The boy ultimately becomes a way for inmates to pressure Layal to reveal information, especially on Sanaa, a radical, one-armed leader of the Palestinian women. From an indifference to the Palestinian cause at the beginning, Layal’s story grows into a politically-conscious narrative, following the inner fight between her role as a mother and her political beliefs. When the female prisoners start a hunger strike and team up with the males, Layal becomes a strong believer in the cause.
3000 Nights brings a bit of humanity to a place ruled by violence and injustice. Masri establishes a surrogate family for the Palestinian women, and though some episodes between Layal and her previous Israeli enemy aren’t necessarily believable, they give hope for reconciliation. Then again, Layal’s improvised relations don’t necessarily reflect a sane way to raise a newborn. Even so, the Palestinian director manages to transcend the typical cliff-hanger experience by inserting references to the harsh reality from outside the prison walls. The detainees illicitly watch the news about the conflicts in Beirut and even fight with their ideological opponents inside the prison. Filmed realistically, one particular scene depicts soldiers entering the prison, which is forcefully occupied by the Palestinian women via peppermint spray, dust and some inevitable shooting. As a result, the moment brings to light the real drama outside the prison, a permanent conflict zone at all times.
Lastly, 3000 Nights looks surprisingly good for a low-budget movie shot on location, the cinematography accompanying the valuable acting of the two groups of women. A worthy feature debut, Masri’s film succeeds without being too emotional, yet in some cases, more empathy and more in-depth social commentary would have been welcomed (as seen in her previous documentaries). The female director hints at her artistic background, inserting some real-life footage from the region and quoting the bitter status of the zone. Featuring a harrowing story that’s undoubtedly possible in times of war, 3000 Nights is a thoughtful movie about resistance and endurance.
Andreea Pătru (@andreeapatru89) is a Romanian film critic based in Spain. She has a bachelor’s degree in Communication and Public Relations and graduated with a thesis on cult images in Andrei Tarkovsky’s cinema. Apart from writing for various Romanian publications, Film Reporter, Reforma and The Chronicle, she has written for Indiewire and was selected for their 2015 Critics Academy at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland. Along with her film criticism activity, Andreea has worked at Romanian Film Promotion and was the coordinator for an art center in Bucharest.