“My cell saved me from death… and on its ceiling I found the face of my freedom, the orange grove, and the names of those who yesterday lost their names on the soil of battlefields.”
– Mahmoud Darwish, ‘No Walls to the Cell’
Mai Masri’s critically-acclaimed debut feature film, 3000 Nights, draws its inspiration from the true story of a young mother who gave birth to her son in an Israeli women’s detention centre and seeks to celebrate the daily acts of resistance undertaken by Palestinian women in Israeli prisons. Serving as a metaphor for Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine, this film is a powerful testament to both the power of unity and the determination of individuals in their struggle for dignity and selfhood under ruthless regimes.
The film opens with an unsettling sequence of stark, fragmented images set against an oppressive backdrop of overcast sky and heavy rain; we watch as the protagonist Layal (played by Maisa Abd Elhadi), handcuffed and blindfolded, is forcefully taken to jail, falsely charged with aiding terrorist activities after offering a lift to a teenage boy suspected of attacking a military checkpoint. The year is 1980 and the setting is Nablus, in the occupied West Bank. The large prison gate closes behind her and she must forge for herself a new existence within the confines of the detention centre.
Gilles Porte’s visceral cinematography captures the claustrophobic tension of the prisoners’ world. The camera is restless, seizing lingering shots of high prison walls, barbed wire, guards patrolling the entrance, and shadows mapping the slow and arduous passage of time. Vacillating between light and dark, the film is at once blunt in its depiction of violence, corruption, and police brutality and full of warmth when bringing those precious instants of human tenderness to the fore. There is a particularly poignant scene in which a mother teaches her growing son about the world by recreating it for him on the very walls that cage them in, symbolically filling the imagined skies with chalk birds.
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Abd Elhadi delivers a highly emotive performance in the title role. We are witness to Layal’s gradual transformation from a hesitant though brave young woman, still learning to navigate the codes of survival in the harsh prison environment, to a resolute and strong-willed mother prepared to stand by her values and fight for justice even when it comes at a great personal cost. By choosing to have her baby in prison, she defies her husband and the Israeli authorities; in transcending her circumstances, she asserts her belief in a better future. It is fitting, then, that she names her child Nour, which translates as ‘light’ in Arabic, for he embodies the happiness Palestinians wish to gift their future generations, and he touches the lives of all the incarcerated inmates with his youth and the way he delights in the world around him, despite all its bleak limitations. His face lights up when presented with toys made from rags; he clutches a wooden bird – an offering from the gentle Palestinian doctor Ayman (Karim Saleh) – in his sleep.
However, Masri also invites us to consider an alternative narrative to that of Layal: Rihan (Anahid Fayyad) is scorned for betraying her fellow Palestinians and working with the prison authorities. Yet, as spectators, we are in no position to judge the woman who gives in to the Israeli prison wardens’ demands in such circumstances – the mother who cannot bear to be away from her family and lose her family visits, the frightened prisoner who shies away from rocking the boat in order to be granted an earlier release.
Masri voices her tentative hopes for Arab-Israeli understanding and cooperation through the characters of Shulamit (Raida Adon) and Rachel Steiner (Laura Hawa). During an episode of conflict between herself and the merciless prison director, Rachel passionately insists, “A little humanity won’t hurt you.” Ruti (Izabel Ramadan) is keen to write off all Palestinians as terrorists, but the unlikely friendship that develops between Layal and Israeli inmate Shulamit after an artless display of feeling and humanity shows us that misconceptions can be dismantled and prejudices can be overcome; before anything else, people are human beings with more in common than it might seem at first glance.
A tribute to the nurturing dynamic of female relationships and the scope of human endurance, this film portrays the sense of community and shared creativity between women as a source of empowerment and honours the past and present sacrifices made by Palestinian prisoners, whilst simultaneously drawing attention to collective experiences of oppression and marginalisation. It is the small victories – the defiant stares, the unbroken spirit, the moments of intimacy won, the simple displays of solidarity between inmates – that highlight the strength and resilience of those whose voices are otherwise silenced. 3000 Nights reminds us that, sometimes, to stay put, to remain steadfast and grounded, and to bear witness to a history that may one day be reclaimed, is the most active form of resistance.