Israeli prison brutality dramatized in “3000 Nights”

Maisa Abd Elhadi in 3000 Nights

3000 Nights written and directed by Mai Masri

Mai Masri’s remarkable first feature film, 3000 Nights, is set in an Israeli women’s prison. Layal (Maisa Abd Elhadi), a newly married schoolteacher, has been sentenced to eight years by a military court for giving a ride to a young man.

No details as to the man’s actions or affiliations are given; they are not important to the story. None are given to Layal’s background either, although it is understood that she, unlike the man she gave a lift to, was not a member of the Palestinian resistance.

The opening scene of this film is as startling as it is disturbing. Layal is dragged out of bed and into the street in heavy rain, stuffed into the back of a van, then blindfolded and taken away by heavily armed soldiers to an unknown destination.

Unless the characters are plotting an escape, as for example in The Shawshank Redemption (1994) or Escape from Alcatraz (1979), it is a challenge to create drama in a prison movie. Incarceration normally mitigates against romance. There are no fortunes to be lost or gained, careers to be developed, journeys to be taken, or accolades to be won. The tragedy — that the characters are incarcerated — has occurred before the film has even started.

How, then, does one bring life into a place designed to be lifeless? In Masri’s film, she does this literally. Layal is unaware that she is pregnant at the time of her arrest. She is forced to give birth shackled to a bed as her husband plans to leave to Canada, doubting the paternity of his child and encouraging her to abort.

The birth is about as harsh and loveless as a birth could be, but the baby that emerges evokes a sense of harmony and beauty to which few in the prison remain unaffected.

Resisting containment

In many ways, 3000 Nights is a coming-of-age film. Layal enters the prison with integrity yet she remains naïve. She is condemned to serve a longer term because she refuses, against the advice of those around her, to testify that the man she gave a lift to threatened her.

Her sense of national loyalty is not fixed from the start, however. Those who represent the resistance are also branded, not without reason, as “trouble-makers” by others bent on survival and Layal needs to decide who she trusts. It is hard for her not just to determine whose side she is on, but for her to prove to others that she has made that decision.

In this way, the captive setting enables drama to develop where it really matters, with characters’ internal developments and struggles. Class, age and religion are less important here than proving one’s worth when having one’s resolve tested.

The prison’s confinement and brutality serve as an analogy for Israel’s occupation of Palestine, what it can make of people (including the prison officers), what they are forced to become and how they are forced to treat each other.

The beauty and strength of characters here are found in the ability to resist that which is forced on them by the structure in which they find themselves contained.

Masri is also adept at avoiding a monolithic demonization when it comes to depicting Israelis in the film. These range from politically sympathetic lawyers to fairly brutish prison officers to irredeemably racist drug addict inmates.

Masri’s background as a documentary filmmaker — previous works include Children of Shatila (1998) and Children of Fire (1991) — is evident in the research that went into the making of this movie.

She undertook a number of interviews with former Palestinian women prisoners and the setting, a disused prison in Jordan, lends realism. The youth and freshness of some of the actors contrast powerfully with the oppressive setting of most of the scenes.

Reclaiming history

Part of the role of artists who focus on Palestinian stories is to bear witness and reclaim history. In this context, 3000 Nights is extremely powerful. It focuses on those frequently ignored segments of society: women and children, statistically impacted most severely by war, poverty, dispossession and occupation.

It also emphasizes a critical juncture in Palestinian history: the 1980s, when resistance to occupation was fought on an inclusive, non-sectarian platform and religion was a private affair that did not dominate public discourse.

The enterprise shown by the women in prison, through education programs and political instruction, evince an inclusion and belief in the role of all elements of society, regardless of sex, religion or age, that it is critical to be reminded of today.

Masri’s film has won two prizes since its October premiere: the Audience Award at Valladolid International Film Festival in Spain and the Jury Award from The Women’s International Film and Television Showcase (TheWIFTS) in the US.

It richly deserves those awards and many more.

Selma Dabbagh is a British-Palestinian writer. Her debut novel, Out of It, is published by Bloomsbury (2012).