‘As I’m standing there in the operating room, there’s a moment when I’m holding
the Jewish heart in one hand and the Arab heart in the other, and I look down
and suddenly it occurs to me, ‘there’s no difference between them.’” So remarks
Prof. Jacob Lavee, director of the Heart Transplant Unit in Sheba Medical
Center, in a new documentary called Heart Brothers (“Ahim Balev” in Hebrew) that
tells the extraordinary tale of one of his patients, Luay Saleem.
March 27, 2008, Yaniv Pozoarik, a 19-year-old combat soldier from Holon, was
shot in the head at point-blank range by a fellow soldier in his
Saleem, an Arab student from Ibillin near Haifa, was the recipient
of the dead soldier’s heart.
When filmmaker Esther London read the story
while waiting at the hairdresser’s in her hometown of Paris, she knew she had to
come to Israel and make a documentary about it. Three years later, in October of
this year, the documentary premiered in the Goethe Institute, the German-French
Cultural Center in Ramallah and the following day at Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque.
The screening was followed by a panel discussion to raise awareness on the
subject of organ donation.
The panel included London; director of the
National Transplant Center Dr. Tamar Ashkenazi; aforementioned cardiothoracic
surgeon Lavee; the parents of the dead soldier, Yafim and Larissa Pozoarik; and
Saleem, the recipient himself.
Following the tale of how the lives of the
Pozoariks and Saleem became inextricably intertwined, the documentary is an
extraordinary mural of life and death, of ethics and moral responsibility, of
politics and religion and, above all, of human suffering and human
London postulates that her main challenge was to preserve the
film’s identity as a “human story” above all else. The film focuses on how
Saleem, who lost both his parents just months before the surgery, was given both
a second chance at life and a second family after receiving Yaniv’s heart. For
London, the film’s success lay in the tension of bridging between the “ordinary”
event of the transplant and the extraordinary circumstances under which it came
“The subject has to break frontiers. But ultimately, it’s a
universal film. It’s about generosity. About how people who are up against all
adversaries can still be good people.”
London was adamant that the
headline- grabbing subplot of “Arab man receives Jewish soldier’s heart” would
not overwhelm the story that she wanted to tell. “Because it takes place in this
region [of the Middle East], people automatically think it’s a political film,”
she says. “But it isn’t. It’s about the human axis. And the message that in the
end life wins.”
Throughout the film, Saleem’s religion is not revealed to
the viewer. “You only know he’s an Arab,” London says. “I wanted the audience to
feel like the protagonist.
I want every person watching it to feel like
they could be Luay [Saleem]. The second you put religion in, suddenly people
say, ‘this has nothing to do with me.’” Thematically, the film shares
similarities with Heart of Jenin, a 2009 documentary that received critical
In this movie, the story happens the other way around, with the
father of a Palestinian who was killed by the IDF choosing to donate his son’s
organs to Israeli children. However, London is quick to point out that the plot
is where the similarities end. “Heart of Jenin is essentially a political film.
Mine isn’t,” she says.
But despite London’s best intentions, politics are
never far removed from any subject in the Middle East, and certainly not in a
story like this, as the screening in Ramallah proved. The film met with mixed
reactions from the Palestinian crowd in the West Bank city’s French Cultural
Center. After the screening, the audience was invited to join in a
For many of them, extracting the story of Saleem’s survival
from the Israeli- Arab conflict was impossible. As one audience member said, “We
see soldiers at the checkpoint every day. They are men who are trained to kill.
Why take a soldier’s heart and put it in an Arab?” Another audience member posed
the following question: “Would Yaniv himself have agreed to give his heart to an
Arab?” At this, Saleem smiled wryly before responding, “He’s dead so he can’t
FOR HIS own part, Saleem was apprehensive about how the
Pozoariks would react once they learned where their son’s heart was going. Since
Israel is one of very few countries that allows donors and recipients to waive
anonymity – provided, of course, that both parties agree – Saleem was able to
meet Yaniv’s family to thank them personally.
“I was scared they would
find out I was an Arab,” he says.
But he needn’t have been. Saleem reports
that he was welcomed into the Pozoarik family even to the point that he refers
to Yafim and Larissa as “Mom and Dad.”
“His family looks at me with
kindness,” says Saleem, “With an expression of, ‘We love you. Live well. Take
care of yourself. Take care of our heart.’” Yafim echoes Saleem’s words. “It
didn’t matter to us if the person who received Yaniv’s heart was Arab or Jewish
or anything else,” he says. “We just wanted a part of our son to continue to
live on. He went to a combat unit because he wanted to save lives. And in his
death, he still saved lives.”
Throughout the screening and during the
subsequent panel discussion, Yafim was overcome with a despondency that seemed
to stretch beyond that of a grieving father. The part in which Yafim explains
the circumstances surrounding Yaniv’s death drew audible gasps from the
“His army buddy was playing with his rifle,” relates Yafim on
camera. “He pressed the rifle to [Yaniv’s] head and fired. Was it a joke or not?
We don’t know; there hasn’t been a trial yet.”
The horrific nature of the
crime is part of the reason that Yafim has not been able to find any peace of
mind since his son’s death. His anger is directed at the authorities, who refuse
to exact a just retribution for his son’s killer. Yafim’s face is lined with
pain as he relates the harrowing ordeal that followed the news that his son had
“A few days after his death, we received photos from the
killer showing him celebrating Yaniv’s death in a nightclub.” When asked why he
thought the killer did what he did, Yafim is at a loss for words. “I don’t know.
He’s a criminal. And it wasn’t his only crime. He also mugged someone and raped
a minor – and this was all after the murder of my son.”
killer was sentenced to only three years in prison. Yafim suspects that the
light sentencing was part of an attempt by the IDF to cover up the tragedy.
After countless appeals, Yafim managed to get the sentence extended by an
additional year, but it was a far cry from the justice he sought.
criminal got three years plus one, and I got a life sentence,” he
ONE OF the main attributes of the documentary that makes it so
watchable is Saleem’s personality. Clearly a fun-loving person, he makes light
of the tragedy in his own life by riddling his speech with jokes. The comic
relief serves to balance the film’s more gutwrenching moments. After being
diagnosed with a heart condition, he underwent a transplant in which an
artificial heart replaced his defective one, but the doctors’ prediction was
grim; he had only two months to live.
Saleem chose to keep the disease a
secret from his mother. In addition to having been recently widowed, she was
suffering from cancer. On camera, he relates how he mustered all his strength to
sound as normal as possible on the phone to his mother while he was in the
hospital. Forced to lie to her in order to protect her, he says, “Everything is
okay. I’m coming home soon and I’ll be with you in time for
She died a short while later.
A highly self-aware
person, Saleem knows that having been given a second chance means that he now
shoulders a formidable responsibility. “I have a heavy commitment to remain
happy for Yaniv and for his dad,” he says.
Does he think that divine
providence had anything to do with his second chance? “No, I don’t believe in
God. Sometimes I feel committed to believe in Him but I don’t really feel it. I
believe in my own god inside me. I believe everyone has a god
After being given the all-clear, Saleem got married, with the
Pozoariks in attendance at his wedding.
London has her own theories about
Saleem’s jaunty nature and his philosophical outlook on life.
Saleem is a man of three hearts – his own, the artificial one and finally
Yaniv’s, he is able to speak the truth,” she says. “He was so near death so he
knows what is beyond pain and suffering.”
Although it centers on a
tragedy, Heart Brothers isn’t overly saturated with maudlin sentimentality. This
was an intentional directorial decision by London, who didn’t want the message
to be drowned out by excessive emotion.
“You don’t know how much I cried
when I did the editing,” she says. “You can edit it to make it very emotional
and, with such a subject, it’s easy to make your audience cry. But in parts
where the emotion got too strong, I actually chose to cut them out. I didn’t
want it to only be about pathos. I wanted it to cause people to think also. If
we are only steeped in emotion, it’s good but it’s not enough. Emotion makes
people go inside themselves and I wanted people to distance
Indeed, a central theme of the documentary pertains to the
question of what comes after death and, in particular, whether to harvest organs
from the dead.
“Thinking about death is unnatural and difficult –
especially for young people. Nobody thinks, ‘What will happen to my body after
death?’ People are afraid of dying.” For this reason, London wants her film to
inspire people to begin thinking about death so that they might be compelled to
become organ donors.
Much of the movie deals with the challenges of organ
donation in Israel today. Only 700,000 Israelis – 14 percent of the adult
population – have signed organ donor cards. The Priority Law, which was passed
in the Knesset a few months ago and is the first of its kind in the world, is
aimed at increasing those statistics by giving holders of Adi donor cards
priority if they ever need a transplant. At present, 45% of families of people
diagnosed with brain death (the prerequisite necessary for organ donation) still
refuse to donate organs. This is far higher than most Western countries, which
range from 4% (Hungary) to 32% (France).
Prof. Lavee, the surgeon who
performed Saleem’s transplant, says that the primary factor behind the low
numbers is religion. He puts the onus on rabbis who perpetuate the idea that
brain death does not constitute death.
“Rabbi Elyashiv said brain death
is not death. But when the brainstem stops functioning, nothing can be done,” he
explains. Lavee also laments the fact that Israel is isolated in the region,
making it harder to get the necessary organs in time. He has made numerous
attempts to partner with transplant surgeons in neighboring countries, including
Jordan and Egypt, in order to widen the pool for potential donors. Each time, he
was met with disappointment when hospitals in those countries refused to
cooperate with their peers in Israel.
The documentary interviews an imam
from Ramallah, a priest from Bethlehem and a rabbi who is also a university
professor. All three are unequivocal in their stance that saving lives is
“All religions agree that the most important thing is to save
a life,” says London. She hopes that her film will have the effect of increasing
the number of organ donors in Israel. “We have a chance here in the Holy Land,”
she says. “Why should people be scared? People die. It’s a part of life.”