Following the heart

A new documentary called ‘Heart Brothers’ (‘Ahim Balev’ in Hebrew) tells the extraordinary tale of a soldier killed in uncertain circumstances and the recipient of his heart, an Arab student from Ibillin.

change of heart 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
change of heart 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
‘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.
On 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 unit.
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 compassion.
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 about.
“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 acclaim.
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 discussion.
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 answer that.”
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 audience.
“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 been killed.
“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.”
Unbelievably, the 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.
“That criminal got three years plus one, and I got a life sentence,” he says.
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 celebrations.”
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 inside.”
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.
“Because 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 themselves.”
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 paramount.
“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.”