3000 Nights explores life in Israeli prisons
3000 Nights opens on a dark, pouring night where we first see the main character, Layal. The film’s hauntingly beautiful and crisp cinematography shines through its immediate construction of the prison’s cruel atmosphere and the air of hostility between the inmates and the prison guards. Layal is in a nightgown, blindfolded, and barefoot when she is led out of a military van and into the Israeli prison she’ll stay in for several days before her trial.
Written and directed by Mai Masri, 3000 Nights was screened twice at the 2016 Chicago Palestine Film Festival. It’s a story about a newlywed Palestinian schoolteacher, Layal (Maisa Abd Elhadi), who gets wrongfully accused of aiding a terrorist attack and is sentenced to eight years in an Israeli prison.
We see Masri highlight the various challenging aspects of being a Palestinian woman in an Israeli prison. We see the anti-Arab racism play out not only in how Israeli and Arab prisoners get treated by the prison guards, but also in how even between inmates, the Israeli prisoners treat their Arab counterparts with disgust and hate.
While she is imprisoned, Layal learns that she is pregnant. Her condition is continuously exploited with false promises of freedom. She is asked to report on her fellow Palestinian inmates if she wants to be freed, and the Israeli prison guards want Layal to abort her baby. Against all this pressure and hardship, Layal can’t rely even on her husband, who tells her to abort the baby and do whatever it takes to get out, even if it means giving false testimony. After she is sentenced to 8 years in prison, her husband moves to Canada.
Despite the blatant racism and brutality against Arabs and Palestinians, Masri doesn’t build caricatures of her characters on either side. She gives us complex people with believable storylines, such as Layal’s lawyer, Rachel (Laura Hawa), and Shulamit (Raida Adon), one of the Israeli prisoners. Masri captures the nuances of each character’s humanity and circumstances.
Masri’s portrayal of the mistrust and unease between the inmates is convincing to the audience. Layal is first placed in a cell with Israeli prisoners, but moved to an Arab cell when complications arise. This cell is made of a classic mismatch of characters, that are typical of these kind of prison movies with adopted family plot lines. We have a Lebanese revolutionary, Sanaa (Nadira Omran), two sisters, Jamilah (Rakeen Saad) and Fidaa (Hana Chamoun), an old grandmother (Haifa Al-Agha), and a friendly mother figure (Anahid Fayyad).
Layal isn’t immediately trusted, especially by Sanaa, who is the main ringleader of that group of prisoners, able to get news out and organize the prisoners. But over time they grow on each other, and we are given beautiful and emotional scenes of the women reading, joking and singing together as a huge family with the birth of Nour, Layal’s son.
The film reaches its climax when the inmates learn of the 1982 massacre in Beirut. They decide to go on a strike, refusing to eat, leave their cells, sew military uniforms, or cook for the guards. Ruti (Izabel Ramadan), the prison’s director, isolates Layal and threatens her – either Layal stops participating in the strike, or they’ll take Nour, who is two-years-old at the time. We see the difficulty of being a mother in prison and how Layal has to choose between the resistance and her son. Ruti resorts to extreme means to discourage the prisoners and subdue their efforts, but they manage to persevere and stay together.
Masri builds a web of intricate storylines in 3000 Nights. We see unexpected friendships, inevitable betrayal, hard decisions and a budding romance. She gives us beautiful montages of time passing whether it be in the dry and desolate shots of wire fences or the buildup of chalk drawings in a solitary cell.
She gives us raw emotions and honesty, “A little humanity won’t hurt you,” Rachel tells Ruti, trying to convince her to let Layal’s mother help Layal during labor. Ruti retaliates by saying, “Don’t forget how you lost your son, Rachel.” It’s in these small interactions that Masri gives depth and particularity to her characters, and she does it masterfully.
The movie ends on a bittersweet note, one that I won’t spoil, but one that I can guarantee will leave the audience with hope alongside their sadness. Over 700,000 Palestinians are detained, we learn, and over 6,000 men, women and children are in Israeli prisons, living under inhumane and unfair conditions. But there is a growing movement to expose these circumstances and make Israel accountable for its actions, and it’s gaining traction.