Why Palestinian activists believe Jordanian film Amira fabricated the reality of prison 'sperm smuggling'
In September 2021, an Arab movie became the talk of the Venice Film Festival. Amira tells the coming-of-age story of a 17-year-old Palestinian girl. Her father, an anti-Israeli freedom fighter, has been sentenced to imprisonment. So, in order to carry on his family line, he has his sperm smuggled out of jail.
The eponymous Amira, played by Palestinian-Jordanian actress Tara Abboud, learns that her father is infertile – and that his “smuggled sperm” belongs to an Israeli prison guard.
Incredibly, the movie is partly based on ‘true events’, where the controversy – and acrimony – begins.
Since 2012, some 71 sperm samples have been surreptitiously taken from prisoners in Gaza and the West bank to IVF centres.
"While Amira received warm applause from an international audience of critics in Venice, the subject matter has outraged Palestinian activists"
Activists say 99 “free” children have been born by artificial insemination in this way – 10 vials from Gaza and 61 from the West Bank. However, the switching of the sperm in the movie is a complete piece of dramatic licence on the filmmakers and potentially could prompt these children to question their lineage.
While Amira received warm applause from an international audience of critics in Venice, the subject matter has outraged Palestinian activists. They say Israel’s blanket ban on conjugal visits is a “genocidal policy” and the Jordanian-made film cheapens their struggle, dishonouring a “holy” and valued resistance concept in the process.
Since this practice only started a decade ago, this further damages Amira’s credibility as it would be impossible to tell the “true event” of a 17-year-old girl born by smuggled sperm.
Pressure from activists influenced Jordan to pull the movie from the Academy Awards, as the Jordanian Royal Film Commission decided to stop presenting Amira to represent Jordan at the Oscars.
This move has not sated the anger of activists who now want the makers of Amira to be sued. “The movie is a distortion,” declares Ayman Al Sharawna, a Palestinian Asra Media office member. “It is a direct attempt to traumatise our beloved free children. Some of them are around ten years old, which makes them aware of the harmful psychological impact this movie will bring."
Ayman added: “They do not know the miserable life of our prisoners, and unfortunately, the movie is fabricating this reality. Our prisoners in the occupation jail are heroes. The sperm has not been smuggled; as the film claims, it has been ‘freed’. The 99 free children should not have doubts cast on who their parents are."
Asaa’d Abo Salah is a released prisoner known as Abo Fahmi. He successfully freed his son's sperm from jail – the first free child born in Gaza – and is now a grandfather to an eight-year-old child. The child’s father is currently serving a 22-year sentence.
Abo Fahmi says the filmmakers have simplified the intense Palestinian effort. “We used sophisticated tools to free the sperm according to sperm cryopreservation protocol. And of course, This was done according to strict Sharia regulations. In fact. we first asked the Islamic scholars if Muslim women could get pregnant this way. They said ‘yes,’ and it is from there that we designed a plan. The film is a disgrace and is reprehensible to every single Palestinian person. We are going to court in alliance with the lawyers union(Bar Association) in Jordan for every child and family's moral damage.”
"The filmmakers do not know the miserable life of our prisoners, and unfortunately, the movie is fabricating this reality. Our prisoners in the occupation jail are heroes. The sperm has not been smuggled; as the film claims, it has been ‘freed’. The 99 free children should not have doubts cast on who their parents are"
Rasmia Hamid is the mother of twins – the latest free babies born to her in Gaza earlier this month. She told The New Arab, "It isn’t easy in a conservative Arab community to explain how I have conceived without my husband being present... to tell my neighbours that my husband is in prison and that somehow I have fallen pregnant.”
Rasmia said that to protect her family’s honour, she went to a lawyer to confirm a “pre-conceptual” contract – the equivalent of a marriage “prenup” – which laid out the terms for the artificial insemination procedure she would successfully undergo. Logically, there is no precedent for this ever happening before, so Rasmia wanted the arrangement to be agreed upon by Sharia law and the community.
She says “from the bottom of my heart, I was overjoyed that I would have a family and be a mother before it’s too late.”
It is easy to sponsor an orphan or foster in Gaza, but Rasmia said “I wanted a child of my and my husband’s own flesh and blood.” She feels that Amira has abused and insulted that idea, “ruining her joy” in the process.
UK and US prisons have allowed conjugal prison visits between life partners for decades, but alleged Palestinian ‘terrorists’ are deprived of this right within Israeli prisons.
Abo Fahmi says that the whole process of freeing the sperm from prison is “reviving the soul of resistance for the prisoner and his family”. He says that “ending the bloodline does not just apply to the prisoner – it affects all Palestinians, and infringes their human rights. It is genocide.”
The filmmakers have refused to speak to the Arab press. Both Mohammed Diab and his brother Khaled Diab, the scriptwriter, declined to comment for this article.
Amira may have won praise from international critics, but the blurring of truth and fiction on the cinema screen has caused deep anguish much closer to home.
Maryam Elsaieh is an experienced multi-media journalist, reporter and writer with a particular interest in foreign affairs, health policy and climate change