It starts with a wedding, and ends with a dance. In between those ends lies a drastically different picture from what both Arab and International audiences expect of Palestine.
Ramallah as portrayed by Palestinian director Najwa Najjar in her splendidly heartfelt debut feature film “Al-Mor wa Al-Rumman (Pomegranates and Myrrh) is a vibrant place full of life, color and passion; an urban landscape populated by ordinary people leading a life far from the ordinary.
Like any Palestinian film, politics is inseparable from the story at hand. Expansion of settlements, disposition and ensuing economic challenges are fundamental parts of the story, but they’re not the sole focus. Najjar is occupied with the unjust politics of occupation and their direct impact on individuals, but she’s more engaged with telling a story. That’s why the political aspect of the narrative feels more potent, more forceful.
“Pomegranates and Myrrh centers on a love triangle shaped, and complicated, by the occupation. “Caramel’s Yasmine Elmasri is Kamar, an aspiring dancer and new bride married to an olive farm owner Zaid (Ashraf Farah). The marital bliss the Christian pair is engulfed with is soon broken when Zaid is arrested and thrown into administrative detention for an alleged stone-throwing incident. His land is confiscated and before long, the settlement process begins.
Kamar’s estrangement in her husband’s land is amplified when he goes to jail. Unable to adapt with the separation from Zaid, she throws herself back into dance, her only escape. Things get complicated with the arrival of Kais (Ali Suliman from “Paradise Now ), a modern-dance choreographer who was exiled in 48 with his family in Lebanon. Kais injects the traditional company that Kamar belongs to with new ideas and a much-needed energy. Gradually the two hit it off, intensifying Kamar’s agony.
Torn between her marital responsibilities and the sense of hope she finds with Kais, Kamar immerses herself deeper into her art, hiding from her extended family’s wary eyes, the stringent world she inhabits, and herself. The dimly-lit scenes where Kamar is shown dancing barefooted alone in her bedroom are among the most poignant, most poetic moments of the film.
Najjar has a sensitive eye for capturing the everyday visages of Ramallah: the colorful wedding celebrations, the street lights, the traffic, the building facades and coffee shops… images we seldom see of Palestine these days. At heart of the film is a fierce desire for life, epitomized both in Najjar’s characters and the central act of dance.
Najjar refrains from the customary confrontational/didactic tone that has defined numerous Palestinian productions, relaying the unspoken anguish of her characters with remarkable subtlety. Her fully-rounded characters are never rendered as mouthpieces for any political agendas. Their fears, losses and predicaments are personal; their lives are much bigger than the 60-year-old occupation.
Last month, I sat down with Najjar to talk about her long venture into making “Pomegranates and Myrrh, a bumpy journey full of many highs and lows.
After obtaining a BA degree in political science in the US, Najjar began to peruse her life-long dream of becoming a filmmaker, subsequently doing her masters in film.
“Why film? I asked her.
“Well, my dad was a kind of journalist one point in his life. When I was a child, he gave me my first camera. I loved taking pictures and I was an avid reader. I was acting in school plays and I wanted to be an actress but my parents said, get a degree first. So, I got a degree and I got behind the camera. If I wasn’t acting, I was doing the background, the scenery, drawing, it’s just what I love to do.tell stories and watch movies.
“Palestine is a big issue, a big story; numerous important things that need to be said out there. And that’s why I studied cinema. It’s a passion; a passion for a country and a passion for images.
Prior to “Pomegranates, Najjar directed six documentaries and one short film. In 2005, the European Film Academy chose six filmmakers from around the world to make two-minute pieces for its awards ceremony; Najjar was one of the six.
Her piece, “They Came from the East, was based on the story of the Three Wise Men. In place of the Magis, Najjar chose three hip Palestinian girls, following a star in Palestine. At the end, they’re stopped by a wall. “But the wall couldn’t stop the movies.or something like that, she laughs. “It was pretty cool, I liked it.
During the second intifada, Najjar began to grow weary of the mobility restrictions. “I had a very ugly companion, which was the TV. Violence, blood, hunger.it got really tiring seeing these horrible images when you’re living in it. And then you start to see how people are starting to go out, to keep resisting in different ways, even if it means staying at the checkpoints, which we did for eight hours. But at least you’re out of the house, nobody is telling you what to do with your life.
“Writing was kind of an escape. I thought, how do you survive all that? To me, it seems that as long as you have this discontinuation of life, survival has to be through love, through life. I mean, how can you live without love? How can you live without dreams? I find it hard to think of survival without them.
Means of resistance
The idea of the film came from there. Najjar became captivated with a dance company whose members decided to break the curfew, laying their lives on the line in order not to miss their training sessions. “You go into a studio, and you bring down the shutters, and you put the music.and you dance. It’s another world.
During the film’s press conference last month at the Cairo International Film Festival, a reporter criticized Najjar for not focusing enough on “the Palestinian cause and “the resistance.
“Who says that resistance can only be shown through slogan-throwing movies?
“Just like you’re tired of them, we’re tired of them, she tells me. “Plus, at the end of the day, you’re making a film for your country, for your people. You make a film that people can relate to, that deals with issue they deal with.
“I also wanted to create a film atypical to the expectations of the west. When I showed the very first rough cut to a French distributor, he said, ‘this can be done in Bordeaux.’ He said, ‘this is not Palestine.’ I asked him if he’s ever been there. He said no.
“The images they want to see of Palestine are those of a very violent place. Resistance comes in different ways. Who says that resistance is only through showing Palestinians in a certain light? Why can’t resistance be in changing cinematic language and changing images? Isn’t changing stereotypes kind of resistance? Isn’t living resistance? Or is it only in dying?
“That’s why we should support culture. You take away culture; you take away the soul of a nation. You take away the soul of a nation, you’re dead. That’s what occupation does, and that’s its intention.
The making of.
The process of making the film was so long and arduous that Najjar almost gave it up. “I started making the film at a time when I think I wasn’t quite ready, and it was a huge production, it was with the biggest producers in the world. “
The restrictions of moving between Ramallah and Jerusalem, the fear of endangering the lives of the foreign crews and the death of great French producer Humbert Balsan, one of the film’s co-producers, halted production.
Refusing to take the European fund after realizing that the film was not going to happen, Najjar and her team ran completely out of money and were in debt. “We had no money in the bank. We couldn’t live. We paid everything we have to make this film. And when we couldn’t continue making it, we were totally broken.
“When we went broke, I started hating characters. They wrecked me. I mean, you get really involved, and you start something but then you stop. It’s not just stopping production; it’s stopping your dream. The country was in a bad shape, the producers pulled out immediately. It was
a big blow for us.
Najjar decided to redo the production structure and co-produce the film with only two other producers. Eighty percent of the film’s production is Palestinian. The new configuration gave Najjar and her team complete freedom.
“I’m really happy now because we started thinking of doing movies in a different way. Control is very important. Slowly, the pieces were put back together and I got my passion back. It took five years, but we got it done.
The biggest surprise of the film is veteran Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass. Despite having more than 50 films under her belt, including recent Hollywood productions such as Steven Spielberg’s “Munich, Catherine Hardwicke’s “The Nativity Story, Thomas McCarthy’s “The Visitor and Jim Jarmusch’s “The Limits of Control, Abbass has nonetheless been typecast in the role of the sacrificing, forlorn mother. Her stunning turn in “Pomegranates and Myrrh couldn’t be more radical.
Her Umm Habib, a coffee shop owner and Kamar’s friend, is sassy, bold and strong-willed. She spends a hefty portion of the film flirting with Kais and giving every other male character a hard time. Abbass is a force of nature in here, ruling every scene she’s in. Her performance is impeccably sharp, perfectly attuned to the variable moods of the story; it’s impossible to keep your eyes off her.
“I was sick and tired of her in those roles, Najjar admitted, “I wanted her to do something different.
“Umm Habib was the only character that never changed in the maybe 30 drafts that I wrote. She was a spirit. My producer told me this story of a woman who sells coffee in [the Palestinian village of] Qalandiya. I had an image of her and it just worked. I don’t know what it was. The set worked, the props worked; it was one of those magical times.
“I think she embodies so much of the spirit of the people there. This is what it is to me. You’re the one who can wear décolleté, you’re the one whom nobody can say a word to, you’re the nationalist, you’re the revolutionary, you’re the mother.you’re everything, in one really dynamic, fantastic person.
“Pomegranates and Myrrh premiered last December at the Dubai International Film Festival. The final print was actually completed this year though. Sundance, Rotterdam, Guttenberg, Locarno, Edinburgh followed, becoming an instant smash with fest-goers.
“All festivals have been terrific, she said. “It’s been a privilege to be accepted in eight of the 10 best festivals in the world. I had full audiences, sold-out shows. In Edinburgh, people were knocking down doors. Hardly anyone left in the Q&A sessions.
“In Sundance, we weren’t in competition, yet we had 15 articles written about us, two TV interviews and three radio. Can’t get any better. And I don’t have any publicists. I’m a one-woman show.
The sole disappointment was the Berlin Film Fest snub. “I had German money, I had a German cast, and I had the Prime Minister of Germany supporting my movie. He was so upset with the fest. He had a special screening in the middle of the Berlin, in the oldest theater. We ended up with 500 people in the theater and 500 more on the waiting list.
“Pomegranates and Myrrh was commercially released in Sweden, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. Next year, the film will be released in Luxemburg, Netherlands, Belgium and Kuwait. All in all, the film was sold to 29 countries so far. Distributors in the US have also showed interest.
“Commercial release is very important, Najjar said. “Everybody talks about funding. Unless people come and see our movies, then nobody will support our movies again. If 30,000 people go see a film, that in itself is a budget. You can make another movie with these revenues, support another filmmaker. It’s so important for people to see our movies.