Interview: Najwa Najjar

I’ve been working the last few weeks in Ankara for the  13th annual Flying Broom International Women’s Film Festival. Flying Broom is a small women’s rights NGO that hosts a flagship festival each year juried by European film honchos.  Because of my interest in the subject, they asked me to work on gathering content for the two Palestinian films being shown this year, “Amreeka” by Cherien Dabis and “Pomegranates and Myrrh” by Najwa Najjar. “Pomegranates and Myrrh” follows the story of newlywed Kamar as her husband Zaid is taken and held in administrative detention.  While her new family’s olive orchards are occupied by Israeli settlers and threatened with unjust confiscation, Kamar learns about the land and returns to her own passion of dance to reclaim her life.  Her interest in a diaspora dance director, Kais, and her visits to Zaid in ‘prison’ underscore her personal struggle with the complexity of the occupation.  I interview the filmmaker by Skype from Ramallah yesterday.

What inspired you to make Pomegranates and Myrrh?

It’s been an idea in the making for a long time. During the second uprising in Palestine, it was a really really difficult time for us. It was very dark and it was my first real experience of being in prison. We couldn’t move, we were locked in the the house. From that place, where do you find the will and the desire to continue life, where do you get that spirit? Where do you get hope? The violence was everywhere, there was so much violence. It was a pretty black time. People were being killed all the time. Not being able to move, being locked in. And then you slowly see how, despite the curfew, despite everything, people go out. You go out even if it means staying at a checkpoint for 8 hours. You are careful of course, but I guess it’s just of way of resistance. That’s maybe where the hope comes from, that you continue your life. I would go to this dance studio, where this troupe that I love, Al Founon, practiced. They’re the dance group in Palestine that crosses the traditional with the contemporary. I’d see that they would cross the road where there was shooting from the settlements and they’d go into the studio, close the shutters, put on the music and life would start again. That was very inspirational. In that period, seeing people’s resilience and desire to continue life fed my own desire. If you give in it’s like what’s happening to you has won, but if you continue loving and dancing and singing and being happy, then you’re alive and that’s crucial.

Do you hope to inspire other Palestinian filmmakers, especially artists or women or young people, through making this film?

I think it’s inherent. I don’t have to do it, they do it by themselves. But yes, this film has been around to all the major festivals, about 60+, and I’ve gotten a lot of good response. At the Edinburgh film festival a woman came up to me, held me really close and said “Thank you, now I know that your people will survive” In Dubai a Kuwaiti actress came up to me and said “You’ve shown us how people live” So the reactions outside, whether inspiring or whatever, at least show an understanding of the situation. But like I said, inspiration is often inherent in the people, they’ve got it and it’s something that can help them continue on with life.

We’re particularly interested in your experience as a female director in Palestine. Do you receive more attention and curiosity as a woman doing what you do in Palestine or abroad?

I’ve been kind of careful because I think that sometimes this point could be used [in a negative way]. You know, I’m a woman and I’m doing this and I think that being a filmmaker under occupation is much more challenging than being a woman filmmaker. I know that only 7% of filmmakers in the world are women and by itself that is something to be commended because women have double and triple jobs as they enter filmmaking. It’s not like they can pursue filmmaking by itself. In Palestine, women have always had a pretty strong role because men are in prison or they’re killed. It’s a situation where women have always had a big role. So I didn’t find that I was particularly looked upon in a special way, but in some ways it could be easier because you can ask someone and say “do you mind doing this?” and things can get done. In outside festivals it was asked quite a bit, it was one of the first questions usually. The important thing is the conception. It is the conception of the Arab world. It is the stereotypical conception that Arab women don’t do much, that they’re just subservient, docile, have no opinion of their own, can’t run a crew, can’t deal with men. With that also comes the perception of terrorism, like for all Muslims of the Arab world. There’s also big interest in the fact that it’s a Christian woman from a Christian family. I found that really a lot of the questions that came out of international festivals where questions of people’s own stereotypes, of women in the Arab world, Christians in the Arab World. But I think these are all really important issues: being a woman filmmaker, and having a strong woman character in my movie, actually a lot of strong woman characters in my movie. It’s been an interesting kind of journey actually. But I found that these were the things that were really brought up in festivals outside.

Please tell us more about your background and family. Is your family anything like either of the ones shown in the film?

The film was based on a lot of research,and people around me. There are things that come through, things that you’ve lived, though of course it’s not a documentary. Research, what you know, your experiences, other peoples experiences and what you’re trying to say all come together in a fictional movie. But for example I was questioned about the men in the movie and I said “I can’t give you what you want to see, these stereotypical aggressive men, because for me personally, I’ve never experienced this” I had a dad who was just an amazing man, he’s kind of like her (Kamar’s) dad. My brothers and the men in my life are just not the stereotypical men that have been portrayed forever in Western media. So yes, the families are similar, the customs that take place, the weddings, the relationships, it’s all very familiar to me.

In the film, Kamar and her mother-in-law visit Zaid in prison in Israel and say that they represent the whole town because the others were not permitted to come. It is Kamar who has most of the conversations with the lawyer about Zaid’s case. While Palestinian men are singled out by Israeli authorities as political or ideological threats to the state, do women have more opportunity to directly confront the occupation or communicate across its barriers?

Well this is a very obvious case of course because it’s imprisonment, it’s dealing with the lawyer. But confrontation with the occupation is on a daily level. In one way or another, whether it’s the patrols of the roads, children, young men and women being shot, arrests on whim, it’s violence against everybody. It’s everywhere in the West Bank. You know when you’re confined to a Bantustan, we’re in a completely confined area. Whether it’s Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, wherever it is, every small town is completely closed in. The roads between them are patrolled by Israelis. If you want to go to a village near Ramallah you have to pass through what’s become an Israeli patrolled road. Or course that doesn’t mean that Ramallah is safe from any kind of incursion, or Jenin, or Nablus. So there’s a daily confrontation with the occupation. Whether it’s soldiers, whether it’s things like your electricity being cut off (note: Our interview was interrupted four times in 40 minutes by power cuts) or your water being taken, whether it’s the wall that you have to pass, whether it’s your crops being taken, I mean it’s every single day. It’s a confrontation every day with the occupation. And it can vary from different levels but it’s there all the time. In the movie it’s very direct and obvious where she has to take an active role now that her husband is not there, the town can’t come. She’s the one that’s in charge because the mother’s too old and she’s the wife and she has to take care of things. And for me that was also just a development of the story, it wasn’t just to tell what’s going on. For me it was this woman that comes from Jerusalem, this city, to Ramallah, which is more rural, and she doesn’t understand the land much and he doesn’t understand her dance much. For me it was her going back and fighting for his case and fighting for the land and working the land which made her understand him more. And him being in prison, being away from everything that he loved, that made him understand her more. So I didn’t want to just keep the story on the very political in terms of Palestine and the country but connecting it within the arc of a story. It was important for me, the relationship, and to survive these circumstances were also important to me. It’s that combination of the two.

Could you speak more about the significance the harvest as a symbol of Palestine and connection to the land? How common is land confiscation as it’s depicted in scenes in the film, where settlers move onto the land and the military supports the action with a confiscation order?

That’s exactly how it happens. Palestine generally is a rural society. It’s mostly a peasant-based society. Historically if you went through the streets there were merchants, there was commerce, but the bulk of the population were peasants. That means that they lived by the land which is their whole livelihood. Now from original Palestine we are left with 8% and the 8% is dwindling into this little cut up pieces of land that are connected by these roads that I’m telling you about. And then there are these Israeli settlements. The settlements are there for two reasons. One, they are there to take the water. And even the way that the wall is built, the wall is built around the area’s major aquifers which are mostly in the West Bank. You see the wall goes in a very funny way, it’s not right on the 1967 borders. It’s done in a way where Israelis can get at our aquifers and suck all our water and sell it back to us. The settlements are built on hilltops and it’s one, to take our water, and two, to take more land. And actually it’s that simple. And Lea Tsmeal, who is our Israeli lawyer in the film, deals with administrative detention and land confiscation cases. We were very precise, and we had Lea say it, because we wanted this to be very precise. And it’s exactly how it’s done. I mean it’s all they have to do, they can come in with a confiscation order and they can say ANYTHING for security and take the land exactly like it happened in the movie.

You’ve mentioned that you intentionally meant to downplay the “spectacle” of Kamar’s final dance performance. Dabke has been portrayed as a reclamation of Palestinian heritage and culture, though the final performance’s score wasn’t a traditional composition for example. Are you saying that even within Palestinian society reclaiming culture doesn’t have to be spectacular or explicitly traditional to be important?

The whole subtext of the dancing for me was a place of freedom of expression, a place where you can move yourself and you can create. The person who’s in charge [the older dance director] is kind of a bureaucrat, you know, he doesn’t want change, he’s very stiff. And that’s were you have Dabke shown in this very kind of militant way, stomping and following orders and things like this. The troupe:wanted to change the steps and make them fit more for today, maybe more fit for this generation. That doesn’t mean that you lose that tradition or essence, but it also means that it’s conforming to today’s way of life. It’s having the freedom, the place where you are free to do whatever you want. So for me the last dance was more about the relationship which developed within the dancing. It was where Kamar was at first part of a troupe, very rigid, very regimented, even though she wanted to make change. And when this other dancer came in, what drew her to him was his ability to create something new. That’s what she wanted to do. And then when you see her at the end and she looks… you know, happy. She’s dancing and there’s this kind of happiness about it, Zaid comes and he sees this. That last dance wasn’t that much about the dance itself, it was more about what was going on in the dance. Zaid sees and understands her, he understood what she was going through. When she leaves Kais in the final scene, this is the freedom that’s needed and the understanding that that triangle has come to a close.

It also wasn’t entirely my choice. I worked with Michal Danna and Amertha Vaz. Michal’s one of the top cinema composers in the world. He’s done Little Miss Sunshine, Kaputt, 500 Days of Summer; he’s pretty major and we were very lucky to have him. In our discussion we were looking for more of an emotional piece at the end and I think it works for what I was trying to say in the story. I know that the expectation was to have a fabulous, all out dance, and that just wasn’t the story.

Kais seems to represent a diaspora voice that is more interested in modern forms and only does the “traditional moves” because he’s asked to in the dance studio. Are we reading too much into that?

He’s a character and that character is part of what makes him who he is, living in the diaspora, never coming to the country. When he comes he shows a common feeling, that feeling of love for a country you’ve grown up so far away from and you’ve only heard about from your parents. Maybe being outside, living between Lebanon and Paris, having that exposure to something that develops more can make it really hard when you get here…. (laughs) I mean, we do live in a very closed environment. You have that right though, it’s something about the diaspora and the things that they can bring with them, it’s that as well.

We’re curious to learn a little more about the logistics of casting and filming. You clearly chose your cast very intentionally. Does the occupation force you to make certain decisions about cast based on who has access to various locations?

The auditions yes, I was extremely careful. If I wanted to bring a Tunisian actor, an Egyptian actress, no way. Syrian, no way. Getting actors from outside the country was very difficult unless they had the foreign [Western] passport. But even, for example, if I wanted a Lebanese with a foreign passport then their being Lebanese would create difficulties. It’s all kinds of things, there’s a lot of considerations that you have to take into account. I wanted a lot of Palestinian actors of course because it’s a Palestinian movie. We did maybe 100 auditions, from everywhere in the country to Jordan, Egypt, New York, Paris. I cast it fairly wide but ultimately even the Palestinians that live in Haifa, Yaffe, Jerusalem have blue ID cards and a blue ID card cannot enter Ramallah. Ramallah has a green ID card. Green ID cards can’t go to Jerusalem where we were going to do some of the location scouting. We had some people from Gaza, they have orange ID cards. They’re not allowed in Ramallah and they’re not allowed anywhere like Haifa, Yaffe, or Jerusalem. So where we were going to shoot was very critical. We had six members who came from Europe and there was a question about whether they could enter the country or not. It was just…Ah!.. a logistics nightmare. But ultimately everyone came in and we had to be very very careful. We had to tip toe and do whatever we needed to do. It totally affected everything.

Have you received feedback from Israeli audiences or been invited to screen P&M at Israeli film festivals?

We decided to do distribution a little bit differently. We opened the film in the Palestinian theaters in Haifa. So it was available. I’m sure some progressive Israelis did go to see it. I think it’s really important to support the Palestinian institutions that exist because they receive very little funding. A lot of these Israeli festivals have government spending from a government which occupies Palestine, so it’s difficult to go to them, and it’s a bit ridiculous to take our movie to Israeli festivals when people who live in the West Bank can’t go to see it, have never been to Jerusalem, can’t go to their original hometowns. So the way that I see this is that cultural cooperation is not going to end the occupation, but maybe the end of occupation will make it possible to cooperate culturally. But to go to these places that everybody can’t access, supported by a government that has occupied so many people, that just seems illogical and unacceptable.