Najwa Najjar provoked controversy in her native Palestine with her 2008 movie, a gradual drama entitled Pomegranates and Myrrh. The film charts the fate of newlywed Kamar, whose husband is carted off to an Israeli prison after attempting to defend his land. During his incarceration, an attraction develops between Kamar and her Palestinian returnee dance teacher. Though the film doesn’t attempt to be overly political, the visible and consistently negative impact of politics on the protagonists’ lives acts as a critique.
The movie, which has already screened at more than 70 film festivals around the world and picked up 10 awards, arrives in Dubai this week for a two-week run at The Picturehouse as part of the build-up to the 2011 Dubai International Film Festival. Here, Najjar tells us about the making of Pomegranates – which she both wrote and directed – and the impact it has had on her own life and those of her fellow Palestinians.
What were you trying to convey when you started making this film?
I think it was a way to come to terms with a difficult reality and try to find some hope in what seemed to be a very hopeless situation. [Production started] during the second Palestinian uprising, which ran from 2000 to 2006: a violent, ugly time. Palestinians were [generalised as] terrorists – they were only bloodthirsty. It was absolute oppression. It was about finding the will and desire to go on during that time. I didn’t want to make an overtly political film, I wanted a story about a girl who marries a guy, and the possibility that someone else could attract her attention. Yes, okay, he does get imprisoned for a political reason, but they are just regular people. I think it was a search for hope, for survival.
Was that personal to you, or something you were trying to bring to other people?
No – it was a very personal thing. I’ve always written, whether in a diary, or writing to myself. It was from those words that I started to put together stories. You have control over your characters, unlike everything else. But this film was based on a lot of research. I met prisoners, wives, psychologists; I tried to be authentic. It’s not as painful as some things I heard, but it was touching on a taboo subject, and that created huge controversy.
What kind of controversy?
One of the extras in the film was killed before its release. So in our press release we honoured him, and recognised what he did. We invited his family to the first screening.
After the screening, an actor – not from my movie – came running up and said: ‘How dare you show a prisoner’s wife in this light! You’ve done a disservice to Palestinian women and prisoners!’ He was furious. Another man, who works with global news agency AFP, said we should have stopped the screening when the man who was murdered came on screen. He then wrote an article about how bad it was, and suddenly it was all over the news. But the wonderful thing was that people then said: ‘Fine. Where are we as Palestinians? Are we going to subject ourselves to cultural oppression? We have always been a liberal society. What has happened to us?’ It became a seven-week discussion. From north to south, newspapers to radios, from columnists to journalists. Everyone got involved and it started an amazing discourse on Palestinian culture, on prisoners’ wives. People were calling us to say thank you for touching on a subject no one else dared to. It was a crazy, difficult time, but it was amazing how people just started standing up and talking. Movies should do that.
What kind of films are you looking to make in the future?
We’re in pre-production for Eyes of a Thief, a thriller. It’s a different genre completely. It’s a father with a secret, searching for a son he left behind. I like to try different things. I like to trust myself and challenge myself.
Will this also be based in Palestine?
We will be shooting in Nablus in the West Bank.
When do you start?
If we get financing, we can hopefully start by the end of the year. Maybe this screening in Dubai will encourage somebody to support our next film.
What will you do differently this time?
Certain things had to be cut from my first movie because I had been told they were ‘under control’, when in fact they weren’t. Now I know that unless I see it, it’s not under control. I shouldn’t be afraid to impose what I want. I read a wonderful quote: ‘When men think, they are considered geniuses. When women think, they are considered difficult.’ I need to remember that I’m not being difficult, I’m just making sure I get what I want.
As an Arabic woman, have you found it challenging being taken seriously in the film industry?
To be very honest, it was much more difficult being a filmmaker in itself than a female filmmaker. I didn’t feel that I was treated differently. For a first-time filmmaker, it was one of the most wonderful experiences, working with the cast and crew. Everybody came together like a dream.
Pomegranates and Myrrh is showing now at The Picturehouse at The Dubai Mall.