In his exposition of globalization, “The Lexus and the Olive Tree, journalist Tom Friedman describes two forces driving human activity; “the drive for sustenance, prosperity and modernity versus “everything that roots us, anchors us, identifies us.
He symbolizes the first with the Lexus, based on his experience of a Lexus factory in Japan, and the second with the olive tree, for its association with Israel/Palestine, which he characterizes as the quintessential example of a place “still fight[ing] over who owns which olive tree.
Najwa Najjar’s full-length debut feature, “Pomegranates and Myrrh – which had its premiere in Egypt on Sunday and opened in theater on Wednesday – attests to the indissoluble bond between the two drives when one’s identity and one’s home are inextricably entwined with one’s livelihood.
As Najjar says, “the whole story is about land.
“Some people get it, some people don’t, that’s fine . they think it’s a romantic story, when it’s a story about land. It’s not about Muslims or Jews or Christians, it’s not a religious conflict that we have, she explains.
Her story follows Kamar (Yasmine El-Masri), a Palestinian bride coping with her husband’s imprisonment, Zaid (Ashraf Farah), and the potential confiscation of their family’s land and olive cultivation. Although Kamar’s escape into dance and the arms of her compelling choreographer Kais (Ali Suliman) drive the plot, the subtext, Najjar insists, remains that of the land.
“It’s about not just living, but living with dignity that can only be done on your land. We [Palestinians] are not fighting just to fight. You need to live. The land is [the characters’] livelihood, they eat from the land, the sell from it; they live by the land.
“Pomegranates and Myrrh enjoyed a successful festival run, including packed screenings at Cannes, Sundance, Edinburgh, Locarno and Dubai. It has been commercially released in Palestine, Jordan, Kuwait as well as several European countries.
Although Hany Abu-Assad’s Palestinian/German/French/Dutch production, “Paradise Now, is considered the first Palestinian movie screened commercially in Egypt, “Pomegranates and Myrrh is the first film with a predominantly Palestinian production (80 percent of production money is Palestinian) to be distributed in Egypt.
Of her Egyptian premiere, Najjar gushed about the attendance of popular Egyptian filmmaker Khaled Youssef, film stars Asser Yassin, Arwa and Randa El-Beheiry, producer Sherif Mandour and esteemed film critics Samir Farid and Tarek El-Shenawy, as well as numerous members of the press.
Breaking down stereotypes
However, she pointed out that marketing for Arab films in general needs greater utilization in order to alert audiences to films, especially independent cinema.
As she says, “this isn’t a Hollywood film, in more ways than one. Najjar says she intentionally tried to break down stereotypes, from expectations about cinema and dramatic structure, to Arab culture and Palestine.
For example, “Pomegranates and Myrrh refers to the title of the dance piece for which Kamar prepares throughout the film. In a Hollywood feature, the final performance would have been staged with fanfare. Think “Moulin Rouge, “Center Stage, or “Shakespeare in Love ; the audience has watched everyone prepare for so long, that they want to be impressed with the final result.
But the dance version of “Pomegranates and Myrrh is an anti-climactic folksy piece that does not seem to have necessitated the hours of preparation and the threat to Kamar’s marriage it precipitated. Yet the lack of resolution or even the catharsis of bringing a large performance to completion, Najjar explains, was intentional.
“At the end, what was important was that while she [Kamar] was dancing, he [Zaid] comes and sees that this is where she’s free. The basic premise of that could be done in the simplicity of a dance for their community.
She continued, “We [as Palestinians] never know; it’s part of occupation, it’s arbitrary. Our whole lives are frustrated, but you can’t give a closed happy, or even unhappy, ending because you just simply don’t know.
Najjar also wanted to depict the traditional mores of Palestinian society without dramatizing them as overly oppressive.
“I didn’t want this whole melodrama; conservativism doesn’t have to be strict and rigid. She [Kamar] is an adult, this is a conservative society, within which it’s known what’s acceptable and understandable, Najjar explains, in reference to Kamar’s in-laws’ unhappiness that dance rehearsals keep her out late.
Breaking stereotypes also meant taking on the image of the aggressive Arab male; “Arab men are given such a bad name, I have never met an Arab man like that. Of course they’re in every society, both men and women who are abusive . I wanted to break these stereotypes, because I don’t see it. Maybe the movie is not as dramatic and edgy, she shrugged.
The most aggressive character is Umm Habib, played by a riveting Hiam Abbas. The heartfelt depiction of Zaid’s stoic suffering by newcomer Farah also offers one of the film’s most moving performances. Yet Yasmine El-Masri, in the role of Kamar, while solid, feels slightly flat.
Najjar explains that she wanted Kamar to evoke a sense of newness. She found this in El-Masri, who had never before been to Palestine. “And we needed someone who could dance, she added.
For an audience member unfamiliar with the details of the Israel/Palestine conflict, and even those who are, watching may finally simplify a conflict that has persisted with such tenacious complexity, for there’s one clear and unquestionable fact: Palestine is gorgeous.
No flippancy intended. Najjar laughs that her crew spent six months doing location scouting for the land. The combined effect of golden light, ancient hillsides, dappled olive groves and expert cinematography by Italian DOP Valentina Caniglia remind viewers that by rights, Israel/Palestine should be the lovely eastern edge of the Mediterranean, blessed by the same sun, climate and flora that have immortalized the French and Italian Rivieras and the Greek Isles.
With the looming issue of revamped Israeli settlements, the movie carries the seeds of its own nostalgia. The beautiful traditional clothing worn by Kamar’s in-laws, the hand-crafted care imbued in every object of their home, and their olive oil, spread lovingly over the meal the family sits down to enjoy before Israeli soldiers kidnap Zaid and Israeli settlers set up an ominous tent. Their lives seem so delicate.
For Najjar, the film represents a necessary telling of their story through the voices and everyday lives of Palestinians. “I hope that [the film] is part of Palestinian culture, that we’ve left something for future generations, the places that exist, the people that have been involved, the stories themselves. It’s important to build a culture, [because that is] the soul of the nation.
Yet the sad beauty of the location and the sense of futility in the face of Israeli aggression evoke the wistfulness of a swan song, a captured moment of a place and people already disappearing.
As Friedman acknowledges when differentiating the Lexus and the olive tree, “without a sense of home and belonging, life becomes barren and rootless. And life as a tumbleweed is no life at all.
One is left wondering what sort of life Kamar and Zaid can expect to build on such unstable foundations, where neither home nor livelihood nor love are assured.
“Pomegranates and Myrrh is currently showing at Galaxy and Stars cinema.