Pomegranates And Myrrh

Pomegranates And Myrrh


Reviewed by: Chris

The language of Palestine and Israel (and the latter is always part of the definition of the former) is locked in words. Not just different languages, but labels that classify each world in terms of the other’s views, experiences, history, culture. The result is pain. And the very act of screening a Palestinian (or Israeli) film becomes a political act.

Escaping the tyranny of words, of narrow definitions, is one of the freedoms of dance. Especially dance not restricted to national forms. (“In every pomegranate there is one seed that comes from heaven.” - old Arab proverb.) Says director Najwa Najjar, “I wanted a Palestinian story. A story different to what the world was used to seeing – simply a story of Palestinians trying to live ordinary lives under extraordinary circumstances, which has been (and continues to be) overlooked.”

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Zaid (an olive farmer) and Kamar (a dancer) have just got married. We witness the colourful celebrations. Two beautiful, intelligent people. The dialogue (or subtitling) is occasionally a bit clumpy, but on the whole it is a delight to witness the sophisticated festivities of a society with such captivatingly different customs to our own. Not that you or I can holiday there very easily. This is Ramallah.

What follows next is largely anticipated – Palestinian cinema tends to focus on dispossession in the face of the Israelis – and is of interest for the degree to which it accomplishes this well and for the variations or new ideas the film additionally introduces.

Zaid is soon taken into ‘administrative detention’ and attempts are made to confiscate their land. Kamar is torn between her duties as a wife and her love of the dance. This latter is complicated by the arrival of Kais, a choreographer returning to Palestine after a lifelong absence when his family was exiled to Lebanon in 1948. Kais has plenty to offer in the way of new steps and is seen by the amateur, traditional choreographer who heads the dance group as a threat to his status.

Although lack of female emancipation within Palestine (another common theme of Palestinian cinema) is only touched on tangentially, even more important is the sense of Kamar achieving a freedom of spirit within a world where hope has gone. Initially, her sole identification is with her husband. “Without you, everything has lost its smell,” she says to him through the grille of the prison visiting room. She holds her hands up, redolent with the olive harvest, for him to smell. They disagree on how far he should ‘stand on principle.’

Back at home, life is becoming increasingly hard not only for their extended family but for all those who depend on the harvest and the workers not allowed to travel there. Israeli would-be settlers want to build on their land. A stone comes through the window at night, terrifying Kamar. (Zaid was arrested because the Israeli soldiers claimed a boy had thrown a stone at their patrol. Zaid then resisted arrest.)

Pomegranates and Myrrh is the title of the dance performance for which the troupe rehearses. Although not explained, it is perhaps interesting to note that pomegranates were eaten by souls in the underworld to bring about rebirth. Hellenic mythographers said both Kore and Eurydice were detained in the underworld because they ate pomegranate seeds there. Myrrh was traditionally an aphrodisiac.

There is a beautiful image of Kamar dancing at night. Her bare feet receive cuts from the hard ground. Ground which could so easily be taken from her.

The details of the land confiscation and detention seem to be portrayed without contrivance or vindictiveness. As with Lemon Tree (a film that covers very similar themes, except for the dancing), Pomegranates And Myrrh is more concerned with living within the Palestinian diaspora, and living within a situation you have no power to change. But for anyone unfamiliar with the dynamics it is instructive enough and gives some substance to dry news reports of expansion of Jewish settlements.

For those uninterested in Middle East politics but just wanting a backdrop within which to enjoy the film on its own merits, Palestine has been an occupied territory since 1947. The Jews believe it is their promised land and that they have a right to live there, but so do Palestinian Arabs. In 1947, the then Palestine was divided into a Jewish state (which officially became Israel in 1948), and an Arab state that was shared between Egypt (the Gaza strip) and Jordan (the West Bank). Both the Arab territories were reclaimed by Israel in the Seven-day War of 1967 and since then the territories have been continually contested. The weight of history tends to be with the victors.

Both Palestine and Israel are home to a wide spectrum of political and social beliefs. Many Israelis condemn the expansion of the territories (which is in breach of international law but generally ignored by the West). Many others champion the rights of Jews to live there. Some Palestinians are militarily opposed to infractions, some to the 1967 or 1947 occupations. Some just want a quiet life. Many, like Zaid and Kamar, don’t think about it too much until it affects them.

Why do we need to mention such things? Partly because the film doesn’t manage to avoid or explain them, it merely documents. But since political questions will arise in the mind of the viewer, it is helpful to have a non-judgemental framework so you can squirrel them away and not let such thoughts dominate your enjoyment. The escape from such a politically dominated framework also formed part of Najwa Najjar’s quest in making the film.

“The idea for the film started with the beginning of the second Palestinian Intifada. Witnessing the daily violence, humiliation, grinding poverty, curfews, movement controls, assassination attempts and the tit for tat suicide bombings, to be there when violence, hate and anger becomes the only life around me - almost broke my spirit and soul, and my faith in humanity. I needed to find a way to survive, to find hope in what seemed to be a hopeless situation, to breathe again despite the suffocating weight of frustration. Yet in this search I was also confronted with barriers in a Palestinian society – those, which can hinder individual development, dreams and aspirations but none as challenging as those which force people to turn to lose themselves when despair, uncertainty and loss prevails.”

Watching Palestinian films can be enervating. A fist beating on a wall of hopeless tears. So we have to find the song, the dance of the human spirit within. But there is also the danger that sorrow can burst into even less helpful avenues. “Pomegranates and Myrrh is in some ways a prediction of how a worsening political climate – and the consequent lack of hope, can directly affect the Palestinian daily life – pushing the society to further isolate itself and the individual to regress into conservative traditionalism and religion if there isn’t hope, determination... a continuation for life.” Najjar remains upbeat: “It is my hope that this story - told through the story of a woman, a love story, a story of dance and music, incorporating the events both internally and externally, will evoke similar emotions and feelings in anyone confronting barriers blocking the achievement of his or her ambitions and dreams. At the same time human stories not distorted by the news and stereotypes will not only present an alternative picture, but will ultimately deepen the understanding of the present Palestinian story – transcending the barriers of culture and language.”

Reviewed on: 22 Jun 2009
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The wife of a Palestinian prisoner searches for freedom.
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Director: Najwa Najjar

Writer: Najwa Najjar

Starring: Hiam Abbass, Yasmine Elmasri, Ali Sliman, Ahmad Abu Sal'oum, Ashraf Farah, Lufuf Nuweiser, Lea Tsmeal, Walid Abdul Salam, Manal Awad, Samia Kuzmoz

Year: 2008

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: Palestine

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If you like this, try:

Lemon Tree