Pomegranates and Myrrh (Al Mor Wa Al Rumman, Palestinian Territories-France-Germany 2008)

Kamar visits Zaid in prison

Palestinian Territories, France, Germany 2008.

Screened at the 23rd Leeds International Film Festival 2009.

Running Time 95 minutes.

Languages, Arabic, Hebrew, English with some English Subtitles.

Director: Najwa Najjar, Screenwriter: Najwa Najjar.

Note, plot information included.

The film opens with the wedding of Kamar (Yasmin Elmasri) and Zaid (Aashraf Farar) in Ramallah, in the occupied Palestinian territories. Zaid owns an olive grove and an olive press. Kamar’s own interest is a local dance group. Shortly after the wedding Israeli soldiers turn up on Zaid’s land with a notice of confiscation. There is a scuffle and Zaid is arrested and imprisoned under ‘administrative detention’. Most of the film follows Kamar as she copes with the situation but also attempts to continue her own life, in particular her membership of the dance troupe. There are periodic visits to Zaid in prison, and at one point he is held in solitary confinement. Kamar’s life becomes more complicated when Kais (Ali Suliman) joins the troupe. He is a choreographer whose family was exiled to Lebanon at the start of the occupation in 1948. By the end of the film the troupe have performed a dance event supervised by Kais, Pomegranates and Myrrh: Zaid has finally been released from prison and there is tentative reunion between him and Kamar: but the olive grove remain under Israeli occupation.

The film deals with an important issue for Palestinians, the creeping theft of their land under a variety of guises by the Zionist regime. The soldiers claim that the confiscation is because ‘boys threw stones’ from the land. The soldiers then claim that Zaid ‘threatened and attacked’ them to justify his imprisonment. Zaid imprisonment lasts several months and we glimpse the bureaucratic methods used by the Israeli’s to delay any possibility of justice. At the same time Jewish settlers start to occupy the confiscated groves, and at one point vandalise the disused olive press.

However, the prime focus of the film is the situation of the young wife, Kamar. Along with the pressures of the confiscation and her husbands imprisonment are those of friends and family who believe that her dance activities and growing friendship with Kais are unseemly. Eventually the Director of the troupe, incensed by Kais’s interest in Kamar, cancels the planned event that Kais is rehearsing with the dance troupe. The dance finally takes place in a disused playground. And it is during a performance that Kamar and Zaid exchange smiles that suggest their future together.

The film makes an interesting comparison with the 2008 film, Lemon Tree (Etz Limon, Israel, Germany, and France). There is not only a common plot problem, in this case the confiscation of a Lemon Grove, but also shared actors. In Lemon Tree Haim Abbass plays the widow, Salma Zidane, whose grove is under threat because an Israeli Minister moves into the adjoining house: in Pomegranates and Myrrh she plays Umm Habib, the owner of a small café. The café hosts an important scene as Kamar and Kais are forced to spend a night there during an Israeli curfew. Ali Suliman (Kais in Pomegranates and Myrrh) plays the Zaid Doud, the young Palestinian lawyer who conducts Salma’s case. Lemon Tree is clearly the more didactic film: [not a weakness despite the claims of certain mainstream critics]. For me the main weakness was that this didactic tone was rather one-note: it did not develop all the complexities of the situation. For example, Pomegranates and Myrrh has a much stronger sense of the wider context and Palestinian communities. An aspect of the one-note tone is the recurring use made of the folk song, Lemon Tree, which I felt did not stand frequent re-playing. Lemon Tree also offers a closer look at the Israeli protagonists; the film ends without Salma recovering her land, but with Mira Navon (Rona Lipaz-Michael) leaving her ministerial husband, Israel Navon (Doron Tavory) out of disgust for his oppressive actions. In Pomegranates and Myrrh the Israeli soldiers are almost faceless, and the settlers are uniformly shown in long shot.

Haim Abbass as Umm Habib

Pomegranates and Myrrh seem to me to subordinate the political issue to the personal. So much of the plot focuses on Kamar’s personal difficulties and the developing relationship with Kais. This is reinforced by the film’s ending, when the audience are left with what seems to be a re-united husband and wife without a clear reference to the confiscated land. The writer and director commented on her approach to the issue and the story:

“The idea for the film started with the beginning of the second Palestinian Intifada. …When violence, hate and anger became the only life around me, it 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 losing themselves when despair, uncertainty and loss prevails. Writing offered me the escape I needed and a way to release my frustrations. The result was ‘Pomegranates and Myrrh’. I took the story of a Palestinian female dancer trying to fulfil her dreams in a conservative society…. The film is in some ways a prediction of how a worsening political climate and the consequent lack of hope can directly affect 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 and a continuation of life. … It is my hope [that this story] will ultimately deepen the understanding of the present Palestinian story, transcending the barriers of culture and language.” (Leeds Festival Catalogue).

I have to question how far the emphasis of the film on the personal as to the political really does ‘deepen understanding. It is a staple of the commercial, entertainment film, even when it addresses contemporary political contradictions, to focus on the emotions of individual protagonists. This tendency {I believe] weakens and dissipated political issues. This is not a criticism that I would apply to the earlier Lemon Tree.

There is an interesting comment by a ‘reader’ on the Internet Movie Data Base site. One writes, “Although not explained, it is maybe 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.” In this sense the film’s title reinforces the personal issue.

Cinematically Pomegranates and Myrrh is more interesting than the earlier film. There are occasional long shots, usually for establishing a scene or as transitions between scenes. Much of the movie is shot in mid-shot and close-up. This relentlessly emphasises the enchainment of the Palestinians: also present in the mise en scène in the frequent use of bars and enclosures. The films’ opening follows the wedding party on their way to an Orthodox Church for the ceremony. Their journey perforce is through an Israeli checkpoint and alongside the ‘apartheid wall’. This style also reinforces the sense of the restrictions that are laid on the heroine.

However, I felt this style was rather over-done: the continuing close-ups do feel very oppressive and frequently frustrate the viewer’s view of the settings. Another quirk I thought not completely successful was the frequnet shots of feet, especially during the dancing by the troupe. A colleague told me that Film Schools advise students that shots of feet make a useful transition, and I have this sense that they are often excessive in contemporary cinema. Despite these reservations Pomegranates and Myrrh is an absorbing film and it generates emotional involvement both around its central issue and the involved protagonists.

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