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Pomegranates and Myrrh
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by Slyder

"Interesting if a tad unfocused"
4 stars

The debut film from Palestinian director Najwa Najjar, Pomegranates and Myrrh is a quiet and internally emotional drama that succeeds in part by interweaving the daily struggles of the typical Palestinian life in Israel with an engaging tale about courage over adversity, although the dramatic punch falters somewhat in sustaining the climax and denouement of the storyline.

Christian Arab couple Zaid (Ashraf Farah) and Kamar (Yasmine Elmasri) wed amidst the political turmoil that flows underneath the houses and the veins of the Palestinian citizens and the Israeli soldiers patrolling the East Jerusalem separation wall checkpoint. Kamar is a traditional Palestinian folk dancer, while Zaid is an olive oil farmer, and despite some frosty differences between them and their families, they remain truly in love with each other as they settle in Ramallah. However, things for the young family go horribly wrong when for unknown reasons, the Israeli family raid their farm, confiscate a good portion of the farm and take Zaid prisoner falsely accused of throwing a stone at an Israeli soldier. Completely devastated, Kamar tries to pick up the pieces of her life looking for comfort on her family and in-laws as well as in her dancing, especially as the company she dances for receives a boost from Kais (Ali Slimam), a famous dancer/choreographer who happens to return to his native Palestine after being in exile for 20 years.

The film strives for an even flow regarding the filmís political overtones and the story that itís trying to tell. Itís clear that the movie in part uses the medium to show the rather volatile environment in which Palestinians live. The Israeli army can disrupt the lives of people whenever they please patrols in the checkpoints between the Jewish and Arabic provinces, raids, firefights, etc. Thereís a memorable scene in which Kamar and Kais are visiting a pub owner and dear friend Umm Habib (Hiam Abbass) and have to suddenly find shelter in her pub, as a raid strikes right in front of them. As the fighting recedes, Habib goes outside and confronts the Israeli soldiers with anger at how the violence they and others procreate has destroyed the community. While this depiction of the environment cannot be ignored, some people will probably claim bias in favor of the Palestinians as the absence of Hamas is quite glaring. Although the filmís intentions are not completely political, they do tend to work a bit against it by not exploiting certain dramatic scenes more deeply. When the Israeli soldiers show up, the action seems a tad mechanical, and Zaidís interrogation and time in jail are rather shown in small segments that fail to clearly make us understand the motives of the Israelis for detaining him, or the other Arabs. The film is clearly interested in the actions and emotions of Kamar and what she has to go through, but a bit more depth regarding her husbandís imprisonment wouldíve helped the filmís balance even more.

The film certainly makes its point artistically. Najjar and cinematographer Valentina Caniglia manage to get impressive views of Ramallah, and this should be applauded, as they had to go through a lot of risks in shooting the film there. Najjarís metaphor for the movie can be found on the line of separation of everything in this lifestyle, from the walls that divide Jerusalem, to the prison bars that separate both husband and wife, to the fence that separates the confiscated land from the coupleís farmhouse, to ultimately the very culture and ideologies that separate both Israelis and Palestinians. Even in their own cultures themselves, at least within the Palestinians here as clashes occur between both the company director and Kais regarding the artistic vision of the dance theyíre rehearsing. There doesnít seem to be any interest in trying to find a common ground to work things out and instead a violent resolution is opted instead, possibly because its easier or because its already the law of the land thanks to more than 60 years of infighting. It is here where Kamarís quest for peace of mind and determination reach a somewhat symbolic state, because itís through the love and care that she and her husband share that they manage to overcome several obstacles, and when one falls, the other helps pick her or him up and keep on going.

However, the film loses some of its dramatic weight when Najjar tries to devise a love triangle between Kamar and Kais and Zaid. Kamarís beauty is unquestioned and certainly raises the feelings of lust and desire within Kais, but neither of them shows any or enough will or desire to actually carry the affair through, as its simply mentioned or hinted. I would not have any problem with the movie showing the internal feelings that the characters have for each other (as in for example The Remains of the Day), but this plot device gets dragged for the longest time only see nothing happen between them. Furthermore, Kamar doesnít seem to be interested in any way except possibly in the carnal sense of the word, and thatís only hinted as nothing really gets carried out. Itís ultimately a disappointing and useless plot device to try and boost some dramatic moments into the film. Why not simply depict Kais as a father or brother figure? Although Iíve read that adultery is a very serious offense in the Arab culture, I wonder if this is the reason why Najjar ultimately backs off from this plot device? Certainly it is understandable, but if this is the case then why insert it at all? Ultimately itís this part of the movie that immediately lowers the film in its final act towards a more predictable and very transparent ending that leaves you wishing more. It was also a tad disappointing that the movie was busy in this fracas that it almost completely overlooks adding some commentary or background in the traditional Palestinian dances that Kamar and the company are practicing so hard to get right. We are hinted at the title of the program (which is the title of the movie), but little else before or afterwards.

The acting is at times wooden as well, but Yasmine Elmasri, Ashraf Farah and Ali Slimam acquit themselves quite nicely. It is however Hiam Abbass that steals the show whenever she appears on the screen.

So nevertheless, this film is a good film, despite its shortcomings. Najjar is certainly a director that shows a lot of promise and once her writing skills are polished more, Iím sure that sheíll be able to resonate more to all of us not only cinematically but also in the matter of the nation from where she comes from and also truly loves. 3.5-5

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originally posted: 01/30/09 15:10:44
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2009 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Najwa Najjar

Written by
  Najwa Najjar

  Ali Suliman
  Yasmine Al Massri
  Ashraf Farah
  Hiam Abbass

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