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On Palestinian Cinema: An Interview with Film Director Najwa Najjar

[Najwa Najjar] [Najwa Najjar]

Najwa Najjar is a Palestinian filmmaker based in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. She has worked in both documentary and fiction. Her debut film was the feature  Pomegranates and Myrrh (2009), and her second feature is. Eyes of a Thief (2014). The latter was selected as the Palestinian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards, but was not nominated. This interview with Najjar was conducted following the recent release of Eyes of a Thief in the United States.

Isis Nusair (IN): How did you start making movies?

Najwa Najjar (NN): Cinema has always been part of my life in different ways.  I was always an avid reader, lived in a house with music, storytelling and art—and when I was around ten years old my father gave me his camera and taught me how to frame, and capture images.  At an older age during my studies in the United States I was always irritated with the way Arabs and/or Palestinians were portrayed in the media and everywhere—so instead of just being annoyed, I decided to do something about it.  That's when I did my graduate work in cinema.  

IN: What did you want to communicate through the making of your recent film, Eyes of A Thief?

NN: I suppose living in a No Man's Land between Ramallah and Jerusalem, and seeing every peace process—and hope for that matter—whither away, I wanted to question what happens when reason and hope diminishes, apathy increases, and consciousness almost goes extinct. Will people’s will to resist and survive also diminish? What options lie in store? These questions are not only relevant to Palestine but to the whole region.

For decades the discourse on resistance and survival in the Arab world has been misrepresented and oversimplified, creating an askew discussion. For far too long, this side of the story has been told by others overlooking the Arab perspectives and the people involved.

[Image of director with girl actress from Eyes of a Thief]

The consequence has been to simplify the discourse, to reduce conflicts in the region to sectarian, Muslim vs. Jews, and/or Muslims vs. the “West.” Furthermore, after 11 September 2001 it became very easy to demonize and dehumanize all Muslims, as well as Arabs, worldwide. Equally important, the reaction to this demonization in many parts of the Arab world has often been to target minorities, Christians in particular, living in the region for centuries. They have wrongly become associated with the Christians in the West, with no ties to the East where Christianity was born. 

Perhaps it is an attempt at the preservation of historic diversity and the role that minorities have played and continue to play as part and parcel [of the region]. In addition, it is also an attempt to contribute albeit in any way to change in the region. The film also highlights the need to represent the region in ways that challenge its reductive portrayal in the mainstream media, end the warped hegemony of partial and/or inaccurate narratives, and change perceptions and images from the region defined and dominated by misconceived convictions and/or distorted television stereotypes.

IN: Is that message different from that of Pomegranates and Myrrh?

NN: In retrospect, it seems that different means of resistance and survival seem to be an obsession of mine by default.    

The idea for Pomegranates and Myrrh 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 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 internal to 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 prevail. 

The daily barrage of stereotypes broadcasted on television stations worldwide tired me. 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. 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 is no hope, determination—a continuation for life.  

[Hiam Abbass in Pomogranates and Myrrh ]

It was 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, 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.

IN: Is there a distinct Palestinian cinema?  

NN: For far too long the Palestinian story has been told be everyone but Palestinians.  In the past thirty years or so Palestinians writers and directors started writing their own stories, filming on location in their land and using other Palestinians actors and actresses.  Often crews were brought from outside Palestine as there was not enough skilled cinema crew in the country.  More recently upon several directors’ insistence on training crew alongside experienced crew from abroad—many more trained crew members can be found - so stories are now also being made by Palestinians.

IN: How does the social and the political intersect in the content and aesthetics of making both your documentary and fiction films? 

NN: They are all related.  There is no politics without the social dimension, and the social dimension is inherently linked to the political.  There's no way out at this time separating the content and the aesthetics. 

IN: Does being a woman film director make a difference in the films you make? 

NN: I've never seen myself as a woman filmmaker—just as a filmmaker.

IN: Do you plan to continue making both documentary and fiction films? 

NN: I do love both mediums - documentary and film.  Making my first documentary, Naim and Wadee’a, was crucial in launching my career not because it was successful worldwide, but because it gave me a real understanding of what is needed in cinema which talks to audiences on another level.  Unfortunately, often documentaries are associated with news reports.  There is a lot which can be captured when stories, footage, music are used in a non-traditional manner.  Having said that—my passion remains with fiction.  I do love stories in which I have creative control, and then having the characters living inside the story on my laptop come alive when taken on by actors and actresses.  

[Image of Khaled Abol Naga with two children, Malak Erimeleh and Amir Kort, from Eyes of a Thief.]

IN: Let us talk about the reception of Eyes of a Thief.

Strange film this one is - while some programmers (In Europe) are hesitant - - audiences are flocking to the film in great numbers. We are literally sold out everywhere the film is screened.  Contrary to all my expectations the film has been accepted with open arms in the East, South and even the United States. I just came back from Palm Springs where additional theatres needed to accommodate all the people who wanted to see the film.    

In light of what is going on in France (and all of Europe for that matter)  - you would have thought there was a needed urgency for films like Eyes of a Thief especially in Europe, stories to start discussions and bring new understandings in the hopes that dialogue, new images, and cinema can help bridge what is becoming a widening gap in cultures and discourse.  Maybe cinema can do something where politics has failed.

IN: Has this reception been different from your other films? 

NN: I think with Pomegranates and Myrrh - this narrative fits more with what the West or rather Europe likes to see in terms of Palestinian narrative as it deals with the wife of a prisoner trying to survive under Israeli occupation. The West I believe is willing to say we are occupied and allows us to resist in the manner they see fit—non violently which was the core of Pomegranates and Myrrh. However, other forms of resistance on the screen, I think, make them nervous—though it is our unfortunate reality.

[Suad Massi in Eyes of A Thief]

IN: The funding for the film has been Arab and European and the main two actors are from Egypt and Algeria/France. Are you trying to reach a wider regional and transnational audience through the funding and selection of the main actors? 

NN: With regards to casting I was looking for the best fit for the roles.  Both Khaled Abol Naga and Souad Massi are friends.  I never thought that I would be able to get permission for Khaled to come into the country. Getting him permission was a near miracle.  I had spoken to him about a small role (Father Naim) and he was so enthusiastic and showed a genuine love for Palestine and wanting to come to the country, and add to that his stand on the Egyptian revolution—I found a guy who didn't have to act like a revolutionary but was one.  

And Souad Massi had never acted.  I wanted her for my first film, Pomegranate and Myrrh.  There's a spirit about her that I appreciate; a vulnerability. Again, I don't ask for "acting" but more searching inside yourself and being.   

I did not consider them to appeal to the Arab Hollywood, but if it does—then all the better.  However, it is/was important to me to have the "Arab" World in a Palestinian film.  By bringing in an Algerian and an Egyptian for the first time in Palestinian cinematic history, we were able to break the barriers that have been enforced on us, isolating not only us, but more recently the Palestinian issue.  In a story about resistance with actors from the Arab World—maybe we brought the Palestinian issue back to the center of the Arab world.  

This is also the importance of having funding from around the Arab World - it shows support and solidarity.  Internally, we also try to break our own barriers by bringing in cast and crew from inside the forty-eight line, Gaza, Jerusalem, throughout the West Bank - it's a logistic nightmare with orange, blue and green ID cards and maneuvering around one of six hundred plus checkpoints, but one we believe is necessary to remain united.

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