Passing the Palestinian patriotism test

A Palestinian film wins raves abroad, frowns at home.

Palestinian flag 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Palestinian flag 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The film won Arab and international praise for its courage in tackling some of Palestine's more difficult issues. But the hardest and most obnoxious reviewers were back at home. The movie is Najwa Najjar's Pomegranates and Myrrh, which opened the Dubai International Film Festival, Rotterdam, Sundance and had a special screening hosted by the Berline-Bradenberg Prime Ministry during the Berlin Film Fesitval. Many more festivals have plans to show the film. The Gulf News called it a movie made in heaven, giving it the following introduction: "Palestinian filmmaker Najwa Najjar's new film reflects both the sweetness and bitterness of life in her homeland. An old Arabic proverb says that in every pomegranate, one seed is made in heaven. It is the seed of hope that made Pomegranates and Myrrh a reality, reflecting life's sweetness and bitterness." The sweetness is that it is simply a Palestinian love story, the bitterness is that the man finds himself in jail and the woman fights cultural emotions as she tries to continue her dancing career, and as she is tempted into a fling by her dance instructor. FOREIGN AUDIENCES filled cinema halls hoping to see these Palestinian women heroes (both the director and the film's heroine). Arab audiences gave it a mixed reaction, but possibly the harshest response came in the wake of the film's debut in Ramallah. While many welcomed it, others felt that somehow Najjar treaded on forbidden territory when she took the audience inside the head of a liberal prisoner's wife. She showed the wife's conflict about going back to dancing, and even had her exchanging special looks with her trainer. Some seemed to think it lunacy, others treason. A report highlighting the angry statement of a viewer appeared in the media and seems to have made its way inside the Israeli prisons. There, Hamas prisoners started a campaign asking that the film be banned because it negatively portrayed the prisoners' wives. The filmmaker's protagonist couple are patriotic Palestinians from the nationalist liberal wing, yet this did not stop the campaign. Some see this campaign as a reflection of the overall Palestinian political and social divide. Countercampaigns, one led by well-respected Palestinian novelist Lina Bader, have also been initiated. A few years ago I had the privilege of touring in Palestine with Hollywood star Richard Gere who, during his stay, met many Palestinian artists. It was then that Najjar gave him the script of this film. Unusual for an American celebrity, Gere took time to read the script and sent her a handwritten letter endorsing it. Despite this high-level recommendation, it took Najwa about four years to raise the money, find the talent, shoot and edit the film (mostly in Palestine). One of the problems facing Palestinian creative talent and intellectuals is that they often give themselves the awesome difficulty of having to carry the entire Palestinian cause on their shoulders. Even paintings have to have the colors of the Palestinian flag, or some kind of embroidery, or cactus, or Handallah, or the map of Palestine in order to pass the test of patriotism. But artists are not obliged to do that. A Palestinian fiction need not be the official narrative of all Palestinians; neither should any other work of art, of culture, have that requirement. By attempting to mass everything into every work, Palestinians fall into exactly the stereotypical trap that has been set up for them. Pomegranates and Myrrh is a sensitive film by one Palestinian filmmaker about one Palestinian point of view. This is exactly how we can create our own genuine narrative - one stitch at a time - in order to produce the quilt that represents the people and cause of Palestine. The writer is general manager of Community Media Network Radio Al Balad.