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131, March 2009 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Women vs. Occupation in Pomegranates and Myrrh
By Najwa Najjar

One of the first questions at any Q&A in festivals abroad is “How difficult is it to be a woman filmmaker in the Arab World?”

The question will ultimately arise in an internationally male dominated field with very grim expectations and views of women filmmakers in a part of the world they perceive as a strict patriarchy with subordinate women. Although the names in Palestinian cinema have been historically linked to male filmmakers, the roles that both Khadijeh Habashneh and Mai Masri played in creating new women role models, and launching films by women to the world, can not be overlooked.

Today women account for half, if not more, the number of film and documentary directors, making scenes of women in the streets directing a crew or actors a common sight in the country.

Despite the large number of women directors, the number of women (and men) in the country in other cinematic technical positions remains limited. Still a relatively new field with only one or two feature films (if that many) a year, crewmembers have not had the opportunity to have several experiences on a film set. Filmmakers like Michel Khleifi, Elia Suleiman, and Hany Abu Assad were pioneers in employing Palestinians to work and gain experience on their sets.

When we started pulling our crew together for the filming of “Pomegranates and Myrrh” (Al Mor wa al Rumman) we wanted not only to have a majority Palestinian crew but to have it divided 50/50 male/female. Our intention was not only bringing in Palestinians from around the country and abroad, crossing all lines of division, but also similarly bringing in men and women to work together.

Our 35 local crew included women with mixed experiences on a film set - some with none or little, others with more, but all whose sheer dedication and efforts helped make the film happen. Reem Shilleh (continuity), Dema Abdel Hadi (wardrobe dresser), Lina Bukari (2nd AD), Shurouq Harb (set photographer), Itidal Abdel Ghani (production coordinator) and Nariman Musleh (production manager) are just a few.

We looked abroad for those positions not available in the country. We ended up having the heads of departments filled by women: Italian Director of Photography, Valentina Caniglia,; and Feature Film editors, Bettina Bohler from Germany and Sotira Kyriacou from Cyprus, both of whom added a different angle to the storytelling. As did the music composition, which was a joint collaboration, between the renowned film singer Mychael Danna and Indian-Canadian composer Amritha Fernandes-Bakshi.

Having such a mixed crew working together on a Palestinian film was important in reflecting the crew and cast working on the film, and the people supporting the film, and in telling what we hoped would be a universal story of the heroine: a dancer, who searches for freedom after becoming the wife of a prisoner.

However, this did create some problems in one of the villages in which we were filming. We were accused of making a “pornographic” film with the villagers objecting to men and women, local and foreign, working together, but the heads and elders of the village refused all accusations, and insisted on supporting the film “to set a good example for their children”.

This incident was one of the highlights of the production. It was an indication of the effect and influence of film, and the country’s support for film’s contribution in presenting a space of freedom and on insistence on life continuing in as normal way as possible in increasing conservative times.

Pomegranates and Myrrh is a story about women and men, families, a society … living under occupation. Ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives under extraordinary circumstances.

With an A list of actors and actresses, we all worked together like the families in the film. International stars such as, Hiam Abbass,and Ali Suleiman (Paradise Now); Caramel’s Yasmine Al Massri; Ashraf Farah, and other well known names such Yussef Abu Warda; Samia Qazmoz Bakri; Lotuf Neusser; Wardeh Dukwar; Walid Abdel Salam; Valantina Abu Oqsa; Manal Award; Iman Aoun and Lea Tsemel, a well known Israeli human rights lawyer, were tremendous in bringing the passion and intensity to their roles, and bring the story to life.

At the end we were all coming together to make a film, neither as women nor as men, Middle Eastern, European nor North American, but simply to tell one Palestinian story in the most honest way possible.

So the answer to the above question is usually: Making a film is challenging in it’s own right, but still definitely much more challenging as a filmmaker under occupation, than a woman filmmaker in the Arab World.

Writer/Director Najwa Najjar has worked in both documentary and fiction. Her previous works include several award-winning films including Yasmine Tughani,  Naim and Wadee’a, Quintessence of Oblivion, Blue Gold, A Boy Called Mohammad, and They Came from the East which were shown at film festivals worldwide (Dubai, Berlin, Cannes, Lucerne, Hampton and the European Academy Awards). Her latest work Pomegranates and Myrrh, a 95-minute feature film, opened the Arab World Gala at the Dubai International Film Festival, and travelled festivals including Sundance, Rotterdam and Gothenburg. Pomegranates and Myrrh will be opening at the Ramallah Cultural Palace on March 6, 2009.

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