The 13th Arab Film Festival (featuring 17 films from seven countries) opens Thursday in San Francisco with “Pomegranates and Myrrh,” the story of Kamar, a Christian Palestinian dancer who, while her husband is imprisoned, develops an emotional bond with her new choreographer. The Examiner spoke with American-born and -educated director-writer Najwa Najjar, who moved to the Palestinian Territories in 1996.
What inspired the story? The concept started during the Second Uprising, in 2000, which was my first experience of being a prisoner. Curfew trapped us inside at night, with an ugly companion, the TV. Television showed us as terrorists, angry, nonthinking, bloodthirsty — every negative stereotype ever associated with Arabs. We were just people working, feeding our children, dancing, laughing, people trying to live ordinary lives under extraordinary circumstances.
Is the title related at all to the Arabic proverb: “In every pomegranate, there is one seed that comes from heaven”? That proverb was exactly it! The pomegranate is beauty and life. To me that one seed is hope. Myrrh has two connotations — the Arabic “mor” means bitterness, and myrrh was one of the presents to Jesus. The title was also my way of saying that I refuse to write “Occupation 101” — instead, “let’s have the human story.”
It’s unusual for American viewers to see non-Muslim Palestinians portrayed. How many Greek Orthodox Palestinians are there? It’s about 20 percent — most in diaspora, about 2 percent left in the country. The Palestinian situation has been [oversimplified as] a religious conflict between Muslims and Jews. I created a Christian Palestinian family to show it’s not about religion, it’s about culture, it’s about land.
I enjoyed seeing Hiam Abbass (“The Visitor,” “Lemon Tree”) in a different kind of role as Umm Habib, a mean and sexual character. Since “Umm Habib” means “mother of Habib,” where’s the son? Because the character is a seductress, I chose the name as a pun on “habibi,” “beloved” — she’s the mother of so many loves. I left it ambiguous, just as with exactly what happens between Kamar and the choreographer, so people would question and think. It’s important for us Palestinians in particular not to be spoon-fed, to let our imagination go.
Variety said this was not a political film. Do you agree? You can’t deny that the human story is influenced by political events, but it’s a human story that is shaped by politics, not a movie that is hitting you over the head with politics.
IF YOU GO
Starring Yasmine Elmasri, Hiam Abbass, Ashraf Farah, Ali Suliman
Written and directed by Najwa Najjar
Running time 1 hour 35 minutes
Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St.; Opera Plaza, 601 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: Thursday through Oct. 18
Tickets: $10 to $12 most screenings; $100 for pass
Contact: (415) 564-1100, www.aff.org/2009
Note: Najwa Najjar will attend opening night; a reception is at 6 p.m. Thursday and the film screens is at 7:30 p.m. at the Castro Theatre