Well known Palestinian filmmaker, Najwa Najjar, is an optimist at heart. Despite the bleak prospects of a solution that would guarantee the rights of the Palestinian people, Najjar is not giving up. She has made it her mission to use the power of film to expose the gross injustice of the Israeli occupation and its effect on the lives of ordinary Palestinians. In 2009, she wrote and directed her debut feature film, Pomegranates and Myrhh, which won critical acclaim and 10 international awards, and this year was nominated to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. eniGma’s Chairman, Samia Farid Shihata, got the chance to sit down with the Palestinian filmmaker to learn more about her remarkable journey in filmmaking. Here are some excerpts from the fascinating conversation.
Can you give our readers a brief overview of your personal background and how you got into filmmaking?
My mother was from Jaffa in Palestine, and my father was a journalist who lived in both Palestine and Jordan. I was raised in a home with lots of music, art, writing and culture. I went to high school in Europe and then went to California, where I earned a bachelor’s degree in Economics and Political Science. I later went to films school in Washington DC, where I met my husband, who is from Jerusalem. A major turning point in my life was when I went to Palestine with my husband. It was always my dream to return to live in Jersusalem, but dreams become fragments when nothing really changes on the ground; when every single day you are faced with the injustice surrounding you and the realisation that Israelis couldn’t care less about it. This keeps fueling my filmmaking more every day. At first, I was documenting things, and now I’ve turned to feature films.
How did your journey in filmmaking evolve?
I started with documentaries. The first documentary was about my mother. I took her to look for her house in Jaffa, which she was forced to leave as a young girl with her family. As we walked the streets of Jaffa, it all came back to her. She recognised her home and rushed to knock at the door! A Palestinian family was living there, and they were very welcoming. My mother was excited that the house looked just like she remembered it! That first film was really about my own journey of understanding loss. The film also shows how Jaffa’s families were so cultured. Jaffa was the bride of Palestine.
I did several other documentaries, then I made my first feature film, Pomegrantes and Myrhh, about a young Palestinian woman who was a dancer in a folklore troupe in Jerusalem. Her young husband, a landowner, is arrested shortly after their marriage and suddenly, she has to learn to take care of his land. While in prison, her husband encourages her to go back to dancing. As in my other films, I tried to show images of people in Arab societies that viewers don’t usually expect to see. I show the variety that can be found in Palestinian society, and how life goes on, despite the challenges.
Your film, Eyes of a Thief, was nominated to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film in 2014. Tell us about it.
This film was huge for us, because we were able to bring in the Arab world to Palestine. The lead star was Khaled Aboul Naga from Egypt, and it was also the Algerian singer Soad Massey’s acting debut. It was really a miracle that everything fell in place. While we were busy with pre-production in Palestine, Khaled was waiting for a long time in Jordan for permission to come in. We were taking a big risk, we didn’t know if he would be given permission.
How about your third film, Bein El Janna wal Ard (Between Heaven & Earth)?
Bein el Janna wal Ard is a love story about divorce. Again it is very much a personal journey to me, as well. I wanted to understand this really ridiculous situation of injustice and how it is perpetuated. The idea started when a shop owner in Haifa told me that his son had declined a scholarship to the famous film school, Goldsmith, in London because he didn’t want to leave as he is a guardian of one of five Palestinian villages on the Lebanese border destroyed by the Israelis. I looked for the village on Google maps, and sure enough it wasn’t there. So my husband and I went on this 10-hour- journey, to look for it. We finally saw this church steeple, and he said, “I think the village is up there!” We went up and found three young men and a young girl. They told us their story, which became the basis of the film Bein el Janna wal Ard. It is about how we are divorced from each other; how Palestinians in the West Bank, Jerusalem, Nasera, Haifa and Gaza are being separated from one other. It tells their forgotten stories, and how the occupier is changing our history and substituting it with his own, in order to eliminate our existence. In 1947, the Israelis moved 750,000 Palestinians out and brought in their place 600,000 Arab Jews who were living in Egypt and in other Arab countries. They indoctrinated them in camps to make them forget that they are Arabs. I went to meet the old Arab Jews who are still around. They still speak and sing in Arabic, but their children and grandchildren hate themselves because of the prevalent hate for Arabs. This is the sub story in the film.
Do you get support from the Palestinian authority and other Palestinians?
It’s very difficult for the Palestinian authority to help, because it has to deal with so much already. We get support from Palestinians in another way. It means a lot to be Palestinian when I go to set up at a location. People open their homes and their hearts to us. The love we receive is tremendous. With our connections as Palestinians, we are able to work with much smaller budgets than usual. That is a kind of support.
How about support and cooperation from other countries?
I really like to co-produce with Arab countries. I strongly believe that we should make cinema in the Arab world that is for us. Of course, I don’t mind having European co-productions too. Don’t get me wrong. What I mean is that we can cooperate in our region in different ways other than money. We can cooperate by bringing along interested individuals, or, for example, instead of using a studio in Europe, we can use a studio in Egypt and employ Egyptians. We need to restore hope in our region. I’m happy that our next movie, Christmas Stranger, is going to be with Egypt.
Tell us about your upcoming musical.
Doing a musical has been my dream. I started writing it three years ago, then I stopped and then resumed during quarantine. It’s a period piece set in Alexandria. I picked Alexandria, because when Europe was destroying itself in WWI, Alexandria was the most cosmopolitan city in the area. Having a cosmopolitan city allows you to bring in the whole region. We’ve already been meeting with production designers, actors, etc. With the right partners, we can make something spectacular. But it does need a budget. However, with intelligence and proper preparation, it can be done. Preparation is what has helped us make beautiful movies in Palestine with small budgets. If you prepare really well, then it makes life easy when you come into production. That’s the hope.
Congratulations on your nomination as a writer at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Does that mean you consider yourself a writer first, then a director?
I am both. Everything starts with the writing, which I love doing. I’m a writer and then a director. I actually don’t mind directing somebody else’s screenplay, but the script has to absolutely touch my heart.It would be fun to write or direct a series on TV, where you’ve got millions of viewers. We often underestimate our TV audiences, but they are smart and they are craving smart stuff.