As a leading figure in Palestinian cinema, Najwa Najjar has written and directed numerous films that reflect the trials and tribulations of living under an occupation and open a space for Palestinians to narrate their own story. Among numerous other awards, her 2014 film Eyes of a Thief was Palestine’s nomination for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and her 2019 film Between Heaven and Earth won the Naguib Mahfouz Best Screenplay award at the 41st edition of Cairo International Film Festival. Najwa was in town for the Cairo International Film Festival, so we thought we’d sit down with her to ask her about the importance of Palestinian directors being able to represent themselves in cinema, the struggles of filming under occupation in Palestine, and what she’s most looking forward to seeing at the Cairo International Film Festival
Through film, some countries are able to write their own narratives and be the ones representing themselves. Is it usually Palestinians themselves who get to represent themselves to the wider world?
For many, many years, our narrative has actually been told by everyone but ourselves. We’ve been cast into stereotypes. It’s been done in a way that kind of relegated our country, us, who we are, what happened to us, and it casted everything as a religious conflict not a national conflict. We have been stripped of any humanity and if you watch anything from Hollywood, the way they see us, the way that Palestine is depicted, it is a way that is so inhuman. So yes, Palestinians over the years and with great difficulty are reclaiming their narratives. After 1948, there were people that were taking pictures, photographs, making cinema, making documentaries, and then it started going into fictional movies and shooting on the ground. It’s a way to have our say, break stereotypes, and reclaim our narrative, and show our country as we see it.
Do Arabs more generally similarly face misrepresentations in cinema? And if so, what do you think this stems from?
I think in general, there has been a process of dehumanising Arabs. There is the relegation of every issue to Islamic terrorism. This by itself overlooks the people who have been living here forever, like the Christians who have been living here in the region, and others. Either you’re a terrorist, or you’re a victim, or you’re a wife beater, and it’s like come on, enough. Look at most Hollywood movies and there’s no conversation, there’s nothing that is remotely attractive, even the way that they look, the way that they dress, everything really.
Did any of these concerns initially lead to you become a film maker?
It was the main thing that led me. I did grow up in a household full of music and my father taught me how to use a camera. He was a journalist at one point in his life and my mother’s a huge lover of music. I also read a lot of books and there were a lot of books in the house, so that combination kind of led me to cinema. And then, studying politics and economics, I thought I could either complain or do something about it, and for me the weapon was cinema.
Your films have spoken about love, divorce, expression, family, and many other issues, but behind all of them is the ever-present occupation of Palestine hanging in the background as a constant reminder. Why is this?
In 1948, my mother, father, and 750,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes and forced to live as refugees. In 1967, more people were pushed out of their homes, another 300,000 or more. There has been a systematic ethnic cleansing that has been going in Palestine since 1948. It’s constant, it’s daily, it’s everything that we see from a 750 kilometre wall that took our water, although its about more than water, and its about a fifteen-year-old girl who was getting bread for her children two days ago and she was shot. Its my friend’s son, a sixteen-year-old boy that goes to a Quaker school and whose mother is the head of Yabous, which is a cultural centre in Jerusalem, and her husband heads the national music conservatory. The sixteen-year-old son has been imprisoned for the past six weeks. Put aside that there’s nothing on him, this is one and half months of a kid’s education, this is something that disrupts their lives, and the parents were both arrested for supposed tax reasons two years ago. The whole concept of what is happening to this family, and what is happening to them is representative of many families, is that you are not allowed to have culture and you are not allowed to have life in Palestine. I also was not allowed to go into the country for a while. It’s not complicated, it’s actually pretty black and white because simply, we live under occupation. The occupation needs to end because this is unjust and as filmmakers we try to survive, we try to show our story, and we try to take back our narrative in order for a more comprehensive peaceful just solution to come about.
Do you find that Palestinians understand your films differently to those who aren’t Palestinian?
Yes, I do, and sometimes it’s not always positive. Sometimes it’s very negative. For Pomegranates and Myrrh, there was a lot of outrage because I dealt with a prisoners wife and in my movies I talk about issues facing our society. The main trigger of the outrage was when we had a screening with a thousand people at the opening night in Ramallah. About 50 people really didn’t like the movie and one person in particular, who was a journalist, stood up and he was outraged saying “how can you do this to a prisoners wife?”. He later wrote an article in the newspaper saying how I basically prostituted a prisoner’s wife in my film. But then what happened was that the Israeli authorities in the prisons got the article, cut it out, photocopied it, and gave it to all the prisoners. It was crazy, I mean the government in Gaza met and they asked for my banishment from the country. People were so upset, but what the wonderful thing was is that Palestine is a very literary and cultural society. So, there was this massive, massive support with people coming out and defending me. There were people from historic Palestine, from Nazareth, Haifa, Jerusalem, Nablus, Ramallah, people who were prisoners, and it was a wonderful conversation, it started a dialogue. I don’t do it on purpose, I’m not a sensationalist director, and I’m not that kind of person, but I do deal with issues. I think I do it gently, but it is understood in a way that is sometimes critical. And I understand it, this is the narrative of Palestine and I’m taking stories of Palestinians that are very important to us all. That’s why Palestinians, especially living there, are very protective over the narrative. I understand that, I’m one of those, but I think it’s also very important to create a dialogue. I don’t want someone just to go bravo and clap. Let’s talk, let’s see what we can do, and let’s see how we can further this.
Palestinian film has steadily been spoken about as its own distinct genre, do you see any shared concerns, styles, or approaches that unite recent Palestinian cinema?
I think they all have a cause, we all have something to say. I think everyone is finding a language with which to speak, because don’t forget that as Palestinians we’re not allowed to say a lot of things. So, it’s a search for language, it’s a search for authenticity, but it’s also a cinema that is coming together with a loud and vocal voice.
Is it difficult to make films in Palestine?
Extremely difficult. It’s horrific. For Between Heaven and Earth, we had to shoot in 24 days and we were shooting in historic Palestine and in the West Bank. Shooting in Jericho and Ramallah in the West Bank was fine, but when we had to go shoot in Haifa and Nazareth, that was hell because you have to present your script. But if you are going to present your script, they are going to refuse it, and so you kind of have to shoot without approval. That means you can’t put the camera, close roads, you can’t do a lot of things. The only time we did ask for approval, which was in Rosh HaNikra right on the Lebanese border, we had travelled for three hours and the minute before shooting they told us we can’t shoot. You always have to have a plan B, C, D, and E.
What brings you to the Cairo International Film Festival this year?
First of all, I love the Cairo Film Festival to see movies and friends and all of this. But, I have been coming to Cairo quite a bit because my next movie is a film that is set in Alexandria. So, I figured that I will come, see friends, movies, and continue my preparation for my film.
Is there anything can you tell us so far about your next upcoming film?
It is an ode to the past, it’s a musical, and we will see. Hopefully this time next year it will be out and then we can have another conversation.
Is there a film in particular that you are looking forward to seeing?
I like to see all the Arab and Egyptian movies. A friend of mine, Ahmed Abdullah, has a movie coming up called 19b and I’m looking forward to seeing that. Almost all the Arab movies I’m looking forward to seeing them, but the international movies… I can just see them elsewhere.