Running parallel to the conference through the week has been an Arabic film festival, comprising works from Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and North Africa.
Admittedly most frequently drawn into its dark depths by the promise of the most powerful air-conditioning on campus, some of the movies have been compelling (Maid for Sale), tedious (Basra) or oddly fascinating (Help).
By far the best however, is Pomegranates and Myrrh (Al Mor wa al Rumman), a 2009 Ramallah-based film by Najwa Najjar.
While the official blurb provides an idea of the film’s premise, it utterly fails to do it justice:
Ramallah, this decade. A free spirited woman dancer, Kamar, finds herself the wife of a prisoner, Zaid, and away from everything she loves until she returns to the dance, defying society’s taboos. At the dance, Kamar is confronted with Kais, a Palestinian returnee, who has taken Kamar’s role as the head choreographer. Sparks fly between Kamar and Kais, creating a more than passionate, emotional dance for both of them. Matters become even more complicated when Zaid’s sentence is extended.
To read the above would be to believe that it is a love story between two people (Kamar and Kais), with dance providing the backdrop.
This could not be further from the point, for central to Najjar’s piece is the land – indeed, a love-affair with the land, rather than Kais.
For Zaid, the land is worth more than his family, his wife or even his freedom: when Kamar tearfully pleads with him to sign the document that would allow the confiscation of the olive groves to proceed, but guarantee his freedom, he responds: ‘If the land is gone, then all is lost.’
Kamar’s relationship to the land is intrinsically linked to her own emotions: after the final argument with Zaid in jail, she ploughs the land visciously by hand.
Likewise, she dances her frustrations out on the bare soil of the night orchard, kicking up the dust and stones in feverish whirls.
The men, rather, assume a nominal role in the story.
During the Q&A session Najwa stressed the role of women not only in the movie, but in the making of it, with a number of significant positions being enacted by women.
Moreover, it is the mothers who support and guide Kamar, her sister who prompts her to return to dance and the formidable Umm Habib who provides a ballsy scene of rebuke to the IDF soldiers that raises a thousand goosebumps.
Surprisingly, in addition to these wonderfully profound themes Najjar brings the intifada to our midst in the most powerful manner.
The confiscation scene, the threat of the settlers, the futility of their Israeli lawyer and the endless injustice that is administrative detention is heart-breaking.
Pomegranates and Myrrh is quite possibly the best Palestinian movie in years – which makes it all the more irksome that the only copy on Amazon is a Swedish version.
But, should the lucky opportunity arise, do not miss what will be a truly moving and astounding piece of Middle Eastern contemporary cinema.