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Baby Steps To Freedom: Palestinian Filmmaker Najwa Najjar And The Power Of Cinema

Baby Steps To Freedom: Palestinian Filmmaker Najwa Najjar And The Power Of Cinema

Published March 1, 2015

“These are the darkest times for Palestine and I think it may get worse.” Filmmaker Najwa Najjar, rather like her movies, goes straight to the point. She visited Iceland for the Stockfish Film Festival, where her film Eyes Of A Thief was shown, a Palestinian/Icelandic/Algerian/French co-production. She was partially raised in Saudi-Arabia, a country where cinemas are banned.

Did this influence your decision to become a film maker?

“Although I was exposed to mostly Hollywood films until I did my studies in film I understood the power of cinema and image. Our narrative was non-existent. We were absolutely demonized as Palestinians, Arabs both Muslim and Christian. We are largely seen through Israeli films or Hollywood movies from Exodus and onwards, where we are put in the position of perpetrators. When a lie is put on the screen, many people tend to believe it as the truth.

So for me the solution was to put an alternative narrative out there. Stories told by us about us. Eyes Of A Thief, for example, is about a father with a dangerous secret searching for his daughter. Arab men have been painted as monsters, and the men around me are not like that—the men in my films reflect this. We are fighting lies and half-truths, but in order to counter what have become stereotypes we have to make sure our own films are widely distributed.”

Najwa’s first feature film was Pomegranates And Myrrh from 2009, which also dealt with life in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

“Often you feel obligated to address the situation and what is happening around us, as so few films come out of Palestine. I suppose it would be difficult just to make just a love story when here isn’t any real justice on the ground. But I’m definitely very interested in showing our world in different ways cinematically. People have been trained to think that every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism, but the Palestinians are Semites as well. We had nothing to do with the displacement of the Jews by the Nazis.”

Eyes Of A Thief was inspired by a true story?

“Yes, there was a Palestinian man who used his grandfather’s old rifle to shoot Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint suffocating the whole Occupied Palestinian Territory during the second Palestinian Intifada. He spared an Israeli female settler and her daughter passing through at the time. The settler woman later argued in court that the shooter should not be tried as a terrorist but as a prisoner of war, as he did not kill Israeli settlers even on Palestinian Occupied Land.”

The movie is also about some of the consequences of day to day occupation…

“Occupiers try to influence who the leaders of the subjugated people are, so collaborators appear. They are the ones people turn to if they need medicine for their sick child, for example, since they have connections to the occupying power. The majority of people can‘t move outside their towns and villages, as there are 620 checkpoints around the West Bank that control the movement of Palestinians. Ramallah [a city of roughly 180,000, and the administrative capital of Palestine] has one checkpoint where we can enter and exit. Collective punishment by closing the one checkpoint for all the Palestinians can be enforced for the smallest of reasons. It is a prison, with Bantustan-like cities scattered throughout the West Bank. The hardest thing is to maintain your dignity every day.”

One of the issues addressed in the film is the struggle over water….

“Water is controlled by Israel. They can dig deep to access the aquifers under the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and then limited amounts of that water is sold back to us. Access to water and natural resources are the basis of any state building. However, the Israelis are building settlements on top our Palestinian resources such as water and oil, and consequently depriving us of any possibility for state building.”

The film has attracted some criticism for its use of violence?

“I wanted to explore what happens when there is no hope under Occupation—what is resistance? When non-violence fails, do people turn to violence? How far do we go for our children? Is what they say that “one man‘s freedom fighter is another man‘s terrorist” true? It is only when the real issues on the ground are discussed that there can be an understanding of what is needed to achieve a just peace.”

How has the film been received?

”Screenings everywhere have been sold out, and many articles have been written on the film, which is an indication that people are thirsty to see another Palestinian narrative. We won best director at the Kolkata IFF and best actor at the Cairo IFF, which was a first for an Egyptian actor… and in a Palestinian film! Eyes Of A Thief was also the Palestinian contender for nomination to the best foreign language film category at the Oscars.”

I understand that the leading actor, Khaled Abol Naga, is one of Egypt’s biggest actors?

“Yes, he was also one of the most outspoken people in the Arab Spring. I didn‘t want just an actor, but someone who had beliefs and took a stand.”

How has the Arab Spring affected the situation in Palestine?

“Due to the settlements, independence is now technically impossible. There are no negotiations, Israel feels that is in such a strong position that it doesn’t need to reach an agreement or to compromise.”

Is there any cause for hope in the future?

“As long as there are Palestinian women, children and men, there is hope. Even though there are now 70,000 Palestinians without homes in Gaza, and even though over 2,500 civilians were killed less than six months ago. But you can’t get rid of 11 million Palestinians. Palestinians will continue to try and build their societies, work, have a voice and in the end change the narrative which has worked against us. Iceland has been very supportive and our hopes are that what happens in the Occupied Palestinian Territory is both a community responsibility and a world responsibility. People are starting to speak out. Hopefully baby steps will become bigger steps.”

The Stockfish Film Festival is currently ongoing at Bíó Paradís. But hurry, today is the last day!


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