Threading the Needle: Najwa Najjar’s “Between Heaven and Earth”

14 December, 2020

Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor Ammiel Alcalay reviews writer/director Najwa Naj­jar’s third fea­ture film (after Pome­gran­ates and Myrrh and Eyes of a Thief) recent­ly screened dur­ing the Arab Film and Media Insti­tute’s Arab Film Fest Col­lab. Con­grat­u­la­tions are in order!

Ammiel Alcalay

Films emerg­ing from very par­tic­u­lar and com­plex his­tor­i­cal, polit­i­cal, and cul­tur­al cir­cum­stances often stream­line and some­times even dumb down in order to trav­el to audi­ences out­side the realm of the cognoscen­ti. Direc­tors too sel­dom forge an engag­ing enough plot, charis­mat­ic char­ac­ters, and set­tings poet­ic enough to car­ry all the par­tic­u­lars for­ward to view­ers who sim­ply may not have the tools to grasp what might be at stake.

But Pales­tin­ian direc­tor and writer Najwa Naj­jar bril­liant­ly man­ages to thread this nee­dle in her third fea­ture, Between Heav­en and Earth, now on the fes­ti­val cir­cuit after hav­ing, quite right­ful­ly, won the Naguib Mah­fouz Best Screen­play Award while pre­mier­ing at the 2019 Cairo Inter­na­tion­al Film Fes­ti­val. Osten­si­bly the sto­ry of an estranged but quite inex­tri­ca­bly bound Pales­tin­ian cou­ple try­ing to file for divorce, Between Heav­en and Earth proves to be a fine­ly lay­ered and pro­found med­i­ta­tion on some of the most intractable and mov­ing ele­ments that have gone into what one might sim­ply call the Pales­tin­ian exis­ten­tial con­di­tion. Part road movie, part mys­tery, part thriller, the film uses gener­ic sit­u­a­tions to bur­row more deeply into var­i­ous ways that unten­able con­di­tions can be resist­ed and not become yet more fod­der to explode from with­in the pos­si­bil­i­ties of remain­ing human.

Shad­ow­ing the whole nar­ra­tive is the fact that the couple—because Tamer was born in Beirut—have been liv­ing togeth­er in the occu­pied West Bank, unable to trav­el freely to and from Salma’s fam­i­ly home in Nazareth. It is only when they decide to file for divorce that Tamer is final­ly giv­en per­mis­sion to enter Israel, and it is this jour­ney on which the film’s nar­ra­tive hinges. What makes the film stand out, in addi­tion to superb act­ing, crisp dia­logue, and the con­sis­tent­ly engag­ing visu­al nar­ra­tive, is Naj­jar’s will­ing­ness to push the lim­its of plot and sub­plot, to at least begin the attempt of delin­eat­ing the basic com­plex­i­ties involved in the sit­u­a­tion, even at the risk of occa­sion­al­ly falling back on a stereo­type or two here and there.

Salma, beau­ti­ful­ly played by Mouna Hawa, is a Pales­tin­ian with Israeli cit­i­zen­ship, daugh­ter of a Com­mu­nist activist who errs on the side of his daugh­ter’s free­dom while Salma’s moth­er would rather see her daugh­ter set­tled, bring­ing up a fam­i­ly. Salma’s hus­band Tamer, played to a slow burn by Firas Nass­er, is the son of a Pales­tin­ian cul­tur­al icon and activist assas­si­nat­ed in Beirut, dur­ing one of many Israeli led purges of Pales­tin­ian intel­lec­tu­als. By nam­ing Tamer’s father Ghas­san, Naj­jar obvi­ous­ly hints at Ghas­san Kanafani, the great Pales­tin­ian writer and rev­o­lu­tion­ary assas­si­nat­ed in Beirut in 1972 and whose novel­la Return to Haifa, res­onates through­out the film in var­i­ous ways.

As Tamer finds out that his father had a rela­tion­ship with a some­what mys­te­ri­ous Iraqi Jew­ish woman who had anoth­er son named Tamir, Naj­jar opens up two themes that are far too sel­dom depict­ed any­where: that of the “miss­ing” chil­dren, Arab Jew­ish babies report­ed deceased to their par­ents but actu­al­ly kid­napped and giv­en by the Israeli state for adop­tion to child­less Euro­pean Jews, and the activism of Arab Jews, par­tic­u­lar­ly from Iraq, in the Israeli Com­mu­nist Par­ty. These themes res­onate through­out the film as the cou­ple find parts of their iden­ti­ty sequen­tial­ly con­struct­ed and decon­struct­ed, to the point when they final­ly reach the destroyed vil­lage of Iqrit, the remains of which are still guard­ed over by young Pales­tini­ans. There Tamer sees a memo­r­i­al to his father, hereto­fore unknown to him.

Ghassan Kanafani

Filmed over the course of 24 days, with four arrests of crew-mem­bers, the nar­ra­tive also works because the jour­ney is clear­ly one of dis­cov­ery for the direc­tor as well. As Naj­jar not­ed in an inter­view: “It’s a jour­ney for me, it’s a dis­cov­ery. I have been denied to know Pales­tine and to know the Arab world the way that I want to so each movie that I make is real­ly an explo­ration, I’m try­ing to under­stand some­thing, and I hope that I’m able to com­mu­ni­cate that to audi­ences.” By allow­ing her­self to write through a script depict­ing this process of dis­cov­ery, Naj­jar is able to sig­nif­i­cant­ly up the ante on the kind of detail an audi­ence might be able to assim­i­late. We eager­ly look for­ward to her next direc­to­r­i­al project, Kiss of a Stranger, a musi­cal that she wrote dur­ing lock­down, set dur­ing the gold­en age of Egypt­ian cin­e­ma in the 1930s.

Film reviewIsrael/PalestineNajwa NajjarPalestinian

Poet, translator, critic and scholar Ammiel Alcalay is the author of the classic After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture, from the warring factions, the cairo notebooks and other works. His co-edited A Dove in Free Flight, poems by Faraj Bayrakdar will be out in 2021 from Upset Press, along with a new sequence of poems, Ghost Talk, from Pinsapo Press, and A Bibliography for After Jews and Arabs, from Punctum.