Review by C.J. Bunce
For those who think that solving the rift between Palestine and Israel can be mediated, a new documentary illustrates clearly why that may not be the case. Oscar-nominated, 85-year-old filmmaker Hava Kohav Beller films a group of young men and women students from both sides of the centuries’ old conflict at the seventh year of a “Vacation from War” retreat as part of her new documentary In the Land of Pomegranates. Her film is both a hopeful and a hopeless look at life today in a world where terrorism is a weekly experience. The pomegranates in the title are symbolic of the frequent grenades and bombings in Israel, Palestine, and the Occupied Territories.
Shuffled among the student discussions are glimpses into the lives of others on both sides, back home. We meet the leader of the “Vacation from War,” Mohammed Joudeh, a 50-year-old Palestinian and former prisoner trying to change the world for the better through constructive dialogue. Another story looks to a Palestinian woman bringing her son across the border to an Israeli doctor for a dangerous heart surgery–the doctor, of course, having no care for the ethnicity of the child whose life he saves. The boy leaves to go home angry as any kid in the hospital might be. Will he ever acknowledge how someone viewed as being from the “enemy” saved his life? Another story follows an Israeli survivor of a suicide bombing, whose post-traumatic stress disorder renders him unable to function as a normal person, and ultimately his family splits apart. The other story follows an Israeli woman who escapes to Tel Aviv from her house near the wall at Gaza when a tunnel is found nearby, and later returns to her home. Her kids tell about sending Chinese lanterns over the wall, and imagine were someone to send them back they would either include signs of peace or warnings of more bombs. The kids call the bombs and nightmares “routine,” yet view their lives as good. In the end the war continues. Rockets are fired. New reports shows bombs and destruction. A dead child lies bloody and dead in his father’s hands–the side he is from does not matter.
Audiences can’t help being hopeful for the students in the film. This is the next generation of leaders of these nations. The young men and women who travel to neutral ground in Germany for the retreat look like any group of students from any school, eager, wide-eyed, and optimistic. But the intransigence and impasse we see once they face each other reveals what everyone knows: Nobody has a solution, least of all these kids. As with any group of students, as they begin their discussions what really comes through are the echoes of their parents and their parents’ beliefs. The baggage of decades of war and dissonance between these groups can’t be ironed out among the young, and where the audience may be hopeful of anyone with words of peace, it doesn’t really happen. Viewers may find themselves struggling with these kids’ words and those off-camera leaders running the sessions–why put the students on opposite sides of the room? Why not sit them in a circle alternating Israeli and Palestinian? Or would they not agree to that? Both sides’ reactions to a visit to a Holocaust museum accentuate the vitriol between the two groups: The Palestinian students claim they experience worse conditions from Israel on a daily basis than the others’ ancestors who faced the Holocaust. The Israeli students are offended even at the idea. A conversation where an Israeli student asks for acknowledgement from the Palestinian students of the existence of Israel is only answered with questions. Frustration is in everyone’s faces.
Communication, the very words used by the students, is also an issue. All of the comments must be translated by an intermediary, and the translations may or may not be the actual words the students are saying–the subtitles in English use words that are easily subject to interpretation. This is exactly the kind of conflict and situation where single words used imprecisely can have fiery connotations. Age-old rhetoric gets in the way as the questions asked by each side are predictable and the answers from the other side are also predictable, with each side baiting the other with trigger words that only further divide them. But certainly the “Vacation from War” must have the right idea, and who could argue with the good intentions? Afterward one young woman from Israel recounted her experience with one of the young men from the Palestinian group in the Holocaust museum that provided the only glimpse at hope from the students in the film: both acknowledging a simple, fleeting, shared moment of sadness at the events of the past.
For Western viewers the commonality of these peoples is striking. Doctors wearing faded Levi’s. Kitchens that look exactly like kitchens here. Homes and people watering plants like they do here. Kids screaming for candy like they do here. Kids playing basketball in the street with their dog. Cats sitting on counters acting like they own the place. People trying to work and play without fear.
Beller’s documentary is a smartly choreographed snapshot of the region and its conflicts, highlighting some of the disagreements between the factions. Beller does not try to create any false optimism, but leaves the subjects to speak for themselves and reflect the darker reality. The cinematography is superb. Her imagery of locations, where bombs are not falling, of the homes and countryside are gorgeous and pastoral. It is the land that the participants are all focused on, and the views of the towns and rural areas make it easy to see what they are fighting for.
In the Land of the Pomegranates is now in limited release in New York City, expanding to Los Angeles and other U.S. cities in March.