Anyone who’s ever wondered why the possibility of peace in the Middle East seems permanently out of reach should watch “In the Land of Pomegranates,” Hava Kohav Beller’s thoughtful, thought-provoking documentary about the bitter Palestinian/Jewish conflict. Beller, an octogenarian who previously earned an Oscar nomination for 1991’s “The Restless Conscience: Resistance to Hitler Within Germany 1933-1945,” spent more than a decade making this new film, and her patience pays off.
The film centers on an ambitious program called “Vacation from War,” in which young people from both sides of the (literal) wall attend a retreat in Germany to talk through the issues dividing the Palestinians and the Jews and attempt to find common ground and understanding. Beller’s camera captures passionate discussion and emotional moments as those in both groups share their feelings — including hope, anger, resentment, fear, and everything in between. It’s clear that meeting “the enemy” in person makes it more difficult to cling to long-held beliefs and prejudices; what’s less clear is whether anything can fully overcome “the seed of hatred” that the retreat organizer says is planted in everyone involved from the earliest age.
In between scenes of the retreat attendees’ exchanges, Beller offers interviews with everyday people whose lives have been indelibly affected by the violence and fear of the ongoing conflict. A worn-out mother raises her children within view (and shooting distance) of patrolling guards in Gaza; a man who survived a terrorist attack on a bus explains how that terrible incident unraveled the rest of his life; a determined Palestinian mother risks everything to get her son the medical attention he needs from Israeli doctors.
The film doesn’t provide any easy answers; there are no easy answers in this case. But what it does offer is reflection and empathy, as well as quiet moments that capture the beauty of a land that has been so cruelly fought over for so long. Bravo to Beller for taking the time to create this complex, multifaceted look at a place that’s so much more than a war zone. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Marilyn Ferdinand: Documentarian Hava Kohav Beller has spent her career turning the spotlight on resistance movements, with The Restless Conscience: Resistance to Hitler Within Germany 1933-1945 (1992) and The Burning Wall (2002), which looks at dissidents in East Germany from after the Second World War to 1989. Now, in In The Land of Pomegranates, she has turned her attention to the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians caught in a seemingly endless cycle of violence and recriminations. Beller takes a 360-degree look at those caught almost literally between a rock and a hard place, including an Israeli woman who moved next to the wall in Gaza thinking she would be out of the conflict zone, only to be plunged deeper into the strife than she thought was possible. An Israeli man injured in a suicide bombing suffers from PTSD, and his life falls apart. Palestinians and Israelis participating in a program called “Vacation from War” go to Germany to try to understand each other’s points of view; it doesn’t go very well. This documentary is informative, impassioned, and despite some heartwarming expressions of humanity, deeply depressing. Nonetheless, the fact that it exists, that dialog somehow continues is a light that we can hope will continue to brighten.
Kristen Page-Kirby: It would be easy to assume In the Land of Pomegranates would be an uplifting, hopeful film, as it deals with Palestinian and Israeli youth meeting and discussing the longstanding conflict between their two peoples. And if it were a narrative film, it might end with hugs and friendships and promises of peace. Instead, Hava Kohav Beller intertwines the “Vacation From War” interactions with the experience of those who don’t have an opportunity for such a break. Such intermingling of footage enables the audience to see exactly what’s at stake for both sides; while the discussions seem to operate in the world of the theoretical, Beller continually reminds the audience that the conflict isn’t theoretical at all, or even particularly political. Instead we see that it is — at least partially, and possibly primarily — personal. So while most of the discussions are polite (if not particularly warm), the audience is left wondering if anyone in the room is actually listening. “In the Land of Pomegranates” doesn’t raise any false hopes about what the “Vacation From War” experience can actually achieve once the vacation ends; in fact, the film seems to wonder if there’s any hope for peace at all.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Filmmaker Hava Kohav Beller’s documentary In the Land of Pomegranates is remarkable, because it explores the seemingly unsolvable Israeli-Palestinian conflict without trying to offer any pat solutions or taking sides. The film is multiple stories in one but focuses mainly on a group of young Israeli and Palestinian adults who meet on neutral ground (in this case, Germany) through a program called “Vacation from War.” The twenty-somethings meet for open and honest dialogue that’s in turns harrowing, hopeful, and heartbreaking, much like the ongoing crisis. News footage and interviews are also interwoven in the conversations, providing much-needed context about how difficult the situation is for both groups to empathize with each other. There are no easy answers, but as one young woman says, there are rare, small flashes of mutual understanding. It’s not enough, but it’s something.
MaryAnn Johanson Hava Kohav Beller lets the voices of ordinary people speak in In the Land of Pomegranates, which makes it an intimate first-hand document of the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict… a conflict that, impossibly, feels even more unsolvable after the pain and the animosity we witness here. There’s a special bravery in that, especially considering that Beller is Israeli herself: she does not let her nation or her people off lightly here, and this could be seen as her personal challenge to her fellow Israelis to be more empathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. Read full review.
Esther Iverem: Even those of us who regularly cover Palestine and the apartheid state of Israel can see and hear something new and powerful in the documentary The Land of Pomegranates. Director Hava Kohav Beller lingers on the beautiful and war-torn landscape, the walls and checkpoints cutting off the lives of Palestinians, the aftermath bus bombings in Tel Aviv, the 2014 catastrophic invasion of Gaza that left it virtually uninhabitable. But it is mostly the voices of everyday people on both sides of the wall that are heard here. More could have been done to be honest about Gaza-the blockade, lack of water or electricity and demolition of homes-but I suppose that would be another movie, one that would give voice primarily to the occupied.
Jennifer Merin The film’s title refers to Gaza, the land where the delicious red fruit grows in abundance and where the name of the fruit is slang for hand grenade. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Hava Kohav Beller’s compelling documentary follows a group of young Israelis and Palestinians who travel together to German to participate in the ‘Vacation From War’ retreat where they live under the same roof and encounter each other daily to discuss the cultural mythologies, divisive ideologies, mutual distrust and singular grievances that have lead to perpetual unrest and violence in their homeland. The intensity of their moderated group confrontations, indicative of the depth of their cultural and political divide, is underscored by interwoven Gaza-shot footage that reveals the stressful lives of local residents: an Israeli mother who fears for her young children’s safety, a Palestinian woman who braves border crossings for her young son’s treatment by an Israeli cardiologist, an Israeli survivor of a suicide bombing and a Palestinian who reenters society after being released from an Israeli prison. The debate and stories all add up to the very convincing message that dialog is the only road to peace in the Middle East, and that there’s still a very long journey ahead to reach that destination.
Cate Marquis The conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis is one of the intractable conflicts of the world. Even naming the country is fraught with emotion. If you say Israel, Palestinians object, and if you say Palestine, Israelis protest. Finding a path to peace is very rocky going. Director Hava Kohav Beller’s In The Land of Pomegranates examines that conflict in a human and evenhanded way, though the voices and experiences of people on both sides. The documentary’s title refers to Gaza, an area known for growing pomegranates. Pomegranates are considered a symbol of rebirth but “pomegranate” is also slang for a hand grenade. Read full review
Title: In the Land of Pomegranates
Directors: Hava Kohav Beller
Release Date: January 5, 2018 in NYC, March 16, 2018 in LA
Running Time: 120 minutes
Language: Hebrew and Arabic, with English subtitles
Distribution Company: First Run Feature
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferinand, Cynthia Fuchs, Pam Grady, Esther Iverem, MaryAnn Johanson, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Kristen Page-Kirby, Moira Sullivan, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf
Edited by Jennifer Merin