This is the story of a young Palestinian couple who were once in love and are now trying to get a divorce. It would be a simple story had they not lived under Israeli military occupation. The movie, “Between Heaven and Earth”, was shown this month in Dubai’s arthouse Cinema Akil and filmmaker Najwa Najjar agreed to give us an exclusive interview to speak about the making of her film.
Actors Mouna Hawa and Firas Nassar play the roles of a middle-class Palestinian couple, Salma and Tamer, who decide to get a divorce after five years of marriage. Things get complicated when the Israeli court requires some official documents that turn out rather difficult to provide. The couple has to travel from Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank to the Golan Heights, an area captured from Syria in 1967 and has since been annexed by the Jewish state. Their journey to get the required documents gets even more complicated after they discover some painful secrets about Tamer’s father.
Najjar says her film was inspired by conversations she had at a Palestinian falafel restaurant, where the owner was talking about his son guarding the church in the village of Iqrit in northern Israel. She had never heard of Iqrit and decided to travel there. Iqrit’s mainly Christian residents were expelled by the Israelis from their village in 1948, and the village became famous in 1952 after the Israeli Supreme Court approved a petition by its inhabitants to go back to their homes. But the Israeli forces then decided to destroy the whole village, except for the church. It was the only time such a petition by Palestinians seeking to return home had gotten the approval of an Israeli court.
“That’s how the whole inspiration came about, so we started this road movie throughout historic Palestine and it was a discovery for me as well,” says the 48-year-old Palestinian-Jordanian filmmaker and producer. “So many lives have been destroyed and many stories have been forgotten.”
Among the crew of the film were about 30 Palestinians from Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel. Military checkpoints and restrictions made the making of the film “very tricky”, says Najjar. “We had to sometimes double the crew and have an additional one come in from different places.”
“We did face challenges getting into some areas like Haifa, Rafa Al Nasri, and Jizr al Zarqaa,” she says. In Ras al Naqoura, at the border with Lebanon, the Israeli authorization to film there was quite difficult to get. “Luckily we did get it, but half an hour before we started shooting, we got a decision that we were not allowed to shoot,” recalls the filmmaker. The crew already knew that they may be facing this. “Regardless, we went in with the actors and the cameraman without breaking any rules, shot what we needed to shoot and we left.”
Four people from the crew were arrested, “including our makeup girl, because she was not allowed inside the occupied territories” by the Israelis, she says. The makeup artist had insisted to make it to the scene, but unfortunately she got arrested the last day of the shooting, she says.
The assistant production manager was jailed until the last day of the shooting for having in his possession guns used for the film, despite the fact that he had permits for these, according to Najjar.
With this film, after “Pomegranates and Myrrh” and “Eyes of a Thief”, Najjar filmed a story of love, injustice and forgiveness — a reflection of many Palestinians’ history. “A journey is an understanding and if characters don’t change within the journey then the journey did not go in any way.”