January 21, 2019

‘Pomegranates’ Director Tackles Tough Issues

Hava Kohav Beller. Photo by Dorothea von Haesften.

In the Near East, the pomegranate has a double meaning. It is the fruit symbolizing rebirth, but in Israeli slang, it means a hand grenade.

While wrestling with these conflicting meanings, the film “In the Land of Pomegranates” takes as its theme from a quote by the Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, “This inhumane world has to become more humane. But how?”

For two hours, two groups of young men and women, one made up of Palestinians, the other Israelis, wrestle with that question.

They have been brought together in a scenic German town for a program called “Vacation From War,” living under the same roof, going on joint excursions in the lovely countryside, taking a riverboat cruise and arguing earnestly for hours on end.

“I am like a mother and all of them [Jews and Arabs] are my children.”— Hava Kohav Beller

The program started in 2002 and, as one of the organizers put it, “Our goal is not to make participants love each other. If only five people change their attitudes … that’s progress.”

Even this modest goal seems unreachable in the film, although it inadvertently clarifies why decades of peacemaking efforts have proven largely fruitless.

Most of the arguments are on the level of “Hamas is a terrorist organization,” as an Israeli participant charges, to which the Palestinian response is, “We are just trying to get back the land you took from us.”

Between debates and excursions, there are vignettes of victims on both sides. One is of an Israeli news photographer, who rides in a public bus blown up by a suicide bomber. The photographer’s post-traumatic stress leads eventually to the breakup of his marriage.

But the largely pessimistic view is brightened by a couple of episodes that bridge the conflicts. One scene shows Palestinians dancing the dabke and Israelis the horah, with both performances almost identical.

In a truly hopeful segment, a Palestinian woman from Gaza takes her severely ill son to the Wolfson Hospital in Israel, where the boy undergoes a complicated operation for free, while the grateful mother is treated with respect and dignity.

The producer, writer, director and fundraiser of “Pomegranates” is Hava Kohav Beller, whose life story is as interesting as the film itself.

Born in the German city of Frankfurt in 1932, one year before Hitler came to power, her family immigrated to Palestine when she was still an infant and settled in a kibbutz in the northern part of the country.

As an adult, she moved to New York to study music, ballet and modern dance at the Juilliard School.

Eventually, she turned to making documentary films. The first, titled “The Restless Conscience” (1992), dealt with internal German resistance to the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945 and was nominated for an Academy Award.

In her second production, “The Burning Wall” (2002), Beller focused on dissent and opposition to the communist regime that ruled East Germany from 1949 to 1989.

Her latest production is “Pomegranates” and it speaks to Beller’s persistence, as well as the laborious task of raising money for an independent production, that each of the three documentaries has taken 10 years to complete.

Now, at 86, Beller is planning her next film, which she expects to complete when she is 96.

Asked if, as a Jew raised in Israel, she could make an objective documentary about so long and bitter a conflict, Beller answered decisively in the affirmative.

“I am like a mother and all of them [Jews and Arabs] are my children. I hug all of them and I care what happens to them,” she asserted. “We are all humans and we are all responsible for each other.”

Even with such an affirmative outlook, Beller is pessimistic about a near-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.

“At this point, I see no ready solution,” she said. “But if the two sides keep talking to each other, maybe someday they will arrive at a way to live with each other.”

“In the Land of Pomegranates” opens March 16 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills. Beller will participate in Q-and-A sessions with the audience during opening-weekend screenings.