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CAIRO 2019

Review: Between Heaven and Earth

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- The private becomes political in Najwa Najjar’s interesting third film, as the writer-director takes a deeper look at complicated relationships in the Middle East

Review: Between Heaven and Earth
Firas Nassar and Mouna Hawa in Between Heaven and Earth

Their divorce is shaping up to be fast, clean and easy. The biggest difficulty in Salma and Tamer’s case seems not to be the division of assets or doing their dirty laundry in public, but rather crossing the Israeli border. They have been living in Palestine for five years but need to get to Salma’s motherland to get their business done and dusted. Luckily, Tamer gets a three-day pass, but when the soon-to-be-former couple reaches court, things get complicated. The information regarding Tamer’s late father doesn’t check out. He was a famous writer and activist, killed decades ago, but according to the Israeli database, he is still alive and has a son – called Tamir, not Tamer. In order to sort this mess out, they need to find the father’s former lover, who was apparently a fortune teller, on top of being an Iraqi Jew. Granted a 72-hour extension, they eventually set off on a journey through a land bristling with tension, where the Arab-Jewish relationship is civil for the time being, but always on the verge of erupting.

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In Between Heaven and Earth, which has very aptly had its world premiere at the 41st Cairo Film Festival, writer-director Najwa Najjar puts obstacles in Salma and Tamer’s way: an annoying French couple who have a love-hate relationship, a single Israeli woman who takes them in for the night, and a wedding party. Najjar uses them as a way for the protagonists to see things that they had previously ignored or were unaware of, which helps the audience connect with them and follow their emotional journey. Between Heaven and Earth is more than a road movie in the literal sense, and strikes a good balance between the personal story and the political context.

A couple who are going through a divorce but who realise that they still have things in common and are hanging onto some mutual affection is a clear and effective metaphor for the conflict in the Middle East, at least in terms of the way it is presented in the film: away from the politics, squabbles and attacks. Salma and Tamer are middle-class and approaching middle age, but most of all, they are tired and weary. They want to split and live the rest of their lives in peace. For the man, this won’t be possible until he confronts his painful past, admits the trauma he’s been through and starts the healing process. The conflict between Salma and Tamer may sound a little bit clichéd, but it pulsates with an authentic energy, and for this, much credit must be given to the actors, Mouna Hawa and Firas Nassar. Najjar’s storytelling is engaging and clear, even though there are sometimes too many political details that may confuse an audience not au fait with recent Middle Eastern history.

Between Heaven and Earth is the third film by Najwa Najjar, and her previous one, Eyes of a Thief, was the Palestinian Oscar entry in 2015. The film is a joint effort between Palestine, Iceland and Luxembourg, and it was presented during Cairo Film Connection in 2015. Hani Kort, Adrien Chef, Paul Thiltges and Fahad Jabali served as producers, while the production companies involved were Ustura Films, PTD Studio and Oktober Films. The world sales rights are up for grabs.

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