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Interview with Award Winning Director Najwa Najjar

American University (AU) alumna Najwa Najjar (SOC/MA '91), a Palestinian-Jordanian filmmaker, has an amazing track record that spans fiction and documentary.  Propelled by her passion about both the art of filmmaking and the stories she tells, her films have won many international awards and garnered critical acclaim. Her award-winning debut film "Pomegranates and Myrrh" screened at more than 80 festivals. "Eyes of a Thief" (2014), a thriller, was Palestine's nomination to the Best Foreign film category at the 2015 Academy Awards. AU School of Communication recently spoke to Najjar about her inspiration, her upcoming project, "Son of a Very Important Man," and how her time at AU SOC impacted her as a filmmaker.


School of Communication: How do you decide which stories you want to tell through your films?

Najwa Najjar:  As a woman filmmaker living in a no man's land in Palestine between Ramallah and East Jerusalem – officially Jerusalem but inside the 450km Wall area – and desperate for the end of injustice, and seeing the situation worsening daily with no hope in sight, I started questioning what options are available when blackness surrounds a people, and the air thickens to a point where the mere act of breathing becomes difficult.

I searched for options, read books, watched movies and spoke to people who had faced similar circumstances. I tried to see beyond the land marred with daily violence, walls, electrical fences, checkpoints and land confiscations.

I understood how broken dreams and aspirations can push society to further isolate itself, especially with the world community turning its back on the injustice on the ground. I found myself sinking into despair, uncertainty and rage.  I didn't realize until then how much film and telling stories saved me from drowning in anguish and gave me hope.

I always look(ed) for stories that uncovers the devastation and fruitlessness of violence through one story of the many human stories often overlooked and/or forgotten in any war torn conflicted area.

SOC: Do you prefer the process of making documentaries or feature films?

NN: I worked in documentary after graduating from AU.  It was wonderful to play with image and sound.  To try and tell a story in a different way - different than the TV reportage -  so another perspective is given by the people living it.

But in total honesty, working in fiction seemed to be more of what I wanted to do.  I like taking reality and telling it through fiction.  I like it when fictional characters come to life and almost start to tell the story by themselves.  I found more freedom in playing with themes, characters and settings in fiction.  You can create the set whereby everything says something, the colors of a wardrobe reflects a mood, the angle of the camera can convey something that may have been missed otherwise.

Most of all I enjoy working with actors.  The relationship when you are both trying to find a way to tell the story and reflect the character's inner feelings allows you both to discover many things about yourself.

SOC: Does your work in documentaries influence your feature films or vice versa?

NN:I believe so.  I never made a linear documentary.  My first documentary was "Naim and Wadee'a"(2000) about my grandparents, whom I've never met. The stories of their lives in historic Palestine were the stories we grew up with, and their expulsion in 1948 was our biggest, most painful nightmare.  Because I was so sensitive to my mother and her siblings telling the story - I had to experiment with sound and picture.  One of my aunties refused to be on camera so I only had the voices of the sisters, sometimes arguing, sometimes crying, sometimes not remembering, as they were quite young when they were forced out of their homeland.

This process was in many ways was liberating.  Maybe it allowed me to free my imagination when it came to putting a story together.

I have to say it was difficult when I made that first shift to fiction.  A Spanish filmmaker friend, who was one of six directors, including myself, chosen to make a three minute piece for the European Academy Awards in 2006, put it best when referring to my piece "They Came from the East" as "a fictional piece told in documentary style."

It took me some time to make that transition whereby you are liberated from "documenting" the event, and have the freedom to tell the story in way which engages and captivates .. and entertains without just promoting a reality.  This is not to say that some documentaries do not do just that, sometimes more than fiction, but for me to create an authentic reality whereby the audience can delve in the interiority of the events and into to the character's perspective on the experience while reality unfurls itself in the background, was challenging.

Our latest production "Eyes of a Thief" is inspired by a true event, our first fiction film "Pomegranates and Myrrh" was based on true events taking place around our lives but those events were used in a way to tell another authentic story.

Najwa Najjar

SOC: How is your current project, "Son of a Very Important Man," different from the other features you have made? 

NN: Most of my films, both documentaries and fiction, try to work against the stereotypical image presented of an Arab, Palestinian and Muslim in the mainstream world media -  the image being one immediately equated with "terrorist."  Respectively, I almost always have Christians in my films as there is another stereotype to combat in both the West and the East about the presence of Christians in the Arab World, who are part and parcel of the communities which have existed in the region since the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, Palestine.

I made "A Boy Called Mohammed" (2002) right after 9/11, about a Palestinian camp boy who sells coffee at the Israeli checkpoint of Qalandia.  At the time to be called Mohammed or Osama was the worst name you could have in the U.S.  It was important for me to show, in this documentary, other "Mohammeds."

Living under fire forced me to probe further on how justice, dignity, democracy and self determination, which has been the call of Palestinians for decades, can be achieved when hope of an real peace based on the above tenets was being extinguished.

I worked with different genres to answer the questions in my mind and that surround me.  My first fiction "Pomegranates and Myrrh" (2009) was a romantic drama, "Eyes of a Thief" (2014) a thriller which was Palestine's nomination to the Best Foreign film category at the 2015 Oscars, and now a road movie, "Son of a Very Important Man".

For the latter, now in pre-production, I felt the need to do something different.  I thought a love story about divorce can take me to a place where I can explore another aspect of human relationships.  I focused on the couple on a road trip and drew their emotional journey. 

However, I couldn't completely disassociate myself from the reality around them as the couple drive throughout the whole of the country.  In the back of my mind was the question, "How much did the land around them destroy (or not) their relationship?"

SOC: How did you come to the American University Film program?

NN: I did my BA in political science and economics in the U.S.  I was always incredibly angered by what I found untruths about Palestine, the people, the politics.  I found the media, newspapers and cinema in particular incredibly biased, and I discovered the power of an image.

Instead of complaining, I decided to do something about it.   So I went into film.  I knew I wanted to be in D.C., and in retrospect I didn't want a big school where I wouldn't be able to develop - luckily I came across the Film program in AU, and was fortunate that I had amazing professors especially John Douglass , Glenn Harnden and Pat Aufderheide to support the kind of films I wanted to do, and give me the confidence to find ways to say what I wanted to say through film.

SOC: Are there any AU School of Communication faculty members or classes that continue to influence the way you work?

NN: Both (Film and Media Arts Division Director) John Douglass and Glenn Harden have read my scripts.  For my first fictional film "Pomegranates and Myrrh" - they were my first readers.  I remember waiting for their comments, which after grad school and in the "real" world are not only helpful, but needed.  The world of cinema is not an easy place to break into, especially for us living in extremely conflicted places where film is not a priority given issues of destruction and devastation, and their consequences.  But I clearly remember the rewards when we opened the film at the Kennedy Center - and having John in the audience (Glenn was out of town).  That was a treat!

SOC: Do you have any advice for current film students?

NN: No matter how many doors are closed to you, find another door, if not a window or another.  Persistence and loving the journey will open doors and windows. Take a deep breath and jump - you will come out at the other end.