By turns edifying and frustrating, Hava Kohav Beller’s “In the Land of Pomegranates” focuses on an annual gathering in Germany known as Vacation From War, an event designed to make young Israeli and Palestinian attendees view each other as human beings rather than mortal enemies as they reside under the same roof and interact for several days. Unfortunately, by the end of this meandering yet fascinating documentary, viewers are left with the impression that such attempts to bridge gaps and heal wounds, however well-intentioned, will have, at best, extremely limited success.
Indeed, even Mohammad Joudeh, host and on-camera spokesperson for the gathering, appears to harbor few illusions about its efficacy. “Our goal is not to make people love each other,” he says. On the other hand, he adds, “If only five out of the 60 participants from each side experience a change, I would be happy.”
Trouble is, as Beller follows the often heated interplay between the twentysomethings at the 2007 Vacation From War, viewers are forced to consider the possibility that Joudeh won’t remember this particular edition of the program (then in its seventh year) as an especially fulfilling one. Even before the bus transporting the attendees reaches the German town of Walberberg, we hear off-camera voices — presumably those of the passengers; the film often is fuzzy about such details — staking contradictory claims to a divided land that, depending on your point of view, was promised to Jews in the Torah, or illegally seized by Israeli occupiers.
The actual conversations that ensue at the gathering reflect a similar rigidity in outlook — although, ironically, there is a welcome hint at the possibility of détente when that rigidity is bluntly addressed. One young Israeli warns that the seemingly endless cycle of attacks and counterattacks, terrorist acts and brutal reprisals, will continue unabated as long as both sides are unable to develop something like trust. “If we stop,” he says, “we’ll always fear you’ll start. If you stop, you’ll always fear we’ll start. I mean, we are stuck in a hole of crazy paranoia.”
Beller, a German-born and Israeli-reared filmmaker who lives and works in New York, first attracted attention in 1992 with “The Restless Conscience,” her remarkable Oscar-nominated documentary about German resistance to Hitler throughout the nightmare years of the Third Reich. In this film, however, she doesn’t deal in the stark blacks and whites of historical record, but instead strives to be an honest broker while carefully weighing opposing views and charting seemingly insurmountable divides. Almost inevitably, “In the Land of Pomegranates” — the title refers to both a delectable fruit and Israeli slang for hand grenades — is far less satisfying on an emotional level, even as it arguably is more intellectually challenging.
For many viewers, Beller’s film actually will be most compelling during those stretches when she cuts away from the often hostile give-and-take at the Vacation From War conference, and spends quality time with other individuals affected by the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We are introduced to an indomitable Israeli mother who lives in the shadow of the Gaza wall, and an equally strong-willed Palestinian mom who makes regular border crossings with her son so his heart ailment can be treated by an Israeli doctor.
And then there is Shabtai Penso, also known as Chepsi, a middle-aged Israeli news cameraman left stricken with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after surviving the sort of suicide bombing he once routinely covered as part of his job. That he manages, with the loving help of his wife, Nira, to find a way to salve his psychological wounds is one of the relatively few hopeful signs on view in the landscape of “Pomegranates.”