In the most hopeful story recounted by In the Land of Pomegranates, a mother takes her young son from the Gaza Strip to an Israeli hospital for repair of a potentially fatal heart blockage. But no other hearts are mended in Hava Kohav Beller's documentary, whose centerpiece is an encounter session between 20-something Israelis and Palestinians in Germany, the historically fraught land of the director's birth.
The New York-based Beller is a dancer and choreographer who turned to filmmaking with 1992's The Restless Conscience, an account of German resistance to Hitler. Where that study had the benefit of historical perspective, Pomegranates covers recent events, and also enters the realm of myth. It opens with an audio montage of voices from the region, the first of which says, "This land is promised to us in the Torah." Such convictions don't allow for much nuanced give-and-take.
In addition to the boy with the heart defect and his mother, Beller introduces three other representative figures: The Israeli woman who lives with her kids and cats within range of mortars fired from Gaza. The Israeli man whose life and marriage were convulsed by PTSD after he was wounded in the suicide bombing of a bus. The older Palestinian man, a veteran of Israeli jails, who says "the Jews are the ones who are imprisoned, not me."
Beller includes a few historical flashbacks and the occasional random Israeli-Palestinian clash in Pomegranates, whose title is never explained in the film. (A press release notes that while the fruit symbolizes rebirth, its name is local slang for hand grenade.) But the bulk of the movie observes conversations during a 2007 "vacation from war" in a scenic small town near the Rhine. (The director is known for working on her films for years, and this one took at least a decade.)
The talk proceeds in a jumble of Hebrew, Arabic, and English, with no apparent guidance. There must have been facilitators and translators, but the movie doesn't show them.
One field trip takes the participants, who include an Israeli army veteran and a Palestinian manager of a McDonald's, to a former Gestapo torture facility. Afterwards, the visitors can't even agree on the significance of the Holocaust. To the Israelis, it justifies the existence of Israel. But the Palestinians insist that what's happening to them now is worse than the near-extermination of Europe's Jews.
On an individual level, it's a disagreement that can't be settled. The depiction of the impasse is both Pomegranates' strength and weakness. It's a bit tiresome to spend so much time with the young people's dialogue, since it's clear that it won't lead to any sort of breakthrough. Narratively, the story of the boy's heart surgery is much more satisfying. It has a setup, a resolution, and even an epilogue.
But the inconclusive discourse is more telling. If watching it is frustrating, so is the larger process of seeking understanding, or at least a nonviolent mutual tolerance. In the Land of Pomegranates doesn't, and can't, show how such modest advances might be achieved. The young Israelis and Palestinians' vacation from war is merely physical, not emotional.