When I Saw You, the second feature film by leading Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir (Salt of this Sea), centers on an 11-year-old boy who has been exiled to Jordan along with his mother in the wake of the 1967 War and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Rejecting the situation, young Tarek sets off from the refugee camp back to Palestine on his own, but is picked up and taken in by a group of fedayeen — the young, idealist fighters who were ready to sacrifice their lives to liberate Palestine in the ’60s and ’70s.
When I Saw You was screened during the sold-out opening night of the Chicago Palestine Film Festival earlier this month, where Jacir was present. I sat down with the director, who told me that she made a hopeful film despite her deep depression, how she put her actors through military training, and described the lengthy search to find the young star of her film. The following transcript was edited for length.
Maureen Clare Murphy: Let’s start with the particular moment in history in which your film is set, in the wake of the second mass expulsion of Palestinians, when the Palestinian armed liberation movement was on the ascendance. What compelled you to tell a story about this very particular moment in Palestinian history?
Annemarie Jacir: I wanted to do something about this period that is so key to our history, but I haven’t seen a lot of fiction work about — all the hopefulness that surrounded that period, when Palestinians felt they had more agency in their own lives, that they could do something. The feda’i [fedayeen], they were people who were volunteering, they were people who thought this was a possibility. Though it was after the Naksa [the 1967 occupation and expulsion] and the trauma of that, there was still this feeling of hope.
Tarek is not politicized — he just wants to get back home. In the refugee camp, they’ve recorded their names, they’re waiting, they believe something eventually will work out and those people will go home. Of course we know today [the refugees are] still in the camps. But Tarek moves beyond that. He won’t wait, it doesn’t make sense to him. So he rejects it, and refuses to be a refugee. And at some point the story is about him moving beyond the feda’i, too. It’s a romantic vision of the group and it’s from Tarek’s point of view, but at the same time we get a sense of the tension, this inner conflict and contradiction developing … we know later some of those groups will go more left, some will go more right, things will change. Tarek doesn’t get caught up in any of that … he stays clear on his goal.
For me, it’s maybe a question I have for that generation: what happened? Why didn’t they stay like Tarek?
MCM: I’m struck by how your film, similar to Elia Suleiman’s The Time that Remains, pays homage to a previous generation of Palestinians. So I wonder if this is a response to the current political stagnation, that you wanted to go back to a more innocent time in Palestinian history, or a more hopeful time?
AJ: I do want to pay homage to them [the feda’i]. The film refers to specific Palestinian films from that time period, photographs and even writings. And I didn’t want to shy away from being romantic about it, too. I have questions for them, but I also really respect what they were doing. They were young, idealistic people that dreamed of a better world. And they were not just Palestinians, they were from other parts of the Arab world, they were from Europe, they were from China, they were from all over the place — it was an international movement. And why not as Palestinian filmmakers be romantic about that? Some people say, how can you be romantic about these fighters? But why do they accept being romantic about Che Guevara? When it’s about him it’s ok, but when it’s about our guys, it’s not OK.
MCM: This might be the first film that I’ve seen that had a military trainer in the credits.
AJ: Did you notice Leila Khaled in the credits?
MCM: That did not escape my attention. Was there any tension between wanting to be authentic to that experience but not wanting to constrain your story?
AJ: Research was so key, especially since I didn’t live that period. So there’s all the visual research we did and then [the actors] had to know how to hold Kalashnikovs. So I made them go through military training before we shot. There’s nothing in the film that wasn’t selected and thought about and discussed in terms of art, costume, everything. But at the same time, it’s a fiction film, it’s not a documentary. The film begins in 1967, we don’t see them [the refugees] leaving their village and on the road. It’s not a documentary to explain what’s happening politically or historically.
MCM: Palestine is often represented as the fertile motherland but in your film you have the absent father figure who is the metaphor for Palestine, the lost homeland. And it’s Tarek and his mother who have agency. Were you consciously upending gendered representations of Palestine?
AJ: I can’t say it was conscious but that’s true. Also in terms of gender, I am aware of the fact that women were much more active during that period — the men and women training together, you wouldn’t find that today. Women have been really marginalized and left out of the Palestinian political process and they weren’t at that point, they were part of it.
MCM: Both of your feature films seem to have return at the heart. When you were filming your first feature, Salt of this Sea, you were banned by Israel from entering Palestine. How does this constrain you as a filmmaker, and did the fact that you weren’t able to film in Palestine affect your artistic decision-making?
AJ: Absolutely. When I Saw You came after I was denied entry and I was really depressed. When I made Salt of this Sea, which is about the reality of Palestine today — I wasn’t depressed when I made it, but it’s a depressing reality. And this film was the opposite. I was in deep depression for at least a year and I was trying to figure out a way to do something. I found myself in the position of most Palestinians in the world, who cannot get to Palestine, which is 75 percent of us. I always had the privilege to go back and forth before. So suddenly I was standing there like Tarek, looking at Palestine [from Jordan].
The first time I was denied entry and I was in Europe, I was editing, doing post-production of Salt of this Sea. It was really hard, but it really hit me when I came to Jordan and I was even closer to Palestine. So I wanted to do something positive with it, and this hopeful character Tarek came out of that. He keeps getting kicked down and he just pops up again and again.
When I wrote When I Saw You, it was before all the Arab revolutions, and I think I was looking for a break, the situation had to change. But think about it now, I think everybody in the Arab world was looking to do something — I did it the way I knew how to do it, which is through film. Other people went down to the streets to protest. I think it’s all related. Something had to break and people were looking to do that in their own way.
MCM: The performances of Tarek and Ghaydaa were really brilliant, and it’s the mother and the son who really carry the story. How did you find your Tarek?
AJ: We did a huge casting search and saw about 200 kids. We searched all over Jordan in refugee camps, schools, community centers, drama classes, and by word of mouth. And then I met him. Mahmoud Asfa’s from Irbid refugee camp in northern Jordan. And from the beginning [Mahmoud] was fantastic. He had these beautiful, amazing eyes — his eyes are so sad when he’s not smiling, they’re completely heartbreaking. And when he smiles, he’s like the sun — he’s incredible.
And he’s so different than other boys. I wrote a character that isn’t really like kids today at all. He’s not self-conscious; he’s really open. And boys, I discovered, are already self-conscious at that age. They’re trying to be cool, they’re trying to be grown up. And it was [Mahmoud’s] first time acting. We worked together for about four or five months before shooting, just improvising with him, doing all kinds of acting exercises and techniques with him.
Ruba Blal, who plays the mother, I had seen her act before. In Tawfik Abu Wael’s film Atash, if you remember, she’s the daughter who’s sort of locked up. I never forgot her performance, so she was in my mind as someone who I wanted to work with. But I had to find Tarek first because he really carries the film. So once I cast him, I brought them together to see how they clicked, and they completely clicked, and she was really great.
MCM: In the beginning scenes especially, there’s a huge number of extras and you create a whole refugee camp. So how was that experience? How did you pull that off?
AJ: Yeah, we built that. The budget was half of what we needed and I was really nervous because it’s a period piece, so if the budget is low and it looks cheap, that’s not good. In all my other films I used real locations; this was the first film that I actually built a set.
MCM: There’s one scene where man in the refugee camp just looks at Ghaydaa, the mother, and you know he’s telling her where her runaway son Tarek is. That was just brilliant in itself. So how did you bring together this whole community of people?
AJ: It’s probably the first film where worked with so many extras, too. That guy, because his face was so important, though he doesn’t have any speaking lines, that was somebody we cast. I saw a lot of actors for that. And the other extras were a mix of people from around the villages of the area where we were shooting, or people who heard about the film and wanted to participate in some way.
In the food line [scene in the refugee camp] when [Tarek] gets served the mulukhiya [a stew] and he doesn’t want to eat it because it’s slimy, there’s a woman in front of him, a woman in her seventies. She got so caught up in the shooting, we were doing that shot over and over again — and I really noticed her because she was so unlike the other extras. It turned out that she grew up in one of the camps in Jordan and she really imagined she was in line getting food.
The guys who played the fighters, I cast them because they looked good, they had long hair, they looked the part. And later I found out that a lot of them were children of the fighters.
MCM: Music plays a prominent role in your film, and there is a sublime scene in which the fedayeen are sitting around a fire and a young woman fighter begins singing a poem that is laden with mourning and longing.
AJ: That song — it’s long and compared to the narrative of the film, it’s almost like a pause. I just wanted to take time there and hear her voice and just be with the rhythm of the night, and take time with each one of them, these faces [of the fighters] that we never get to see.
I didn’t let any of the actors read the script. None of them, including [Mahmoud], Ruba — none of them had access to the script. I wanted to do military training instead; I wanted them to build relationships. I had all the feda’i sleeping in the forest for several days and camp out there and really get a feel for the place.
Ruba Shamshoum is the woman who sings [in that scene]. She never read the script and if you notice in the film, it’s about this rebirth of Palestinian nationalism. So there’s a lot of scenes that begin with either red, black or green [the colors of the Palestinian flag]. Like the mother sewing [in the beginning], it’s with a white thread, Tarek brushing his mother’s black hair — it’s a repetition in the film.
And I just said to Ruba, here’s the scene, you guys are just sitting around and I want a song and I gave her the mood of the song, nothing more than that. And she went and wrote that song, which is so beautiful and so intense. And the song is about colors — the red of the poppies, the green of cactus, the black of the night.
MCM: Do you have to keep two audiences in mind when you make films — one that knows about Palestine and one that doesn’t?
AJ: My first audience is a Palestinian audience. We have to make work for each other, to criticize each other. It’s a dialogue to our community, within our community. Like Ossama [Jacir’s husband, producer Ossama Bawardi] said at the screening yesterday, everybody was laughing — most everybody in [the audience] were Palestinian or knew about Palestine and he was like, you really make films for Palestinians. It was so great to hear people laughing when they were supposed to laugh; it’s nice to have your film read the way you intended it to be read. But I don’t want to limit that, either. I have to have a wider audience than that. But I think when you’re specific and you’re honest, you naturally have a wider audience.
When I Saw You opens the Houston Palestine Film Festival on 10 May and will screen in festivals in Seattle, Los Angeles, Melbourne, Belgium and Iraq in May-June, dates TBA, opens in cinemas in Jordan on 12 June and will screen in Nablus, Jenin, Ramallah and Nazareth starting in July. For more information, visit whenisawyou.com and its Facebook page.
All images courtesy of Philistine Films/Lamma Shoftak LLC.