Annemarie Jacir’s Salt of this Sea (2008) is the first full-length feature film by a Palestinian female director. Since its world premier at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, it has toured the world and is scheduled to screen at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York at the end of the month. Originally from Bethlehem, Jacir is a central figure of contemporary Palestinian cinema. In recent years she has established herself as an apt experimental filmmaker with such poignant shorts as like twenty impossibles (2003) and An Explanation (then burn the ashes) (2005), while demonstrating her talents as an exceptional cinematographer in the stunning documentary A Few Crumbs for the Birds (2005), a collaboration with Nassim Amaouche. As a curator she has been instrumental in supporting the work of her colleagues in the global scene, most notably by co-founding Dreams of a Nation, an independent collective that promotes and documents Palestinian filmmaking.
Aspiring to be the first Palestinian “heist film,” the plot of Salt of this Sea focuses on Soraya (Suheir Hammad), a Palestinian woman born in Brooklyn who travels to Ramallah to retrieve the savings her grandfather left in a local bank prior to his expulsion in 1948. Disconcerted and disturbed by the reality she finds in Palestine, Soraya’s frustration quickly turns to indignation after encountering incessant bureaucracy (a byproduct of the occupation) and a bank manager who downplays her insistence on retrieving her grandfather’s funds. With the help of Emad (Saleh Bakri), a charming waiter who anxiously awaits the opportunity to study abroad, and Marwan (Riyad Ideis), a laid-back filmmaker, she devises to rob the bank in order to recover the money. Once their plan is executed they have no choice but to live on the run, heading for Jerusalem before making their way to the coast and arriving at Soraya’s family home in the port-city of Jaffa.
Shortly after their arrival, Soraya finds her grandfather’s home and is invited in by the Israeli woman who now lives there. While she sees remnants of the home her grandfather built, with its ornate tiles that line the floor and old wooden doors, she is confronted with a jarring experience — the space has been completely transformed by an Israeli artist who, although against the occupation, dismisses Soraya’s claims of ownership of the house. The woman is in her late 20s or early 30s, the same age as Soraya, an apparent comment on the disparities between the lives of Palestinians and Israelis. This scenario recalls the real life event of pioneering female painter Tamam al-Akhal who returned to her family home in Jaffa after being expelled in 1948 only to find that an Israeli female artist had converted it into a home/gallery.
After a brief stay in Jaffa and an altercation with the Israeli peacenik occupying her ancestral home, Soraya continues to travel through parts of Palestine otherwise off-limits to the West Bank-based Emad thanks to her American accent, Israeli license plates and Jewish headgear.
In spite of its aspirations, Salt of this Sea is fundamentally a road film. Some of the most dramatic imagery is captured after the bank robbery while the trio travels through Palestinian countryside. Israel’s ever-present wall in the West Bank serves as a star backdrop as the characters head toward Jerusalem, near what appears to be the dissected town of Abu Dis. Emad’s truck is overshadowed by its colossal size while they drive along the seemingly never-ending snaking structure. Other shots of Jaffa’s sea port, lined with its traditional Palestinian stone houses, hint at the glory that once was prior to the arrival of Zionist settlers. Soraya and Emad search for the ruins of old homes and destroyed villages, icons of the Palestinian struggle that evoke the sweeping loss and tragedy of the Nakba.
Throughout the film Soraya’s journey is punctuated by encounters with Israeli checkpoints, soldiers and occupational apparatus. These scenes shape the film’s narrative, providing viewers with some of the regular bouts of harassment and humiliation Palestinians are subjected to. Soraya addresses Israeli forces with contempt and forthrightness, her honesty is at first partially naive, but essentially stems from a matter-of-factness that she presents as a sign of courage and defiance. By the end of the film, Soraya’s idealized vision of Palestine remains but her understanding of its current situation becomes even more embittered when the occupation stands in her way. Eventually finding love and a sense of home, she experiences how vulnerable these basic elements of life are under the conflict.
In many ways the film’s main character represents the Palestinian diaspora, those belonging to generations born outside of Palestine whose parents or grandparents were forced from their homes at some point during the 20th century. Much of this population is deeply tied to its homeland through the stories of older generations and the recreation of Palestine through culture and traditions. This is exemplified by a conversation Soraya has with Emad at the beginning of the film. Her understanding of Palestine is based on notions of memory, heritage and community and she recounts the lives of her grandparents in Jaffa, giving the minutest details of their everyday being and environment. Emad remarks that it is as if she has already been to the seaside town she one day hopes to visit.
Through Emad, Jacir provides some insight into the lives of Palestinian youth, which lie in limbo due to the never-ending restrictions and challenges of the occupation. Displaced from his village and prevented from leaving Ramallah by Israeli forces, he attempts to leave Palestine by applying to study in Canada. Although he is accepted to a university and is to receive a scholarship for his education, his visa is denied for the fourth time. This is a reoccurring experience for countless Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in neighboring Arab countries. Despite these challenges, Emad is level-headed, finding small but significant ways to circumvent the occupation, both logistically and ideologically. This has a profound impact on Soraya who ultimately learns to adapt to her surroundings and attempts to take control of her fate.
Although their stories are compelling, Jacir’s characters are unfortunately underdeveloped. Much of this results from dialogue and scenarios that seem contrived, lacking the fluidity of those seen in her previous film, like twenty impossibles, which also utilized characters to show the varying experiences of Palestinians. This stems from the film’s heavy reliance on traditional symbols of Palestinian determination. Jaffa’s famous oranges, for example, which have been co-opted as produce of Israel, are evoked in several scenes, while Emad’s mother refers to the coastal city as “the bride of the sea,” its pre-1948 Arabic sobriquet. Although these signifiers work to connect with those familiar with local history while introducing international audiences to the wealth of metaphors and symbols that have configured the Palestinian existence, these representations are not always substantiated, resulting in fleeting moments that could have been anchored and contextualized.
In fact, this state of in-betweenness is prevalent throughout the film. Scenes intended to convey the difficulties of the occupation, such as Soraya’s frequent encounters with Israelis, contain unrealistic dialogue, with the Palestinian protagonist straining to espouse slogans that allude to a collective frustration. These slogans and symbols have appeared in Palestinian consciousness for decades and while countless artists and writers have employed them, Jacir’s film would have been better served through the explorations of that which holds the most meaning for Palestinians living under occupation or in Israel. This is not to say that these communities are disconnected from their history but that perhaps new images are needed to reflect contemporary struggles. Jacir’s basic premise is refreshing but because she employs an emblematic language rooted in the past the film stands as a reiteration when it could have been a groundbreaking contribution to contemporary Palestinian visual culture.
Inevitably the viewer is left with a fragmented understanding of Palestine. In the scenes of Ramallah, one learns little about the daily experiences of its residents — particularly the youth, which is the focus of the director’s narrative. Through occasional scenes the viewer learns that oversized and inefficient bureaucracy is a common characteristic of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and is witness to glimpses of Israel’s ever-increasing network of barriers and checkpoints. However, they are rarely brought into the interior space of how Palestinians go about their lives under such difficult conditions.
When Jacir’s lens drifts from her characters and pans out to shots of their surroundings we find disheartening evidence of the toll of the conflict such as when a couple passes their baby over a large metal gate covered in barbed wire as they attempt to navigate a labyrinth of blockades. In another, an opening sequence of Soraya’s arrival into Ramallah shows the lion sculptures of the city’s central square flanked by men, their cocky stances emanating with the universal defiance and swagger of adolescence as they gawk at passing cars. The scene ends with a shot of a young man atop the turnabout’s tall metal structure, wryly questioning the camera’s gaze, as a Palestinian flag waves freely behind him. More of this type of footage and greater attention to it, as opposed to mere seconds of film time, would have grounded the film and subsequently created a better sense of the intimate workings of contemporary Palestinian life.
Maymanah Farhat specializes in modern and contemporary Arab art. Her collected writings can be viewed online at http://maymanahfarhat.wordpress.com.