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Film Review: When I Saw You

Award-winning film by Annemarie Jacir poignantly examines exile and occupation, when the 1967 Naksa forces a young mother and her son to contemplate a lifetime of exile in Jordan

Dale Hudson, Wednesday 3 Apr 2013
When I Saw You
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Lamma Shoftak [When I Saw You]. Directed by Annemarie Jacir. Jordan-Palestine-UAE-Greece, 2012.

Annemarie Jacir’s Lamma Shoftak/When I Saw You extends her examination of exile and occupation begun in her début feature Milh Hadha al-Bahr [Salt of This Sea] (2008), as well as her earlier shorts and documentaries. Salt of This Sea takes the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe) as a moment of collective trauma through which Soraya (Suheir Hammad), a young Palestinian American woman from Brooklyn (and Jaffa), attempts to recover her dignity sixty years after her grandparents became refugees.

When I Saw You takes the 1967 Naksa (setback), when Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights, Sinai, and East Jerusalem, as another collective trauma for which a young mother, Ghaydaa (Ruba Blal), and her son, Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa), must contemplate a lifetime of exile in Jordan.

Although Tarek’s impatience and frustration sometimes resemble Soraya’s experiences in Salt of This Sea, his unwavering hope also produces ways for understanding exile, even during one of the most traumatic moments in Palestinian history. If 1967 marked the disappearance of Palestine from many geopolitical maps, When I Saw You reminds us that 1967 also marked a moment when anticolonial and civil-rights movements around the world brought hope to Palestinians, as well as to non-Palestinians who had supported Palestine’s struggle for statehood since its partition under UN Resolution 181 in 1947.

The film’s story unfolds during a moment of mobilization by the fedayeen, as seen from the point of view of a child who does not understand the abstract logic of borders and the uneven restrictions placed upon movement across them. It is challenging for any filmmaker, especially one whose family was dispossessed in 1967, to represent the fedayeen. Apart from images in foreign films like the Groupe Dziga-Vertov’s essay-film Ici et ailleurs [Here and Elsewhere] (1976, directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, and Anne-Marie Miéville) and Yousri Nasrallah’s multipart Bab el Shams [Door to the Sun] (2004), cinematic representations of the fedayeen are infrequently seen today.

Jacir’s visual research extended to reviewing footage in Ici et ailleurs and other documentaries, but many representations of the fedayeen, including self-representations in documentary film, have been lost after the disappearance of the Palestinian film archive in Lebanon during the 1982 Israeli invasion.

Jacir deliberately challenges expectations and assumptions about the fedayeen by situating the film’s story before the events of Black September (1970–1971), which ended with Jordan’s expulsion of the PLO, as well as doubts cast internationally upon the organisation as a secular revolutionary force. Jordan’s King Hussein famously declared that “we have reached the point where we are all fedayeen” after attacks on Palestinian refugee camps in Karameh and Safi in 1968, but this solidarity began to unravel by the early 1970s.

Support diminished with escalating tensions between Jordanians and Palestinians, especially newly arrived refugees. Jordan eventually accused more radical organizations within the PLO, such as George Habash’s PFLP and Naif Hawatmeh’s DFLP, of attempting to destabilize Hussein’s reign. When I Saw You recovers an early moment of support by Jordanians for the fedayeen—and, more broadly, for Palestinians—that has often been forgotten.

The film opens with an image of eleven-year-old Tarek attempting to roller-skate on the uneven pavement near the fictional Harir “emergency camp,” where he and his mother await reunion with his father. The scene represents the situation for Palestinians attempting to reestablish something vaguely akin to normalcy in the wake of disaster. In this scene, Tarek’s pleasure seems undiminished by the circumstances of exile—and even the unpleasant taunting of the other children—because he believes that exile is temporary. He and his mother have fled their home in Bayt Nuba for reasons he does not fully understand. With the arrival of every truck of new refugees, he and his mother hope to see his father.

Images of Tarek skating, as a group of children run and shout at the arrival of another truck, precede the appearance of the titles on screen, setting into motion the film’s thematic preoccupation with seeing—as well as the film’s objective of making visible. Although Tarek’s father is not aboard the truck, his hopeful anticipation is not overtaken by reluctant disappointment. Tarek later comforts his mother by telling her that, if he had a telescope, he would be able to know the truck on which his father will arrive: Tarek believes that he would be able to see his father before the truck that carries his father would be close enough to the camp for his father to see his mother and himself.

Constructed specifically for the film, the set of the Harir camp recalls actual camps of the period. It is a space of exile, somewhere between displacement, resettlement, and return. It is bathed in stark, sometimes oppressive light that bleaches color. The tents and zinc houses seem isolated in comparison to the tents in the fedayeen camp, hidden deep within the greenery of the Dibeen forest, where hopes of return are protected and rejuvenated.

Gathered around the campfire, the fedayee Zain (Ruba Shamshoum) sings the film’s theme song, “Ya layl la trooh” [Oh Night Don’t Leave], about a garden full of colors: white of jasmine and gardenias, red of poppies and pomegranates, green of fig and cactus, under the black of night. Palestine is the colors of its flag, whose scars only show in daylight. Displaying the Palestinian flag has often been made illegal under occupation, so the song becomes richly meaningful for Palestinians today, as well as a metaphor for the film’s as a colorful projection of hope for Palestine onto the silver screen of a darkened theater.

While the fedayeen camp is a necessarily mobile space, one capable of being quickly relocated to avoid attack, the refugee camp is a space of permanent impermanence, where Palestinians go to work and school—even attend weddings where everyone comes together to celebrate as an extended family—as they wait to return. At the same time, the refugee camp is a space of amplified vulnerability and indignities, like queuing under the hot sun for the charity of what Tarek calls “slimy” soup, which are a constant reminder of the precarious position of being stateless.

Although Jacir deliberately avoids the tropes of cinematic realism that can reduce the ambiguities and contradictions of a fictional narrative to mere illustrations of performances of “official” histories or unofficial counter-histories, she performs a kind of subaltern or radical historiography. Every detail in When I Saw You, from set and costume design to locations, accent, and music, reveals her methodical archival and field research intended to recover some of what has been erased. Scouting locations in the Dibeen forest, she and her team found ammunition shells from training exercises. They also found vast caves used by the fedayeen that included living quarters and a multi-bed hospital.

These aspects of everyday Palestinian exile in the fedayeen camps were less likely to circulate internationally during the 1960s than more heroic images of men posing with rifles, a point made in a scene that references ways that the fedayeen have been historicized in documentary. The camp is a space where fedayeen eat together, play cards, and sing around a campfire at night. Rather than scenes of violence, the film represents that fedayeen in two long musical scenes of dancing dabke and singing resistance songs like “Sijin Akka” [Akka’s Prison], which initially protested British rule; she thereby locates Palestinian anticolonial resistance within a much longer trajectory than the immediate one of 1967.

Jacir’s process is not one of representation in a mimetic sense, but one of critical engagement with the past. She describes the film as “not meant to be realistic” but “told from a child’s point of view,” with a preoccupation for the “emotional story and background,” that is, “feeling rather than the narrative.” The fedayeen are framed by Tarek’s perspective, one that idolizes them without fully understanding their missions.

The film’s recovery of the fedayeen is not a call for the rejection of the nonviolent modes of resistance like boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS); instead, it is a mode by which to address some of the systemic erasures that BDS seeks to expose, including the “Brand Israel” campaign to promote a “positive image” of Israel internationally. Palestinian filmmakers willing to accept the conditions of the Israel Film Council receive the political and financial support needed to promote their films internationally, even in historically less receptive spaces such as Hollywood’s Oscars; by contrast, Palestinian filmmakers living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, as well as in Israel (fil-dakhel or “inside”), who choose to honor the protocols of the BDS face many obstacles.

Although journalists wondered whether the UN recognition of Palestine in 2012 might coincide with When I Saw You being shortlisted and even winning Hollywood’s award for Best Foreign Language Film, Palestine was represented only in the documentary category at this year’s awards, reproducing the centuries-old prejudice that “the oppressed” can only represent themselves in nonfiction and autobiographical modes.

For Jacir, When I Saw You represents a means to work through her own personal experiences of exile, particularly the most recent experience of being denied entry into the West Bank after the theatrical release and critical acclaim for Salt of this Sea. She speaks eloquently of the intense pain of seeing the West Bank across the Jordan River but knowing that she might never be able to return, a visual image that becomes one of the most poignant ones in When I Saw You.

For Jacir, the film becomes a way of recovering hope from the past for a future that would not include moments of permanent exile and daily humiliation for Palestinians like the ones experienced by the characters in Salt of This Sea—or even the ones that Jacir herself has experienced despite her privileges. The film was conceived during Jacir’s yearlong mentorship with Zhang Yimou under the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Institute, adding China as another vector to the transnational reconstruction of occupied Palestine to her own movements between Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

Identity is not bound to a (relatively) simple matter of “home” and “elsewhere”; instead, it is fractured over numerous continents in an everyday battle against forgetting and being annihilated under policies of erasure. When I Saw You would not have been possible without the preproduction and post-production funding and creative support of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s SANAD Fund, which hopefully will continue support the transnational future of Arab, and particularly Palestinian, filmmaking.

If the awards that the film has already received, particularly at film festivals in the Arab world—Best Arab Film at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, the Don Quixote Award at the Carthage International Film Festival, Special Mention at the Cairo International Film Festival—as well as elsewhere, such as Netpac’s Award for Best Asian Film at the Berlin International Film Festival, are any indication, When I Saw You has joined other critically acclaimed narrative features from Palestine that began with Michel Khleifi’s Wedding in Galilee [Urs al-Jalil] in 1987.

Male filmmakers like Khleifi, Elia Suleiman, and Hany Abu-Assad have often addressed contemporary moments—or reflected upon the past sixty years, as in Suleiman’s The Time That Remains (2009)—that contextualize the everyday moments of humiliation, self-alienation, paralysis, and terror under occupation against Hollywood’s power to globally distribute stereotypes of Palestinians as “irrational and bad,” as Jack Shaheen has described. Female filmmakers from Mai Masri through Helga Tawil Souri to May Odeh have worked most visibly in documentary.

With When I Saw You, Jacir recovers 1967 in the mode of fiction as a hopeful moment in Palestine’s transnational history, one that might help international audiences “see” Palestine in the light of hope as though for the first time, like the unscathed colors of its flag at night.

This article was originally published in Jadaliyya.

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