The Pursuit of Heroes in Palestinian Cinema: An Interview with Annemarie Jacir

Alia Yunis, Thursday 3 Oct 2013

An interview Annemarie Jacir, award-winning Palestinian director, describes the trials and triumphs of creating the her most recent film 'When I Saw You', which will be screened at the Cairo Goethe Institute on 3 October

'When I Saw You' still

Where do young Palestinians today look for real heroes—individuals who are brave and noble and inspire others to be brave and noble? This is a recurring theme in current Palestinian art, particularly in two of the past year’s most decorated Palestinian films, one a documentary and one a narrative feature. Annemarie Jacir’s narrative When I Saw You [Lamma Shoftak] and Mahdi Fleil’s A World Not Ours [Alam Laysa Lana] have overlapped and shared the awards stage on the international film festival circuit on several occasions. 

A source for heroes is heart-wrenchingly absent in A World Not Ours. Filmed in today’s Ain Al Helweh refugee camp in Lebanon, the young men in the documentary have lost their belief in saviors, past and future, let alone the dream of being one. Palestinian heroes, among their generation, are indeed part of a world not theirs.  

The past is a more fruitful place for heroes in Annemarie Jacir’s more lyrical When I Saw You. Set in 1967, right after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, When I Saw You centers on Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa), a young boy who secretly ventures beyond his new home, a camp where he lives with his mother (Ruba Blal). His walk into the desolate hills of Jordan inadvertently leads him into the secluded training grounds of the first Palestinian fedayeen, and he discovers a different way of looking at the world from that of the bleak refugee camp: he discovers heroes—particularly under the surrogate fatherhood of one of the young men, played by Saleh Bakri.

But optimism is a relative word in Palestinian cinema, and even the sunny moments in Jacir’s film are darkened because we—both the audience and Jacir herself—know what comes later. 

When I Saw You was Palestine’s official entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It debuted at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival and then shared most of the top awards at the 2012 Abu Dhabi Film Festival. When I Saw You went on to shine at the Berlin International Film Festival, taking the NETPAC Critics Award for Best Asian Film. When I Saw You also won the International Federation of Film Societies' Don Quixote Award at the Carthage International Film Festival, the Jury Prize at the Cairo International Film Festival, and the Special Jury Prize at the Oran Arab Film Festival. Its star, Mahmoud Afsa, was also nominated for the Young Artists Award in Los Angeles.

When I Saw You is Jacir’s second narrative feature, after Salt of This Sea [Milh Hadha al Bahr], which also stars Saleh Bakri, and this is the second time her film has served as Palestine’s official submission to the Academy Awards. Salt of This Sea tells the story of Soraya (Suheir Hammad), a Palestinian American woman returning to Jaffa on behalf of her family to reclaim the money her grandfather was forced to leave in the bank when he was exiled in 1948. When she meets Bakri’s character, a young man who struggles with the obstacles of being a Palestinian whose family was not exiled, her idealized image of Palestine is challenged by reality. 

But Soraya doesn’t fade away. She takes matters into her own hands. For people who have met her, Jacir shares Soraya’s determination, although Jacir is stronger willed. It is this strength that helped her achieve the title of first female Palestinian director of a feature film for Salt of This Sea, a film that debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008. 

Four years later, When I Saw You has a higher level of sublety and the markings of a more sophisticated director, as reflected in the outstanding performances she gets out of the actors and the more complexly told story. We talked with Annemarie about the film and filmmaking in general.

Alia Yunis (AY): What drew you to the setting and time period of When I Saw You?

Annemarie Jacir (AJ): It’s a tremendously important year for us. I never lived 1967, but I grew up hearing about it all my life. Although that year was a great tragedy for my family, it was also a time of great hope in the world. Like the late sixties everywhere, people were going through a kind of rebirth, an infectious sense of hope that they could change their own lives. Student movements, anti-colonial movements, civil rights…I wanted to tell a story about this important time, not to be nostalgic but rather because it is so relevant. I started writing the script at a time where I was in need of hope in my own life, and in what I saw going on around me, in my own generation.

AY: Notably, the film was entirely financed by Palestinian investors and all the producers were Palestinian. You say the film was made with a fourth of the budget you had originally hoped for. How did you make it happen and what was the process of working?

AJ: It took us years to make it happen, but I wanted to look to our own community to support its artists instead of always looking to Europe or elsewhere. It was so special to have this all-Arab team. I took about one year to write the script and about three years to finance the film. We managed to raise the minimum with these Palestinian investors and support from the Dubai Film Connection, Abu Dhabi’s Sanad Fund, and AFAC. We only had enough to shoot and we took the risk to shoot because I didn’t want to lose the chance to work with Mahmoud, the eleven-year-old lead. He would have been too old in a year. After wrapping, it then took us over a year to finish the film in postproduction, as we had no funds at all to complete the film. We were able to finish the film finally with the support Thessaloniki Film Festival’s “Agora” award and lots of in-kind sponsors.

AY: Mahmoud Asfa is the first Arab child to be nominated for the Young Actors Award. How did you find him?  

AJ: I combed Jordan and Palestine looking for the boy who could play Tarek. We saw about two hundred kids, in schools, in drama classes, in refugee camps, word-of-mouth, open casting calls. On one visit to an UNRWA school in the Irbid refugee camp, Mahmoud’s headmaster introduced him to us. I knew immediately he was Tarek.  

AY: Mahmoud had never acted before, and a recent study revealed that Arab filmmakers believe that one of the toughest challenges these days is finding good actors. The actors in your film are exceptionally fine in their roles. As a director, how did you work to bring out their performances?

AJ: I love working with actors. It’s the most important process in many ways. For When I Saw You, I didn’t give them the script and I never told them the whole story. In life we don’t know the whole story, so I tell my actors what they need to know so we can build their characters. And most of all, I work with them on the backstory, who they are, where they are coming from…all the details of their lives but not the script. If they know themselves well, then the rest will come easier and much later in the process, sometimes on set. I worked with Mahmoud for four months before we shot; there is nothing more precious that that time together.

AY: The music in the film is particularly moving, specifically the scene where the fedayeen are all singing by the fire. How did you go about choosing the music? 

AJ: In the late 1960s, Palestinians were very much connected to what was happening all over the world—they were listening to Arabic classics and also creating a new kind of music, influenced from both their east and their west, and pushing boundaries, as in their own lives. 

I worked with long-time collaborator Kamran Rastegar on the original track and also research. We discovered a lot of obscure musicians and bands of the time: Lebanese rock, Armenian fusion, Egyptian jazz, Moroccan avant-garde Gnawa, some really fun stuff, and that is what we hear on the radio most of the time in the film—other than the constant news broadcasts. In terms of the film’s live music, the first piece, around the fire, is an original song written and sung for the film by Ruba Shamshoum, a new jazz singer. 

There was certain magic in the time before TVs and computers, and when people were together they would sing. I wanted to break the rhythm of the film with this unusually long sequence, to change the pace so we would linger on the faces of these young men and women, each with their own stories, depth, nostalgia, madness—people so famously absent from the media normally. The second piece, which leads into the dancing, is one of the most famous Palestinian resistance songs, “Akka’s Prison,” written in 1930 against British rule, as a commemoration to three men who were hung, and a call to continue the struggle for freedom. 

Q: The organizers of the Toronto Film Festival called When I Saw You “a poetic tour de force.” But there has also been criticism from some Palestinians and others that say you romanticized the fedayeen or looked at them with too much nostalgia. How would you respond to that? 

AJ: Of course I have romanticized them. Why do people accept being romantic about Che Guevara or Braveheart but not about Palestinians? Isn’t there something racist in that? 

They were romantic, young people…and so am I. Otherwise they wouldn’t have been doing what they were doing. They believed they could change their world and there was something better out there for them—that is a totally romantic way of living.

I am not making a documentary about the fedayeen but rather telling a fictional story that captures a certain mood. For me film works closely to poetry in that way. The film is from a child’s point of view as well. It’s not from the point of view of an intellectual in 2012 who knows how wrong everything went. We know that part of the story, and that’s the point. In the end, one has to read the film on a deeper level. On the surface the film is a romantic homage to that generation, but more than that, it is also a deep criticism and poses a serious question to them. The inner fighting, the rising egos, the boyish behavior...So finally in the end our hero Tarek sees them as only rhetoric. The film is about Tarek moving beyond the fedayeen. They are left behind. That’s the point. The last word of the film, which Layth says, is "wait,” a word which comes up in the film several times. It’s the word Tarek rejects.  

AY: Today, Tarek, the main character, would be in his fifties. Where do you imagine he would be in this world, given the status of Palestine today? 

AJ: This film intentionally does not extend further than the time period it takes place in, 1967-1968. Everyone knows very well what happens next—Black September, in-fighting, splinter movements, corruption, the horrid Oslo process. So many things went wrong. So many dreams were stolen. I wanted to give a hint of that in When I Saw You. You feel an undercurrent of in-fighting, egos starting to take shape amongst the fighters, different ideas forming. But the film is only about the moment before that. I leave it to you to tell me where you think Tarek is at fifty. 

AY: Recently I was speaking with someone who works for a European film financing organization. He said, in awe and fear, that “Palestinian women are so fierce—when you talk to them about their films they’re very straight up and clear. You don’t mess with them.” True?  

AJ: Ha ha! I love it. What can I say to that? My mother is a tough woman. She’s sharp as a razor, straight and clear. Living in Palestine, I was always aware how many women run organizations, are the main breadwinners in their households, are active community leaders, and so on. As Palestinians, everyone is always trying to render our voices silent and to twist what we say around, so perhaps that’s why we’ve learned to be very clear. 

AY: Indiewire called When I Saw You "one of the best works to come out of the current explosion in filmmaking in the Middle East." How sustainable do you see this explosion, given that you and your husband have set up your own production company, Philistine Films, to develop regionally-based film projects?

AJ: I think there are very talented people in the Arab world, and we’re going to see a lot more great films. Personally, I hope to see more films push the limits and do daring and creative things, even if they are flawed. I always prefer to see a flawed film with a lot of soul than a perfectly crafted film that takes me nowhere. 

In regards to your question about how sustainable is this explosion, in many ways it depends on the support these filmmakers get. If the support is there, and the bar is raised, they can do it. It’s going to be fun. 

AY: How do you feel you have evolved as a director over the years? 

AJ: Each film is different, and I feel I am always moving between experimental, documentary, and fiction work. Some films are more "experimental" or tending towards poetry more, and sometimes leaning more to emotions and instinct. At other times, I am more interested in playing with a different kind of narrative structure. In the fourteen or so films I've made, I can say I am always searching for something, always trying to make one film very different from the next, and always learning and trying to improve my craft. 

AY: How was the making of this film different from Salt of this Sea

AJ: Salt of this Sea took six years to make and was done through a co-production of eight countries. When I Saw You was shot with a Palestinian producer and all Arab money, most of it private investors and funds. 

Salt of this Sea was shot in a guerrilla-like style under military occupation with a Palestinian crew who were not allowed freedom of movement. When I Saw You was shot entirely in Jordan, and in two locations, which were entirely constructed. We built the entire set of the fictional Harir Refugee camp from scratch, whereas Salt of this Sea is entirely set in actual Palestinian cities and villages. That is except for the airport—unlike other films, we were not given permission to shoot there, so we had to build the arrivals area. Oh! And there is one scene in the film, which had to be re-shot. It was after I got denied entry by the Israeli authorities and could not return, so we had to shoot it in Marseille, France. 

AY: How do you feel about your film playing at the DCPFAF which is unique for its emphasis on storytelling and Palestinian subjectivity?  Is that a different experience than when the film plays within the context of an international film festival?

AJ:  Every festival brings in its own audience. What is special about DCPFAF is that is has outreach to the Palestinian and Arab community in DC and this means that people who don't follow cinema on a general level or follow film festivals and world cinema, might be reached through DCPFAF.  This is hugely important. We need to reach our own community and have their support too. It's the only way we can strengthen and grow. 

AY: And finally, where would you tell young Palestinians to look for inspiration today?

AJ: I would tell young boys and girls today to look for their heroes in their own neighborhood, amongst the people they know who have difficult lives and continue to believe in a better world…Heroes are regular people.

["When I Saw You" is being screened at the DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival this week. The next showing is Thursday 3 October 2013 at 8:30 PM at the Goethe Institute.]

This article was previously published in Jadaliyya.

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