Akka – The Palestinian premiere of Annemarie Jacir’s film, When I Saw You, held a few weeks ago at the Yabous Cultural Center in occupied Jerusalem, was sold out. The Palestinian filmmaker (b. 1974) wanted her second film to be screened in Jerusalem first. The story takes place during the Naksa of 1967, when thousands of dispossessed refugees crossed the border from Palestine into Jordan.
The film centers on 11 year old Tarek, played by Mahmoud Asfeh, who gets separated from his father during the war. He finds himself with his mother, Ghida (Ruba Bilal), at a temporary refugee camp, waiting to return home. Just like a whole generation before them, expelled and dispossessed in 1948, they wait for their return to Palestine. Finding it difficult to adapt to life in the refugee camp and missing his father terribly, Tarek tries to find new hope and diversions. His curiosity and free spirit lead him to join a secret training camp for Palestinian freedom fighters.
Jacir, who directed the award-winning Salt of This Sea, chose this time to focus on 1967 because of the significance of that year and the impact it has on Palestinians, including her own family. During the late sixties, people worldwide were demanding liberation through student protests and anti-colonialist movements. The Palestinians, however, were experiencing the Naksa and its narratives. Jacir grew up listening to her family, who had been expelled from Bethlehem, telling their stories. “I wanted to tell a story from this important period, because it is connected to what is happening today. I began to write the script at a time when I desperately needed hope myself, for my own life, for what was happening around me and for my generation,” Jacir told Al-Akhbar.
Jacir chose Tarek as the hero of her film because through him she wanted to show “how ordinary people’s lives were turned extraordinary by events that had nothing to do with them but that had changed the course of their lives.” She explains: “I wanted to tell a personal story of a young mother who wanted to protect her son whose spirit had not been broken yet. They are just like any other people in the world. Tarek is looking for independence from his mother and does not want her to treat him like a child. It is simply one detail from the thousands of stories from 1967.”
Annemarie Jacir’s style is dreamy and romantic. She argues that dealing with the Naksa from a romantic angle is not discrepant, because she believes that the fighters themselves were romantic. This is why she describes the film as fictional, showing how a child views his own world.
This style of fiction succeeds because it is not too far removed from the life of the director or many others. The film has a link to her own story, from which she suffers every day. Four years ago, she was forbidden from returning to Palestine. “My whole world collapsed and my heart broke,” she says. She moved to Jordan, because from there she would still be able to see Palestine. “When I was not allowed to return, and I could only see Palestine across the Jordan Valley, I finally understood something. I felt something I had not experienced before, just like all dispossessed Palestinians. The most difficult thing they have to do is stand somewhere in the Valley and look at Palestine without being able to go back. This land that you know so intimately, but from which you have been expelled and exiled against your will. It then occurs to you how stupid borders are, a fallacy that separates people because someone decided to draw a line across the land and call it a border.”
After it took her six years to find European funding for Salt of The Sea (2008), Jacir decided to make a film about the Naksa with Arab backing. “We have to break the system of relying on Europe to make our films,” she told Al-Akhbar. When I Saw You was funded by the Dubai Film Festival with some additional Greek funding. The Match Factory company bought the international rights to screen the film. It was also chosen as the Palestinian Oscar submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.