DIR/WRI: Annemarie Jacir • PRO: Ossama Bawardi • DOP: Helene Louvart • ED: Annemarie Jacir, Panos Voutsaras • MUS: Kamran Rastegar • CAST: Mahmoud Asfa, Ruba Blal, Saleh Bakri, Ali Elayan
Palestinian cinema has been through a rough time in the public eye. 2002’s Divine Intervention was initially rejected as a contender for the Academy Awards because the Academy refused to recognise Palestine as a country. In addition to this, there’s a harmful ethos in much of the art world that claims art should remain separate from politics. When your film is rejected from the Oscars on account of politics, how can you go on believing this?
When I Saw You is director Anniemarie Jacir’s second feature film and engages fully with Palestinian history and politics. It opens with beautiful digital video footage of a group of Palestinian kids rollerskating. The question “Are we losing something by switching from film to DV?” becomes as obsolete as “Are we losing something by switching to technicolor?” Whereas 3D has yet to convince audiences of its worth, the value in DV has been clear from the outset. It’s a whole new palette to play with. 1967 has never looked this modern, and there’s something political to that. By removing the barrier of the “cinematic aesthetic”, the film can be experienced as a raw document – thus facilitating greater intimacy between viewer and film. Contrary to claims of the “coldness” of DV, When I Saw You is as convincing a case as you’ll find for the intimacy offered by DV.
The film takes place in 1967, when Palestinian refugees were forced to live in camps in Jordan. 11-year-old Tarek is something of a boy-about-town; razor sharp and willing to speak up against injustice. When his schoolteacher begins harassing a fellow pupil for not answering correctly, Tarek corrects his teacher. His language is his power and, although the film reminds us that he can’t read, his ability to think and speak quickly gains him power within his community.
This makes altogether more jarring his attempts to communicate outside of the camp. When he leaves the camp in search of his missing father, he happens upon a group of traveling hippies: “Why does he speak like that?” They say, “Is he from one of the camps?” His strength within his community becomes a distinct weakness outside of it. The message is clear. There is only one place where Palestinian people fit in, so how can it be taken from them? Tarek’s quick wit wins him little regard outside of the camp. This mirrors the experience of many Palestinian people who wish to communicate their experience to the Western world. There’s an ideological break between cultures, which is filled largely by Western misconceptions about the Arab world. Jacir has spoken in interviews about the frustration of getting a message across and circumventing these misconceptions.
Language and knowledge are key focuses of the film. Although Tarek can’t read, his mental agility circumvents any problems that this might cause. Characters quote Karl Marx without having read him. The language of the revolution becomes the language of sex when several Fedayeen members pose for a magazine photographer. Everybody is confused and nothing is concrete. Tarek accuses his mother of lying and of “Always being right!” The film tears down the idea of absolute truth. When Tarek chooses to live with the Fedayeen, his mother accepts his choice and stays with him while he works out his value system. By placing a child at the centre of the film, by gifting him with wit and knowledge, and by listening to his thoughts and decisions, director Annemarie Jacir provides us with what is perhaps the film’s most radical message: curiosity and a certain innocence represent hope.
While all of the adult characters become bogged down in dogma, work and family obligations, social status, and so on, Tarek is the character to question accepted reality and to forge his own path through the conflicting truths imposed upon him. He is a part of the world, and he has to find for himself the best path forward. Jacir has stated that she refuses to listen to the voices in the art world claiming that art should remain separate from politics. She, like Tarek, is a part of the world. She will contribute in whatever way she can.
When I Saw You is released on 6th June 2014