Filmmaker Annemarie Jacir on Palestine, the Fedayeen and Arab cinema
"The fedayeen were like the rock stars of the decade. They were young, revolutionary and beautiful and they were people who decided not to be victims anymore. Like so many freedom fighters in the world."
For 30 years Palestinian film-maker Annemarie Jacir crossed borders and travelled in and out of her homeland. She calls this "the privilege of Palestine." Seventy five per cent of her people, she says, are forbidden from doing that.
When this privilege was taken away she was left with a view of Palestine from the Jordan Valley. "I understood something, or rather felt something, I had never known before," she reflects.
"Like so many people who have been displaced, the hardest part is standing somewhere and actually seeing it; looking into the distance and seeing a land you recognise and know so intimately, which has now been denied to you. And trying to wrap your brain around the stupidity of borders, the illogicality of human beings being separated from each other because someone now says there is a line in the earth there called a 'border'."
Out of the sadness and anger Jacir felt she wanted to create a positive film. She decided to tell the story of a young Palestinian boy, Tarek, who takes his destiny into his own hands, rejects borders and being a refugee. The end product was When I Saw You.
Set shortly after the 1967 Israeli invasion in the West Bank, the 12-year-old protagonist flees to a UN refugee camp in Jordan with his mother. She tries to protect him and offers little information on what happened, or where his father is.
Jacir found Mahmoud Asfa, who plays Tarek, in Irbid refugee camp in north Jordan. In the film, he doesn't like the food, his teacher, or his new home.
"The film sees the world from Tarek's point of view," she says. "It's a romantic vision, not a documentary. It's also very much about feelings, a mother's obsession to protect her child in the face of war, and the moment in a boy's life between childhood and manhood, and finding his own personal independence."
Longing to be reunited with his father, Tarek treks into the Jordanian hills and meets thefedayeen (freedom fighters) there. "He doesn't really understand what they are doing but he knows one thing, the core issue, they are all trying to get home, like him."
In one scene a female photographer appears - in real life, towards the end of the sixties, thefedayeen received a great deal of media attention. They were well photographed, well documented and well written about. Jacir used this visual material and interviewed former fighters to reconstruct their lives for the film.
In a makeshift school in the camp one of the young girls turns to Tarek and says she only wants to marry a member of the fedayeen. Did Jacir ever have conversations or thoughts like that when she was younger?
"The fedayeen were like the rock stars of the decade," she says. "They were young, revolutionary and beautiful and they were people who decided not to be victims anymore. Like so many freedom fighters in the world. So yes, I think many of us had thoughts like that."
Jacir went to school in Dallas, Texas, college in California and then Columbia film school in New York. Spending so much time in a country that associates the fedayeen with terrorism has not stopped her making films she believes are honest.
"The fedayeen were people who had been thrown out of their homeland and were trying to find a way to get back home at a time in which leftist movements, anti-colonial movements and civil rights movements were forming a new consciousness. Regular, every day people felt they could, and should, rise up and stop being trampled upon. I think most people in the world can relate to this today, either because it's their own history or because it's happening now in their countries."
"The fact that Americans are obsessed with labelling other people terrorists and all kinds of other descriptions has never been my problem. Anyone who studies American history can see how this is the modus operandi of a corrupt system which hopes to keep its own people ignorant."
Yet she points out that there are issues and disagreements at play amongst the fighters; egos, discussions about religion and secularism. "I wanted to have the feeling as well that this group would not remain entirely cohesive," she says. Black September, in-fighting, splinter movements, corruption and the Olso process all follow the time period in whichWhen I Saw You is set. "But the film is only about the moment before that."
Jacir grew up hearing about 1967; it was a tragedy for her family, she says, but also a time of great hope across 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."
Filmed in Jordan, Jacir says most organisations that fund similar projects distanced themselves from the "politically sensitive" When I Saw You. But one of her previous productions was harder. Filmed under military occupation, Salt of this Sea features American-Palestinian Soraya who returns to Palestine from Brooklyn to reclaim her family's money. In 1948 her grandfather's bank account was frozen and seized. "It's the hardest thing I have ever done," she says.
Hany Abu Assad (director of Paradise Now and Omar) told her that if she could make this film she could make any film in the world. "I believe that's true. We did something that was total madness. A film which takes place in 87 locations all over historic Palestine and with a crew almost entirely made up of Palestinians, many of them refugees from the very places we were shooting in. I think there is nothing we didn't survive during those weeks of shooting."
Whilst When I Saw You is entirely produced and financed by Palestinian investors, when Jacir made Salt of this Sea, there were no funds available for independent Arab cinema and it took six years to finance it. It was, however, the first feature to be directed by a Palestinian woman.
"It doesn't matter who is first at anything," says Jacir. "What matters is there is no last and that there are more and more to come. And there are. Palestine is full of fantastic filmmakers and people doing amazing work."
Published in Middle East Monitor