Filmmaker Revisits Palestine’s Past, and New York for MoMA Premiere

Matt Surrusco Jan 16, 2014

Annemarie Jacir’s film education began in New York City, but her story, and that of her latest feature film, is rooted in Palestine’s history. The Palestinian filmmaker grew up in Saudi Arabia — where she said she didn’t watch movies as a child — and graduated from Columbia University’s film program in 2002. The following year her Master’s thesis short film, like twenty impossibles, played at Cannes.

After showing at a number of international film festivals last year, Jacir’s second feature film, When I Saw You, premiered in New York City on January 15 at the Museum of Modern Art. The story centers on a Palestinian refugee boy displaced to Jordan at the start of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Jacir spoke with The Indypendent about the film’s theme of return, the political ideologies she explores and her hopes for a Palestinian Oscar win this year.

Matt Surrusco: Your first feature, Salt of This Sea, is set in the present. But When I Saw You is set in the past. Why go back to 1967 now?

Annemarie Jacir: The two films both have to do with the idea of return, which is the soul of the Palestinian issue. But I wanted to go back with this one to do something very different than Salt of This Sea. Part of it is that the main characters themselves, Soraya (Salt of This Sea) and Tarek (When I Saw You), are different. I wanted to do something from a child’s perspective because you know Tarek doesn’t really know what is happening. Soraya’s political. She comes from a marginalized, working-class immigrant family from Brooklyn. She knows her politics and history very well.

Tarek is completely different. He gets a lot of things, but he doesn’t understand politically what’s happening. That makes his questions very basic. Why can’t we go back? He’s very logical. We walked here. When you walk from your village to this refugee camp on foot, why can’t you just return? How do you tell a child, now there’s a border? Now there’s a war. He doesn’t get it. I wanted to deal with those kinds of questions because those are exactly the right questions to ask. 

MS: What was it like directing Mahmoud Asfa (Tarek), a young, first-time actor?

AJ: It was difficult and it was really great. Once he was cast, we spent about three or four months preparing for the role together. I never gave him the script because I didn’t want him to know what happens in the story. I wanted to use a different method, which is just working more on, who is Tarek? Where does he come from? Mahmoud was born in a refugee camp in Jordan. His parents are Palestinian refugees. He’s never known Palestine. He’s never known that place that Tarek is so obsessed with returning to. So it’s something very basic. What is it that Tarek is so obsessed with, and what can we find in Mahmoud that is the same?

MS: Where did you grow up? Did your parents try to shield you from the struggles at home, like Tarek’s mother did for him in the film?

AJ: I spent the first 16 years of my life in Saudi Arabia. But we used to go back to Palestine all the time because my grandparents and other family were still living there. We spent three or four months of the year there in the 1980s. At the same time, my parents never talked to us about politics. They never told us what was going on. But as children, you see what’s going on. You go visit your grandparents in Palestine. You’re sitting there and there’s soldiers passing by the house every five minutes on jeeps. When we would cross the border from Jordan into Palestine, we would be strip-searched as a family.

I didn’t understand what was happening as a child, but I understood that there was tension, humiliation and violence. It’s not the obvious violence of somebody shooting somebody. There’s another kind of violence, mundane violence. I like to deal with that in my films. That’s why in this film, for example, there is violence, but you don’t see it. It’s violence of humiliation and loss.

MS: Communist political ideology among the band of Palestinian fighters plays a prominent role in the film. Would you say you subscribe to any political ideology, personally or in your filmmaking aesthetic?

AJ: Being Palestinian, everything we do will be interpreted as political. Everything is political. But I believe most of all that all people should live freely and as equals. That’s basic. One thing about setting the film in the 1960s, in terms of the Palestinian political movement, it was a really different time. We had a different political ideology. The Palestinian movement at that point was very secular. It was not just Palestinians; it was other Arabs and Europeans. It was a time period when leftist movements all over the world were very connected, and they moved between each other.

At the same time, we’re watching the film today in 2014. The film intentionally is only of that period, 1967 and ’68. Because we all know what happens next. Even if you don’t know much about the details of Palestinian history, we know how wrong all of it went. Right after this, it’s leading up to Black September. All these leftist movements fell apart, and the Palestinian leadership didn’t succeed. Those people waiting in the refugee camp are still sitting there waiting.

MS: How would you assess the current negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians? Is it just another waiting game?

AJ: Unless they address the core issues, the negotiations are just like Band-Aids. It just keeps happening again and again, and people are so bored with the idea of negotiations. It’s like a two-state solution. It’s not practical. You can’t have a two-state solution on a piece of land that tiny, and tell people they should be separated based on their religion or ethnicity. It doesn’t make sense. One state with all people living as equals, that’s the way it should be, and that’s what I will work toward because I believe in that. I don’t believe people should be separated from each other.

MS: What do you hope American audiences will take away from your film?

AJ: If you know about the details of the history you will view it in one way, and understand some of the nuances and references. The film is full of political [and historical] references. But if you don’t know any of that, I hope that it still holds as a story. It’s a story about a child and his mother. It’s a coming of age story about a boy who’s trying to be independent at a time of independence in the world.

MS: Why keep going back to the theme of return and homecoming?

AJ: For Palestinians, we don’t have a home so it comes up for me in my work. This search for home, this definition of home and this concept of borders for me is very personal because I’ve lived all my life moving between borders, being separated from people I love because of borders, maneuvering checkpoints and borders. It’s such a central part of my own life so I’m interested in exploring it.

MS: Are you hopeful for a Palestinian Oscar nomination this year (announced Jan. 16)?

AJ: Yes, I am. Of course. Hany Abu-Assad, another Palestinian director, has been short-listed for his latest film, Omar. I’m not hopeful for a nomination. I’m hopeful for a win. There are not a lot of Palestinian films out there so it’s nice when they get a nod like that. I don’t really care about the Oscars. It’s not really a marker of a successful film for me, but what it means is this story is being represented and it’s more available. More people will see it. It’s really important because the Palestinian voice has been historically so silenced and so left out of the mainstream. When a Palestinian film is recognized in such a mainstream place, such as the Academy, it means that people will have the chance to see a film that they might not see so easily. So we hope. That’s the point of the film. It’s all about hope.

When I Saw You screens at the Museum of Modern Art January 15-22. For more information, visit the museum’s website.

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