Annemarie Jacir’s When I Saw You takes an optimistic look at the late 1960s Palestinian refugee crisis, but asks more questions than it answers.
The Motherland by Laura Bennett
Set against the precise backdrop of a particular time and place, When I Saw You (Lamma Shoftak) explores a historical context that seems as relevant today as ever. In the aftermath of the Six Day War, Israel’s destruction of Palestinian villages in the West Bank and Gaza Strip saw as many as 325,000 Palestinians flee to Jordan. Jacir chooses to focus on the personal story of eleven-year-old refugee, Tarek, and his mother, Ghaydaa, lost amid this momentous political turmoil swirling around them.
The film opens in the fictional Harir Refugee Camp, painstakingly reconstructed down to the very last detail thanks to Jacir’s extensive research. Tarek and Ghaydaa are at odds: many of their issues stem from their situation, others are typical of any mother and son. Gifted with numbers, a bright Tarek struggles to respond to the traditional classroom setting, playing up to the teachers, correcting them and answering back. At home things are fraught; Tarek’s father was left behind during the exodus and the family await news of his whereabouts with every newly arrived truck-load of refugees.
Life continues apace in the camp: a wedding is about to take place and one of the refugees announces that they’ve been there for twenty years. Amid the muted colours and flat tones of the surrounding rocky landscape, the refugees gather around a black and white TV to watch an interview with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. Struggling to understand events taking place beyond his horizons, Tarek is told by one of the old guard that Arafat said they can now go home. The boy’s elation is short-lived; when the promising homecoming doesn’t happen, Tarek takes matters into his own hands and runs away from the camp, leaving his frantic mother behind.
Unable to comprehend what seem to him to be arbitrary borders, Tarek feels a sense of freedom alien to the jaded adults around him. Something so illogical does not compute in his mathematical brain; setting off on his own to return home is his only option. After a night alone in the desert, he is found by a group of fedayeen, young bearded men with long hair, weapons and PLO scarves training to go into battle for their homeland. Instantly identifying with their optimism and commitment to the cause, Tarek begins to idolise the rebels, determined to be allowed to fight alongside them despite his youth and diminutive stature.
Desperately searching for the missing Tarek, Ghaydaa also sets off to meet her own destiny in search of her son. It’s not long before she comes upon the rebel camp and the pair are reunited. She has no truck with his new-found ambitions, ordering him back to the camp. Tarek refuses to be parted from his companions and Ghaydaa has little choice but to stay. Despite her instinctive maternal concern for her son and the young men around her, she begins to be won over by the strength of their convictions.
One of the most remarkable aspects of When I Saw You stems from the fact that the majority of the film’s actors are non-professional. Mahmoud Asfa, who plays Tarek, lives in a Jordanian refugee camp, in exile from Palestine with his family. The cast of young freedom fighters underwent military training to lend an air of authenticity, although Jacir is quick to point out that their characters were not intended to be lean, mean terrorism machines but young volunteers from the camps who have chosen to fight for their liberation.
Set at a time when the world at large was ripe with potential, from European student uprisings to American civil rights, When I Saw You’s sense of hope is underlined by its eclectic and predominantly upbeat soundtrack. Blending Lebanese rock, Armenian fusion, Egyptian jazz and Morocco avant-garde Gnawa, music fleshes out the film, underscoring relationships between the characters and bringing the community together. Teamed with constant news broadcasts, plus singing and dancing to resistance songs around the campfire, Tarek’s world is brought to life by the possibilities of sound.
Herself a refugee, Jacir displays an intimate understanding of the pain of exile, particularly one that is within touching distance. When I Saw You makes manifest “the striking visual awareness of being so close to home and yet it being an impossible dream. The reality of seeing what you want but being unable to reach it.” As Tarek and his mother strike out alone at the end, they are driven by this “impossible dream” that lies just across the border.
When I Saw You is released in the UK on 6 June 2014