It’s hard to recreate the 1960s with only a quarter of the budget you intended to shoot on. But that’s exactly what Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir did to film When I Saw You, a story set in 1967 when Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza were uprooted by the Six-Day War and many fled to refugee camps in neighbouring Jordan.
When I Saw You was screened as part of the Birds Eye View Film Festival (BEV) in London last night; BEV is an event that this year draws together cinema by headlining, female Arab directors. Jacir’s debut feature Salt of this Sea was submitted for an Oscar in 2008, but she was shortly after denied entry to the West Bank.
Four years later, her newest release follows eleven-year-old Palestinian Tarek, who lost his country, his home and his father before arriving at the Harir Refugee Camp in Jordan. Here, he doesn’t like his teacher, the food is slimy and he misses his old life. He sets out on a pilgrimage, to leave the camp far behind him, and with one simple mission – to go home.
Part of Tarek’s charm is the pure logic of his plan and that he is oblivious to the fighting taking place in the West Bank or the circumstances that led up to his exile. To Tarek, moving to the miserable refugee camp in Jordan is temporary; a choice that can be reversed. He does not wish to contemplate a lifelong existence amongst the makeshift, prefab houses of the camp.
Along the journey to Palestine Tarek meets fadayeen (freedom fighters) and is accepted into their group, joining their daily training and watching them sing beside the campfire at night.
Jacir humanises the fadayeen who take Tarek under their wing; they appear not as ruthless terrorists, but as real people who simply want their land back. Some produce philosophical quotes; one paints and others play cards. One night Zain (Ruba Shamshoum) sings Ya layl la trooh beside the fire, the lyrics describing a garden full of colours; her stunning voice is one of the highlights of the film.
A great opening scene of Tarek skating down a dusty, uneven road near his camp promises a quirky film with impressive cinematography. The film is riddled with humour, which lightens an incredibly dire situation, but it is far too slow in parts, with long stretches where nothing happens.
Tarek himself is played brilliantly by Mahmoud Asfa, a Palestinian refugee who lives in a camp in the north of Jordan; the sons and daughters of real fighters from the time play the fadayeen. Ruba Blal plays his mother, Ghaydaa, and Saleh Bakri is Layth, a leader of the fighters. All of them are searching for a better existence in a film that emanates hope, not victimhood.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.