ABU DHABI: Sometime in 1967, a British television journalist interviewed Yasser Arafat, resplendent in shades and trademark keffiyeh, about the political movement he was leading. “We are creating a new people,” the still-young PLO chairman said in English. “We are transforming refugees into fighters.”
The remark nicely crystallizes the Palestinian revolution, as it was then called. It also forms the chrysalis of “When I Saw You,” the new film by Palestinian writer-director Annemarie Jacir. The work had its world premiere at the Toronto film festival and is now screening in the New Horizons/Al-Jadid competition of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
“When I Saw You” is the sort of film that either charms viewers or leaves them slightly baffled. A fiction grounded in recent history, it takes a strong moral position on the politics of occupation and displacement. Yet it doesn’t simply set out to rehearse another didactic chronology of colonizers and refugees. Within the chrysalis, Jacir seeks out a tale of hope.
The story is set in Jordan, shortly after the disastrous 1967 War. It’s told from the perspective of Tarek Abu Issa (Mahmoud Asfa), an 11-year-old from Bayt Nuba who, with his mother Ghaydaa (Ruba Blal), has been displaced to Harir refugee camp.
Tarek is energetic and strangely absorbed by the reckoning of numbers. When a lady tells him she’s been in Harir camp for 20 years, he looks at his mother and says: “That’s 7,300 days.”
Formal education is failing him, however, as his teachers haven’t yet taught him to read. Rather than giving him the help he needs, his teacher Mr. Nassar forbids him from attending his classes. He says Tarek distracts other students, but he seems to have a better grasp of mathematics than his teacher.
Tarek’s restlessness with camp life is irritated by his father’s extended absence. He blames his mother for driving his dad away and routinely complains that she’s suffocating him as well.
When he can take no more, Tarek puts on his schoolbag and walks west, intent on returning to Bayt Nuba. His gambol through the desert is punctuated by a couple of encounters that could serve as distillations of the Palestinian refugee experience.
When he decides to liberate some pomegranates from a garden, the elderly lady who lives there stops him, asking, “Are you Palestinian?”
“God damn them,” she mutters, handing him an armful of fruit from the tree. “Stay healthy.”
Later on he encounters a small party of Lebanese hipsters whose car has broken down on the road to Beirut. When she hears his accent, one girl asks if he’s a refugee. The men then tell Tarek to clear off, declaring that these people shouldn’t be encouraged to linger.
Finally the boy is discovered by Layth (Saleh Bakri), a mysterious fellow seen in the camp before, often leaving with some of the young men. A freedom fighter, Layth shares Tarek’s impatience with camp life, and he leads him to the fedayeen encampment where young men and women train in preparation for incursions back into Palestine.
“Sick? Injured? Bleeding?” Fedayeen commander Abu Akram (Ali Elayan) asks of Tarek when he finds him at the camp. “Did someone tell you this was a holiday resort?”
“I found him on the road,” Layth interjects. “He was very ill.”
Abu Akram orders him to do 60 push-ups. “That,” Tarek tells Abu Akram when Layth staggers to his feet, “was 58.”
Later Tarek reveals himself to be an unlikely card shark as well – a moment that could only have benefitted from a nod to Dustin Hoffman’s turn in Barry Levinson’s “Rain Man,” cinema’s other great counter of cards.
While the fedayeen embrace Tarek as a budding fighter, Ghaydaa has set off to find her son and is herself found and brought to the training camp. When Tarek refuses to return to Harir with her, she stays on. At first she’s just humoring her son, then she realizes that they’re safer with the fedayeen than they would be among the refugees.
The camp provides a space where she and Tarek can better learn from one another, a place from which they can move toward resolving their indecisive predicament.
For a country that’s teetered between occupation and exile for so many decades, Palestine has a vibrant cinematic profile. Since the national narrative has been so bleak, it’s no surprise that much of its film narrative, while seeking to depict tragedy, has lapsed into the merely morose.
The exceptions to this rule are notably rare, and then only conditionally so. Though formally arresting and entertainingly witty and sardonic, the films of Elia Suleiman, for instance, are still rooted in loss and redolent with longing.
Jacir’s first feature, 2008’s “Salt of This Sea,” did swim against the prevailing current of her country’s cinema, insofar as it told a tale of militant return rather than one of loss or immigration. Like many of her contemporaries, the filmmaker toyed with genre (the bank heist picture) to tell her story and in the process replaced sadness with anger.
“When I Saw You” follows a different path, setting its story in a moment between two great tragedies in the national history.
The first was that of the 1967 War, and the sudden recognition that the Arab states could not liberate Palestine. The second was the slow obsolescence that discredited, first, the PLO’s revolutionary credentials, then its secularism – the rise of political Islam being seen to be emblematic of the failure of left-leaning militancy the world over.
In 1967, Palestinians took their fate into their own hands, stepping out of the parochialism of occupation and into an ideological cosmopolitanism that sought not only to liberate Palestine from Israeli occupation but to bring social revolution to its people.
In this, the Palestinian cause was seen to be part of a broad international movement, whose currents included U.S. civil rights activists and anti-Vietnam War demonstrators, western European trade unionists and university students, and third world liberation movements from Cuba to Vietnam.
“When I Saw You” is distinct not only from older, weepy stories of occupation but from the withering self-scrutiny of the many “mea culpa” docs of fallen leftists – Maher Abi Samra’s “We Were Communists” (2010), say, or Christina Foerch Saab’s “Che Guevara Died in Lebanon” (2011). Neither is Jacir interested in the sort of critical re-readings of the international left found in Kôji Wakamatsu’s docudrama “United Red Army” (2007) or “Carlos,” Olivier Assayas’ 2010 study in militant celebrity.
With its strong heroes and cardboard villains, comic spells with Abu Akram, and the fedayeen’s bursting into the odd bit of song and dabkeh, the 11-year-old Tarek’s depiction of the camp is far from being an ad for international armed struggle. Jacir’s film is, rather, a fairy tale of what might have been.
ADFF continues through Oct. 20. For more information see http://www.abudhabifilmfestival.ae/.