The Palestinian filmmaker talks about the refugee stories in When I Saw You.
Following her acclaimed debut Salt Of This Sea (2008), Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir has returned to the subject of refugeesand displacement with her second feature, When I Saw You, which screens at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in the New Horizons competition.
The story follows 11-year-old Tarek and his mother, who have fled to a refugee camp in Jordan after Israel seized control of Palestine in the summer of 1967. Tarek just wants to go home, and when he runs away from the camp, he discovers a group of Palestinian freedom fighters living in the forest.
Tarek is played by Mahmoud Asfa, now 14 years old, and his mother by Ruba Blal. The film received its world premiere in Toronto and is being sold internationally by The Match Factory.
Why did you decide to tackle this subject through the eyes of a child?
I didn’t live in that period, so in a way this is my fantasy of that time, through a little boy who doesn’t really understand what’s happening. Him and his mother have become refugees, but he doesn’t understand this concept, and he has all these questions that nobody can answer. Then he finds this group of fighters, and he thinks he’s one of them, but he doesn’t really get what they’re doing.
So why a child? It’s because I have many of the same questions as Tarek - I don’t understand borders and separation. Also I didn’t want it to be political and didn’t want politicised characters.
It’s also about why the late ’60s is important to us as Palestinians - when I was growing up people would always talk about ‘before’ and ‘after’ 1967. It was a difficult year for Palestinians, but there was actually a hopefulness at that time all over the world, with the anti-war movement, and people felt they had the ability to do something about their lives. We all know that later things go bad, but I wanted to capture that sense of hopefulness.
The freedom fighters’ camp appears to be a much more pleasant environment than the refugee camp - was that deliberate?
Well they’re both camps, but I wanted to portray it from Tarek’s point-of-view without being idealistic. I’ve also given hints that it’s not all hearts and flowers between the fighters. There’s an indication that egos are involved and that groups will eventually splinter, which is what really happened with the Palestinian resistance. I also wanted to capture from the boy’s point-of-view how they were the rock stars of the decade.
How did you research the resistance movement?
They were so well photographed - there’s so much film and photography of both the camps and the fighters by Arab and international media. They were also a mixed group, with people from all over the world, as at that time all the leftist movements were involved with each other. I found material in Russian film archives and Godard made a film in the late ’60s, Here And Elsewhere, after living with the fighters in Jordan.
Where did you find Mahmoud Asfa?
I found him in Irbid refugee camp in the north of Jordan during a huge casting process. He’s a very special kid in the script - not at all self-conscious, full of hope and very open. I became very depressed during casting as we were interviewing boys aged 11-13, and by that age they’re already closed up and self-conscious. But Mahmoud was completely different.
We filmed without any money for post-production - but I wanted to shoot quickly because I knew he was the one, and I didn’t want him to grow a moustache by the time we had the money. Salt Of This Sea took six years to finance. So we filmed last year and were stuck for several months without money to complete the film.
Where did the finance to finish the film eventually come from?
We got support from Sanad and Thessaloniki’s post-production fund, so we finished the film in Greece at their post-production facilities. When we were shooting we had money from private investors and small amounts from film funds like Tribeca Film Institute and Global Film Initiative.
Funding still has to be a kind of a patchwork in this region, although this film had a lot of Arab money, while Salt Of This Sea was entirely European financing. This film had money from Arab investors, who were not film people but had seen Salt Of This Sea and liked it and wanted to be involved in supporting this. Dubai also helped with script development.