• Icon Feed
  • Icon Twitter
  • Icon Facebook
  • Icon Print
  • Icon Mail

Following the Sun

Raffi Movsisyan of the 2013 Talent Press Sarajevo reviews the impressive children refugee drama WHEN I SAW YOU by Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir.


Annemarie Jacir's WHEN I SAW YOU

In the short but rich history of film there's a large number of movies about war. Especially in the contemporary cinema, where there are also lots of films that tell stories about refugees – most of which are focused on the social issues and cultural differences that result in clashes. The themes of war and refuge are directly or indirectly connected to one another. There are also lots of cases when these topics include children as the heroes of films. In the political conflicts, formation or change of different borders, the children become the most vulnerable group. However, there are very few movies about war and refugees where the presence of children in the film is more than an easy way to gain the audience’s compassion (TUTLES CAN FLY by Bahman Ghobadi (2004), INNOCENT VOICES by Luis Mandoki (2004), WINTER IN WARTIME by Martin Koolhoven (2008)). Maybe that is why I approach any artistic topic regarding war, or refugees, with initial pessimism. However, I could not hide my happiness when I discovered that Annemarie Jacir's WHEN I SAW YOU is one of those very few movies where the presence of a child is not a calculated device, but rather a chance to rediscover this well-known theme in cinema history.

WHEN I SAW YOU is Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir's second feature film of 2012. For independent cinema fans, Annemarie Jacir became famous in 2008 through her first feature film SALT OF THIS SEA, which was an Official Selection of the Cannes International Film Festival in 2008. It was also Palestine's submission to the 81st Academy Awards for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. WHEN I SAW YOU is a joint production of Palestine, Jordan, Greece and The United Arab Emirates. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and went on to win several major awards at various international film festivals.

The story takes place in 1967. The film tells the tale of 11-year-old Tarek who, with his mother, emigrated from Palestine and moved to a refugee camp in Jordan. 1967 was a year of historic importance for a number of countries in the Arab world, including Palestine. In the mid-1960s the question of the creation of a united Arab state was finally closed: most of the Palestinian territories came under Israeli control. Many Palestinians were forced to leave their homeland and take the refuge road. Some of them moved and settled in Jordan. A number of fedayee detachments were established during those years, dedicated to liberating Palestine. Many of the Palestinians in Jordan were active members of those groups. At the beginning of the film we are told that the film's action takes place in 1967. However, it should be noted that events of 1967 have only a background role in the film. The audience – which is unaware of these events – will still know nothing about the context after watching the movie. That is, if the movie had not mentioned when it is set, then not much would've changed. This film is a story about the hardships of a family of refugees, about their dream to return home, and is a story that could be relevant to any country at any time, regardless of ethnic or religious affiliations.

11-year-old Refugee

Out of over 200 children, 13-year-old Mahmoud Asfa was chosen for the lead role in this movie. Asfa is a member of a refugee family and was born in Palestine. All action in the movie takes place from his point of view. This is Mahmoud Asfa's first role in a movie. His performance is very convincing, and he sustained his character throughout the course of the film without giving any sense of boredom or fraud. One of the important features of WHEN I SAW YOU is the kid's ability to inspire humor, which creates an impression of a more adult person, when in fact the humorous elements are just the product of naive 11-year-old child. He cannot accept the idea of staying in the refugee camp, and wants to return to his homeland right away. Of course, his mother Layth – portrayed by the wonderful actress Ruba Blal – has the same dream, but her life experience makes the dream less bold. Tarek, however, is ready to hit the dangerous road back home.

Father's Precept

Tarek immigrated to Palestine with his mother, leaving his father behind. They look forward to the arrival of his father, who does not appear until the end of the film, and his indirect presence is constantly felt. Tarek cannot understand why they left their home, his bed... For him the war is just a game. He constantly asks why and when are they going back to see his father. In one of the more touching scenes, Tarek's mother gives him his father's advice: "You can get back home, if you follow the sun". The sun becomes a symbol of freedom and home throughout the entire movie. One day, Tarek runs away from the refugee camp and, by catching the sun, takes the road back home. This journey leads him to the secret camp of a fedayee squad. Tarek, who has dreamed of becoming a fedayee – to become famous and attract the attention of his beloved potential future wife – immediately complies with the forms and the accommodations that the soldiers experience, becoming friends with the commander Abu Akram (Ali Elayan). A few days later, his mother also appears in the secret camp – having searched for her son everywhere. Tarek does not manage to convince her to return to the refugee camp. He receives training from the soldiers, who become for him a generalized image of his father.

Romanticizing of the Fedayee Squad

The background of WHEN I SAW YOU is not only the historical period, but also the war itself. There are no battle scenes in the movie. Tarek's and his mother's lives have a remarkable significance to the fedayee squad. Every fedayee is actually an individual, but they come together to support one important idea. Harsh training days are followed by singing, dancing and entertaining nights. Some of the scenes in the film show us how the soldiers work night-watch shifts in order to avoid attacks. In contrast, in other scenes they are all gathered around the fire playing, singing and dancing, as in peacetime. Only the first song is translated into English, and tells of the dream to return home. The other songs are not translated, but we can assume that they are about the history of Palestine. Many of these songs are used in the film to represent the history of Palestine in a very unique way. But the question still remains as to why, in that case, did they not have English subtitles for so many songs?

The everyday life of the fedayee in the movie is represented in a greatly romanticized sense. It can be assumed that the camp becomes a great opportunity for the continuation of Tarek's education; he previously ran away from school. Tarek's presence in the camp actually adds a fairytale line to the story, which is quite remarkable. Even so, it can be assumed that it is Tarek's image, as such it is actually a collective dream and reality does not exist. He is directly proportional to a dream where people do not recognize borders, do not understand the meaning or existence of borders, and exclude them. This feeling is especially strained when Tarek decides to escape from the fedayee camp and cross the Palestinian border. As they run to the Palestinian border, the mother and son's petrous image – which is the film's afterword – is one of the best shots in the history of cinema, and is a great symbol of pacifism.

Cinematographic Feature

It's hard to say whether there was a period in the history of cinema where art-house and the more mainstream types of movies have been divided so radically as they are now. Today, these two types of films have become very remote from one another – two trends developing very independently – with no connection with each other. Of course, this artificial division – for which the festivals and film critics are to be held responsible – can be disastrous for cinema. Annemarie Jacir's WHEN I SAW YOU proves that there is no need to create an artificial art-house style to gain attention. This is a film that can be submitted to any festival, as well as television, and is a film which may capture the wider public interest. This story should set an example for the young – especially young moviemakers who are just making their first steps.



Imprint | © Berlinale Talents 2003-2017