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Review: ‘When I Saw You’

New Film From Annemarie Jacir Is Gentle, Stunning Story

Above: Tarek looking for the Fedayeen in Annemarie Jacir's 'When I Saw You"

— For 11-year-old Tarek, life as a refugee is not so much about waiting as it is about looking toward something. In the latest feature from Annemarie Jacir, ‘When I Saw You,” Tarek (played with quiet intensity by new actor Mahmoud Asfa from Irbid Refugee Camp in Jordan ), can hardly stand the exhausted passivity he sees in his fellow Palestinian refugees who have just fled their villages for refugee camps in Jordan .

It's 1967, and Israel's victory in the Six day War as well as its occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights, Gaza, and the West Bank, has sent refugees streaming over the border, heading for camps still occupied by refugees from the 1948 exodus. Tarek and his mother have left behind their house, their friends and even Tarek's father, whom Tarek deeply misses.

It’s a portrait of a moment in a child’s life that brings home the daily humiliations of a refugee camp and the ache of displacement that makes the ending of this film all the more stunning.

An outspoken child with a touch of savant-like autism, Tarek can recite facts and figures but cannot read. His stressed out mother, Ghaydaa (a solid performance by Ruba Blal previously seen in "Miral") tries to keep him line while doing odd jobs to help them survive. Tarek’s persistent questions about when his father will join them are wearing her down and the conditions of the camp are wearing her out.

Little wonder then that Tarek finds himself drawn to the Fedayeen (resistance fighters) who seem to doing something while everyone else is just surviving.

Refused entrance to school because he is disruptive, and bullied by the other boys, Tarek takes advantage of a moment of inattention by the adults around him and slips off into the surrounding woods, intent on walking back to their home in Palestine.

He figures they walked out and can easily walk back in.

En route, he is intercepted by the Fedayeen he so admires, and soon he is their mascot, helping with training, learning to fight, getting his first shave.

But when Ghaydaa comes looking for him, Tarek is torn between being the little boy his mother cannot bear to lose and the romantic Fedayeen -many played by the sons and daughters of actual Fedayeen at the time - who will bring him back his father and the life he had before.

But Tarek soon learns that the Fedayeen, too, are waiting — like the refugees back at the camp — waiting for orders, waiting for the right time. While they seem to endlessly train, Tarek tries to find out when they will cross the border back to their towns and villages. Unable to suppress his desire to return home, Tarek takes matters into his own hands, and heads off, his frantic mother not far behind, towards a landscape that now includes barbed wire fences, armed Israeli guards and an outcome we can only numbly guess.

‘When I Saw You” is Jacir’s second feature and shows a growing ease with story and rhythm. While her last film, “Salt of this Sea,” about a third-generation Palestinian-American, Soraya, who returns to find the traces her family left behind, has a simmering anger that sometimes gets in the way of the narrative and the editing, ‘When I Saw You” has an engaging arc, a sensibility that gives its protagonists room to develop and sink into their stories. (see interview)

Jacir shot the movie in Jordan on digital film, a departure from her usual work on 16mm. Jacir’s fears of a less-than-satisfying visual seem unfounded, the natural light of the gorgeous scenery is carefully curved to give both the characters and their surroundings a depth and warmth that digital tends to rob from scenes shot outdoors.

What stands out are the details. Always attentive to the little things, Jacir has reached beyond her previous work and allows small moments to give the story weight and heft. For example, there is no need to go into great detail about how precarious Ghaydaa’s status is as an unattached woman in a refugee camp. The deeply felt look of wariness when the school teacher approaches her to talk about Tarek says it all. And her response to his smarmy offer of help with Tarek (“You can help by doing your job.”) speaks volumes about her sense of self.

Less overtly political than her previous work, Jacir's “When I Saw You” speaks to a deep sense of loss of self and home. For Tarek, it is the simple things: “I miss our bathroom, my father’s towel had a hole in it, mine didn’t” and for the adults, it is everything- in the way they eagerly welcome the letters they receive and the poignant song the Fedayeen , barely adults themselves some of them, sing at the camp. And as the Fedayeen wistfully dance the traditional dubke, Tarek grinning in the inclusive line of dancers, your heart cracks just a little, knowing their small respite will soon give way to worrying about Israeli strikes on the refugees.

By setting the film in 1967, a year of amazing shifts in many places of the world, with such attention to detail, Jacir is at once evoking a moment of hope for change and questioning the present- very much a device in Arab film that interrogates the present by portraying the past. For Jacir, it is a space in which light moments of interactions (when Ghaydaa joins the Fedayeen card game because one of them is cheating Tarek) are mixed with the hopefulness of both men and women that Palestinian society will find its future in its youth- tinged with the knowledge that many of those hopes were dashed in the intervening years and the restrictions that followed. It's a softer mood- one that is filtered through Tarek's young enthusiasm and the idealism of the dashing Fedayeen.

The film's mood is beautifully complimented by Helene Louvart’s superbly lensed shots with their deep shadows, gorgeous muted color and bounced light. The color is just a few steps above that of fading period photographs. Even though the film is shot in digital, it has none of the shininess and almost 3-d like edges some films have and the results are lush and velvety. The careful framing works to quietly underscore the characters' responses and the editing is fluid without forcing the storyline through to the conclusion.

In addition, the sound track compliments the story, evoking the 1960's from Cat Stevens to the haunting song sung by the lovely soulful voice of jazz singer Ruba Shamshoum, who plays one of the Fedayeen. Much of the original music is done by the superb Kamran Rastegar whose tracks never overwhelm the characters and are as beautifully tamped down as the cinematography.

Although the end will shock, this film makes it clear why Jacir, born in Bethlehem, raised in Saudi Arabia and educated in the U.S., is one of the leading directors of the Arab New Wave and a rising talent to watch.

"When I Saw You" screens Saturday, June 14 at 8 p.m. at The Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. The screening is part of a fundraiser for the San Diego Arab Film Festival. The event includes a dinner accompanied by music from Khalil Ibrahim, “one of the most revered violinists in Iraqi history.” and a photographic exhibit featuring the works of Jordanian-born Lily Bandak and Palestine’s Ibrahim Al Nashashibi. Admission is $12 or $50 with dinner. For tickets and more information go to www.karamanow.org

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