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Interview: Annemarie Jacir, director of ‘When I Saw You’

Annemarie Jacir is a Palestinian filmmaker and poet who has been working in i...

Credit: Annemarie Jacir/Philistine Films

Above: Annemarie Jacir is a Palestinian filmmaker and poet who has been working in independent cinema since 1998.

Born in Bethlehem and raised in Saudi Arabia, U.S.-educated Annemarie Jacir demurs when someone calls her the face of Palestinian cinema. Modest though she is, Jacir has been listed as one of 25 filmmakers to watch by Filmmaker Magazine and her work has put her firmly among the major directors of what is now being called the Arab New Wave.

Currently living in Jordan and traveling for projects, Jacir talked to Cinema Junkie via email about her work, Palestinian film and thinking about "home."

Film, for Jacir, is a way to work out the stories about Palestine that seem to follow her. Once asked why she doesn't make something other than Palestinian-themed work, Jacir replied that these are the stories that need to be told.

According to Jacir, her films draw on her experiences and those of other Palestinians and Palestinian-Americans around her.

Photo credit: Annemarie Jacir / Philistine Films

Annemarie Jacir has been called "the face of Palestinian cinema."

"Everything is drawn from my own experience although nothing is 'autobiography' or about me as a character. I feel all my characters are a part of me — from Emad to Soraya to Tarek to Ghaydaa. I draw on my own experiences and feelings but I create a fictional world and circumstances."

Although Jacir started working in film in the U.S. and eventually did an MFA in New York, she has returned to the Middle East both for the setting for her films and to work on projects as diverse as teaching film at Birzeit University and helming "Dreams of a Nation Project", dedicated to the conservation and promotion of Palestinian film.

According to Jacir, she started off as a film editor and did as much work as she could on other people's projects to hone her craft.

That dedication has paid off. Jacir has come a long way from the modest but insightful shorts she produced 10 years ago, one, "The Satellite Shooters," screened in San Diego in 2003 as part of a video short program called "Shouf: New Video From Middle Eastern America."

Both her feature films were entered as Palestine's selection for the Oscars. Jacir points out that she is but one of several directors to receive that distinction. Hany Abu Assad has had two, "Omar" in 2014 and "Paradise Now" in 2006. Elias Suleiman's "Divine Intervention" was almost nominated in 2003, but Palestine had yet to be designated as an independent state.

"I don’t care much for the Oscars but the fact that Palestine is being represented and Palestinian voice are getting out there is very important."

Currently, Jacir has been busy.

"I’m working on a few things and wearing several hats. I just finished writing a script for Mira Nair, I’m writing another one for an Italian producer, I produced a short film, I’m editing another film, and finally I am also working on my own new film which is in its very early stages."

And also traveling with 'When I Saw You" which has been well-received both in the Middle East, Europe, and in the US.

While Jacir feels her films are not exactly autobiographical, nevertheless, her work exudes a deep sense of longing for place, identity and a close tie to a homeland that lies just beyond the fence that separates the lover from the beloved.

Having spent her life partially in Saudi Arabia, partially in other places with visits to Bethlehem, she now lives in Amman, Jordan working on her projects, and "mostly tending to my garden in between projects. However yesterday I was thinking I should have become a carpenter. I think I could be a good carpenter."

Like her character Soraya, in "Salt of this Sea," a third-generation Palestinian in exile who returns to her family's former home, Jacir's plan was to live and draw her creative inspiration primarily from Bethlehem as well as the Occupied territories.

"Palestine is the only constant place I’ve known in my life — the only place I’ve always come back to. Other places were always temporary and even though I’ve lived in so many cities, I’ve never returned to any of them. So being here makes sense for me. It’s where my heart is. "

However, like young Tarek in "When I Saw You," Jacir unexpectedly found herself unable to go home.

In 2008, coming back into the Occupied Territories from editing in Europe, Jacir found herself held up at the Allenby Bridge crossing point for questioning for six hours by the Israeli authorities. Jacir was unable to attend the premiere of "Salt of This Sea," after they refused her entry because “you spend too much time here,” Israeli authorities told her.

Suddenly, Jacir, too, was in exile, separated from her husband and apartment, only able to see the land of her birth from a balcony in another country.

That shift in status has caused her to shoot most of her work in Jordan although a mysterious "change" in status two years ago that has allowed her to return for very brief periods of time.

"It's better than nothing," she said.

Jacir's current film,"When I Saw You," represents a major departure from her usual shooting style. Funded by primarily Middle East backers, Jacir chose to start principle shooting before all the funding was in for fear the boy playing Tarek would start to grow if they waited.

"I’ve shot all my fiction films to date on film, mostly Super16. This was my first fiction film in digital. It was something I was very uncomfortable with at first but we had to do it for budget reasons. Mostly I was uncomfortable before I was not sure we could achieve the look I wanted and especially at the film takes place in the late '60s. A digital 'look' was a nightmare to me. I can say now I have had a change of heart. I am also very lucky to have worked with Helene Louvart (who also shot 'Pina' by Wim Wenders). "

For Jacir, it was a dream collaboration.

Another positive aspect of the film was the work with the actors. Similar to films of the Italian neo-realism era, Jacir often works with non-professional locals and sets up situations for the leads to reach deep into their characters.

"First of all the casting process is one of the most important parts of filmmaking for me. I typically spend one year in casting. After that, I work very closely with them for at least three or four months or more if I can. A lot of our work is about building character and atmosphere rather than typical rehearsals.

"It was the same for 'When I Saw You.' I spent four months with Mahmoud Asfa (who plays Tarek) just creating the life he lives before he ever became a refugee, which is where the film begins."

The ending of the film has caused a lot of discussion among audiences and critics alike. Without needing a spoiler alert, it's safe to say that the film ends on a single word and a still that is a stunning and unexpected finish.

"Throughout the film there are references to specific (Palestinian revolutionary) films and photographs of the period. The freeze frame at the end is also an homage to the period. It’s not very fashionable these days to end films like that but I wanted to. I wanted to see this moment suspended in time… we all know what happens next. Perhaps not in the film but in life," she said.

Although listed as the first Palestinian woman to direct a feature length film, Jacir is more interested in who and what comes next.

"It doesn’t matter who is first at anything. What matters is there is no last and that there are more and more (...) and more importantly there are lots and lots of female filmmakers in Palestine, some of them working since before I was born. Palestine is full of fantastic filmmakers and people doing amazing work."

Jacir particularly is excited about up and coming filmmakers in the Arab world whose work, she feels, focuses on a wide variety of expressions

"I think Palestinian cinema is so diverse and so rich, with so many different filmmakers approaching their craft differently. I am personally very excited about the new generation and I think we are going to see some great work soon. I recently met a young Palestinian animator living in Berlin and I’ve been working with some new Palestinian filmmakers living in Hebron… it’s exciting to see people approaching things with a very fresh perspective."

Jacir's film, "When I Saw You," screens June 14, at 8 p.m. at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. Tickets and information available through karamanow.org

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