Why Americans must see ‘When I Saw You’

Israel/Palestine
on 52 Comments

For a long time it has been clear that the American love affair with Israel will not be altered by journalism or government or activism or scholarship, it will come down to art. Only great works of storytelling are going to break the spell, and last night I saw one of those works. If Americans would only see Annemarie Jacir’s film “When I Saw You”, which has been out for a year now (and won the Best Asian Film award at the Berlin International Film Festival), it would be the end of the special relationship. We would see Palestinians as people like ourselves; and the right of return would cease to be a piece of international law or of leftwing magical thinking; it would be understood in spiritual terms, as a birthright.

The film’s manner combines gritty period realism and mythology. It is 1967, and a refugee camp in Jordan. Tarek, 11, and his mother were forced to leave the village of Bayt Nuba in Palestine during the Six Day War. His father is missing. He wants to go home. That’s all he wants, to go home, and find his father. The film was shot in Jordan and produced entirely by Palestinians with Palestinian investment, and while deeply political, there is not an ideological moment in the telling, and the theme is simple– return. That idea animates everything, and after fifteen minutes into the picture, all the cant about the right of return, refugee camps, Palestinians– every bit of it from all sides has been dispensed with, and these people made real. This is the actors’ work, more than Jacir’s. Mahmoud Asfa, a refugee, plays Tarek, and is as adorable as the yearning boy of the Red Balloon, and Ruba Blal’s performance as his noble but slightly passive and accepting mother is magnificent.

Tarek tries three times to run away from the camp because he wants to go home. His awareness is encapsulated by a scene in the camp, when refugees are watching a black and white television on which Arafat is being interviewed by a western reporter. “We were refugees. Homeless. We became now fighters,” he says in English. Tarek turns to the man next to him. “What is he saying?”

“He says, we are going home.”

The camp scenes are so dispiriting I cannot begin to convey the mood. This is achieved not with squalor– except for the brief shot of the interior of the latrine, after which Tarek says, I miss my bathroom– but poetically, as when the woman who runs the sewing shop in which the refugee women work says with a big smile, It’s so nice to get the new refugees, with their creative new patterns. I.e., the other patterns are now 19 years old, from 1948. And we’re here forever.

The story does a 180 a third of the way through when Tarek runs off and finds his way to a guerrilla camp, of fedayeen. Song fills the screen– a devastating and thrilling performance of a song about a garden by Ruba Shamshoum, over the campfire — and that’s it. The rest of the film pretty much takes place in the camp, in the glory of nature and heroic men and women, with the tension of Israeli violence looming right outside the frame. Jacir does for the hills of the Jordan valley what Hemingway did for the mountains outside Madrid in For Whom the Bell Tolls. She gives an archaic romance to every arrangement the fedayeen undertake, from painting revolutionary posters to assembling Kalashnikovs and grenades smuggled from Russia. These people are all doomed, we sense, but their commitment and humor and fecklessness destroy the definition of terrorism in an instant. If Americans could only see these characters, they would understand that many of us would be picking up guns if someone forced us off our land, and begin to embrace the idea of justice for Palestinians– and we would dry up one reservoir of extremism across the Middle East. (And before you start arguing about compensation or restoration, I say that the most important act is recognition, acknowledgment, apology–the spiritual territory of this picture.)

Again Tarek tries to run away. I lost count of how many times he tries in the film, four or five. Of course I won’t give away the ending, which comes as a complete, and inevitable, surprise.

Annemarie Jacir

Annemarie Jacir

The film works not because of the beautiful performances and cinematography, but because it is based on an ancient story that no one needs to explain to us, for it goes back to Ulysses: the desire to return home. Jacir’s achievement is that she understood the simplicity of her theme and fleshing it out in a million ways, made it come alive as never before. Her movie is in New York at the Museum of Modern Art another week. It will be many other places in months to come. Go see it, and get others to see it too.

P.S. I read the New York Times short and respectful review after I saw the picture, and can’t begin to say how dismaying it is. As if this is a film about soldiers.

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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52 Responses

  1. unverified__5ilf90kd
    January 18, 2014, 12:41 pm

    You say that the review was “dismaying”. I agree with you. You need to analyze the reasons why such a review can be less than enthusiastic based on the motivation of the reviewer. I believe that there is irrational love for Israel and irrational hate for Israel. This learning process and associated emotions color the rationality and conclusions of many otherwise intelligent people. I was brought up in Northern Ireland and I was a witness to the irrational fears and rhetoric of Protestants and Catholics that were the result of 800 years of conflict. It is amazing how this emotion and hatred have been dissipated in the last two generations and reason now dominates the cooperation between the parties. Our peace process was a huge success thanks to American intervention. This is encouraging news for Israel and Palestine. I think that Kerry and Obama will be successful in the next three years and the 2-state solution will be a reality. Kerry’s key is that he has involved the entire world, not just the local parties.

    • Sycamores
      January 18, 2014, 1:52 pm

      when the next generation of the Northern Irish replace the ‘old boys’ in government i reckon the last remnants of the troubles will be a thing of the past.

      a lot of credit goes to people of Northern Ireland both Prostestants and Catholics who wanted a better life.

      i remember friends of mine applying for jobs in Northern Ireland back in the 80’s having to state what religion they were on the application forms. quailifications came second.

      the Good Friday Agreement

      The Agreement acknowledged:
      # that the majority of the people of Northern Ireland wished to remain a part of the United Kingdom;
      # that a substantial section of the people of Northern Ireland, and the majority of the people of the island of Ireland, wished to bring about a united Ireland.

      a similar agreement could have been an solution for the Palestinians and the Israelis, now it might be the outcome rather than a solution the way that israel is behaving.

      Senator George J. Mitchell was great in Ireland but ‘hit a brick wall’ when it came to israeli-Palestinian peace talks link to huffingtonpost.com

      i suppose the question is how many generations would it take the Palestinians and Israelis to come to an amicable conclusion if a solution or a eventual outcome happen.

    • Daniel Rich
      January 19, 2014, 4:20 am

      @ unverified__5ilf90kd ,

      Q: I think that Kerry and Obama will be successful in the next three years and the 2-state solution will be a reality.

      R: And what will the Palestinians ‘victory’ be? An unlivable, disconnected junkyard? What will happen to the right to return? And who will return to what; leftovers for the ‘leftovers?’ I talked to Irish kids, about 43 years ago, and the only think they went on and on about was the ongoing conflict and bloodshed, so I’m really glad things have much improved in your region. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Palestinians will be allowed to embrace very much. I’m a positive guy, but in this case, I see a lot of darkness.

      Thanks for bringing this up [the film].

    • NickJOCW
      January 19, 2014, 5:18 am

      The reason the review is dismaying may simply be that the reviewer was bored, not by the film itself of course, but by being required to review it. It doesn’t lend itself to the linguistic elegances film critics so relish in their mutual self esteem.

      Comparisons with Northern Ireland are perhaps a shade too deep. If there must be an historical parallel, perhaps the Etruscan invasion of Northern Italy that came from who knows where, started with war and dominance, dissolved into the melting pot of Rome, and vanished leaving only examples of its remarkable art and persistent echoes of its customs.

  2. Whizdom
    January 18, 2014, 1:22 pm

    Shame on NYT.

  3. American
    January 18, 2014, 1:35 pm

    This film will take years, if ever, to make it to my neck of woods.
    Searched the net for place to buy the DVD and cant find one.
    The home web site for the film says DVD’s available late 2013……link to whenisawyou.com
    But the the email submit on the contact page isnt working so no help there.
    If anyone knows a source please post.

    • Sumud
      January 18, 2014, 7:29 pm

      Looks like you can buy the DVD from this Swiss company:

      link to trigon-film.org

      Not sure what shipping is though.

      • American
        January 18, 2014, 11:09 pm

        @ Sumud

        thanks, will check.

      • seafoid
        January 18, 2014, 11:12 pm

        Cheers , Sumud

        I know a lot of people think streaming is better than DVD but I really think I need to start a collection of films that cover the Zionist dusk – Defamation, 5 broken cameras, the Gatekeepers and now this .

      • Sumud
        January 19, 2014, 10:50 am

        seafoid of those I haven’t seen The Gatekeepers yet – have you?

        I’d add lots more to the list some more general but all made in Israel or Palestine and about the conflict in one way or another – might be helpful or interesting for other readers – any suggestions ?
        Documentaries
        – Gan
        – earlier film by Yoav Shamir (Defamation) called ‘Checkpoint’
        – Budrus
        – To Shoot an Elephant
        Feature films
        – Paradise Now
        – The Lemon Tree
        – The Promise (mini-series)
        – Miral
        – Salt of this Sea (not seen this yet but looks v. good)
        – all 3 of Elia Suleiman’s films, such a genius – from Divine Intervention:

        link to youtu.be

        Haven’t been able to locate a copy so far but would love to see Vanessa Redgrave’s documentary The Palestinians from the 70s.

      • NickJOCW
        January 19, 2014, 5:49 am

        @Samud. Thanks. Found it. Ordered it. €24 to Spain.

      • bintbiba
        January 20, 2014, 7:56 am

        Done, thanks Sumud for the info.

  4. just
    January 18, 2014, 2:04 pm

    “The film works not because of the beautiful performances and cinematography, but because it is based on an ancient story that no one needs to explain to us, for it goes back to Ulysses: the desire to return home. ”

    This is the entire crux of the matter, isn’t it? And this is why the demonization of a people has continued, successfully (thus far) by the Zionists and their dumbed down synchophants. A film that is apparently so visceral, and that appeals to our very innermost longings, must be hidden from view by the oppressors…..

    “We would see Palestinians as people like ourselves; and the right of return would cease to be a piece of international law or of leftwing magical thinking; it would be understood in spiritual terms, as a birthright.”

    I agree that it is thru art that the world will finally understand how very horribly we have treated the indigenous Palestinians. For it is true– they have been denied their “birthright”. I can’t wait to see this.

    Thanks, Phil. ( you write so beautifully!)

    • seafoid
      January 18, 2014, 4:09 pm

      “I agree that it is thru art that the world will finally understand how very horribly we have treated the indigenous Palestinians”

      The Zionists beat the idea that “the Palestinians are not like us” to death. It comes constantly from them. They don’t love their children, they are savage, they are terrorists, they are different.

      And it’s all bullshit.

      • just
        January 18, 2014, 4:21 pm

        Oh seafoid– thanks so much for that beautiful video of that incredible song. In this context, it takes on extra-special meaning…… ;}

      • seafoid
        January 18, 2014, 4:57 pm

        Just

        I came across it via the “never again” tour video that was on here 2 or 3 years ago
        link to vimeo.com

        I didn’t know what the music was . Really powerful with the photos of the Shoah and what the bots have done to the Palestinians. Eventually I figured it must have been Lisa Gerrard and it was easy from there. I didn’t ever watch Gladiator.

        That video has more content than Hophmi’s entire Mondo back catalogue.

      • just
        January 18, 2014, 5:11 pm

        I never watched it either! (I got earfuls about how I fell asleep during it, though)

        “That video has more content than Hophmi’s entire Mondo back catalogue.”

        seafoid, you are a treasure. One minute you have me teary, the next laughing like a loon!

      • bintbiba
        January 18, 2014, 7:37 pm

        Just , so true. My heart was throbbing in my throat!

        Seafoid, you really are a treasure. From the sublime to the ridiculous and backwards.
        I wish there was a way to Skype so I could answer the request you made on another page. The story is too long !
        My thinking didn’t evolve, simply was bashed and pummelled through the various conflicts and turbulences of dysfunctional society , wars ,consequences, conflicted loyalties…and that at a very young age.

  5. DICKERSON3870
    January 18, 2014, 2:45 pm

    RE: “If Americans would only see Annemarie Jacir’s film ‘When I Saw You’, which has been out for a year now (and won the Best Asian Film award at the Berlin International Film Festival), it would be the end of the special relationship.” ~ WEISS

    IF YOU HAVE A NETFLIX MEMBERSHIP, PLEASE GO AHEAD AND PUT THIS FILM IN THE “SAVED” PART OF YOUR DVD QUEUE (AND RATE IT FIVE STARS) TO ENCOURAGE NETFLIX TO MAKE IT AVAILABLE.

    When I Saw You, 2012, NR
    Displaced to a Jordanian refugee camp with his mother in the wake of the Six-Day War, a restless 11-year-old Palestinian has trouble adjusting. Yearning to reunite with his missing father, the headstrong boy sets out on a life-changing journey.
    Director: Annemarie Jacir
    Language: Arabic
    Netflix format: availability date unknown
    Netflix listing - link to dvd.netflix.com

  6. Pamela Olson
    January 18, 2014, 3:38 pm

    My husband and I are going to the MoMA to see it tomorrow (Sunday) at 2:30pm. Really looking forward, though with a pit of dread in my stomach. The harrowing horrible harshness of this exile hurts afresh with each new telling, and this looks and sounds like a very genuine and penetrating one.

    I look forward to the day when justice is finally done and films like this are historical retellings rather than fresh living pain with little hope of resolution.

    • just
      January 18, 2014, 4:07 pm

      Agreed, though I have more “hope” than I have had in years.

      Have a wonderful experience @ MoMA with your husband. Keep your hope alive and burning bright. You’ve done so much good already.

    • thetruthhurts
      January 18, 2014, 5:32 pm

      “with a pit of dread in my stomach”.
      ah. that’s real touching, i hope you don’t hurt!
      maybe you might like to be sleeping at night with your husband and have a “made in the USA just for israel” bulldozer tear down your house that had been in your family for hundreds of years.
      then how’d you feel?

      • Pamela Olson
        January 20, 2014, 5:26 pm

        It is very strange to assume that because it pains me to see or be reminded of real suffering via narrative fiction… I somehow trivialize or fail to empathize with, er, real suffering?

        I don’t really see what you are getting at, other than trollish and/or uncharitable behavior.

  7. George Smith
    January 18, 2014, 3:58 pm

    “For a long time it has been clear that the American love affair with Israel will not be altered by journalism or government or activism or scholarship, it will come down to art.” –Philip Weiss

    As moved as I was by Jacir’s other awda (return) film “Salt of This Sea” (available on Netflix; I haven’t succeeded in getting a copy of “When I Saw You” yet), Phil’s sentence is incoherent, and I hope that as a journalist and activist he doesn’t believe it. Otherwise, why am I donating to this site?

    The arc of the moral universe is long, and to bend it toward justice we need:

    1. Responsible journalism

    2. Government action

    3. Sustained activistm

    4. Honest scholarship

    5. Art: Annemarie Jacir’s, Carlos Latuff’s, Rafeef Ziadah’s,……

  8. Kate
    January 18, 2014, 4:08 pm

    Listen to Ruba Shamshoum’s haunting song from the film:

    • just
      January 18, 2014, 4:26 pm

      And it was their ‘house and garden’, their ‘pure Paradise’ and their ‘song’– their home.

      It shall be, again restored to the rightful owners– hopefully in my lifetime.

      Thanks, Kathleen.

      • bintbiba
        January 18, 2014, 7:48 pm

        And now you’ve got me blubbing!!

        Thank you Kathleen. We had a jasmine tree, lilies around Eastertime and violets and roses too.

      • bintbiba
        January 19, 2014, 5:29 am

        Sorry , Kate!! Thank you for everything.

      • seafoid
        January 19, 2014, 12:45 am

        Ummi/Mother is another great song about that time and now

        As is jawaz as safar/passport

        Does Mahmoud Darwish get any mentions in the film?

      • RudyM
        January 20, 2014, 7:47 pm

        I think the most moving moment of the Mahrajan al-Fan Arab arts festival (mostly music oriented) I attended in Brooklyn back in the 90s was when most of the audience sang along as Marcel Khalife performed one of his songs.

      • just
        January 19, 2014, 5:50 am

        I’m sorry– Thank you, Kate.

  9. seafoid
    January 18, 2014, 4:18 pm

    Bruno Barbey, the Magnum photographer, went to Jordan in 1970 to document the Palestinian situation

    link to magnumphotos.com

  10. Mike_Konrad
    January 18, 2014, 6:55 pm

    The reason America will never support Palestine is because at least 1/4 – probably 1/3 – of Americans subscribe to a dispensationalist Zionist view of eschatological Christianity.

    You can pull the hair out of your head about that, but it is so.

    • RudyM
      January 20, 2014, 7:16 pm

      Even if you are correct that a Christian Zionist block of that size is enough to prevent U.S. support for Palestine, I don’t see why you assume the theological trend can’t change. Evangelical Christianity is not doing a great job of attracting or retaining young people in the U.S. Also consider that if Israel were finally to do something that angers enough Americans (such as dragging us into an unwanted war with Iran), the theology might just change to accomodate the political mood. Of course, that particular example could be an extremely high price to pay for such change.

  11. RoHa
    January 18, 2014, 8:44 pm

    Sounds like an excellent film.

    But.

    Does it have a car chase? Major Hollywood star? Lots of computer special effects? Rampaging dinosaurs? Steamy sex scenes?

    No?

    Might not be on prime-time TV soon, then.

  12. giladg
    January 19, 2014, 2:40 am

    Regarding 1967 Philip, don’t forget to remind the flock that there were zero settlements as you know them today, East Jerusalem including the Old City, was controlled by Jordan, the West Bank in its entirety, was controlled by Jordan, but yet the Arabs still found the hate in them to band together with the intention of wiping Israel off the map. You cannot deny this Philip. You need to man up to this fact. This means that the Arabs have no intention of reconciling with the Jewish people and Jewish history. Talking about Jewish history, I see you are quiet about UNESCO’s decision not to show the exhibit about the 3,500 connection the Jewish people have to the land of Israel. We know you are an anti-Zionist Philip, but the UNESCO’s exhibit should be something that all Jews can support?

    • OlegR
      January 20, 2014, 7:07 am

      Philip decided for himself a long time ago that the problem was not 1967 but 1948
      he is just a little timid about saying it out loud.

      • talknic
        January 20, 2014, 9:14 am

        OlegR “Philip decided for himself a long time ago that the problem was not 1967 but 1948″

        Indeed it was 1948 when Jewish forces were already outside the proclaimed territory link to trumanlibrary.org of the Jewish state on the day independence took effect at 00:01 may 15th 1948 ME time. They’re still outside the territory of the Jewish State. Still illegally dispossessing non-Jews.

        Occupation has gone on for 65 years link to mfa.gov.il

      • Talkback
        January 20, 2014, 3:06 pm

        I noticed an increase of “Philip” bashing from our Zionist trolls.

      • miriam6
        January 20, 2014, 4:40 pm

        I noticed an increase of “Philip” bashing from our Zionist trolls.

        No – it is called having a right of reply and free speech – neither of which you grasp the importance of ..

        Especially given that it is Oleg’s country that Philip Weiss is talking about.

      • just
        January 20, 2014, 8:39 pm

        It’s because he’s successful and unerringly truthful, and he and the great contributors here have punched a gigantic hole in zionist hasbara and exposed it for any who care to see.

        Nothing succeeds like success.

      • Talkback
        January 21, 2014, 8:26 am

        I just noticed that the Zionist fetish porn site masada2000 is down. Is there any other list, Philip could achieve to get on this year?

    • Talkback
      January 20, 2014, 8:41 am

      … but yet the Arabs still found the hate in them to band together with the intention of wiping Israel off the map. … the 3,500 connection the Jewish people have to the land of Israel.

      The usual Hasbara BS.

      If the majority of Palestians – who happened to be Arabs – wanted back the unity of Palestine than it is “wiping Israel of the map” and because of “hate”. If a minority of Palestinians – who happen to be Jewish – literally wipe Palestine off the map than it’s only the “3,500 connection of the Jewish people”.

      It doesn’t get more stupid and racist.

      • MHughes976
        January 20, 2014, 9:04 am

        You’re absolutely right. Rejection on principle of the claims of others is not necessarily hate-filled or irrational: everything depends on how valid the principle is. To call it ‘hatred’ without more ado is itself an expression of hatred.
        The ‘connection’ is asserted rather than explained. Current political rights do not spring from ancient history. Moreover, if we mean that there have been people there for thousands of years who considered themselves Jewish we find that it’s just as true that there have been people who considered themselves something else.

      • Talkback
        January 20, 2014, 2:49 pm

        In the Zionist supremacist mindset a “Jewish connection” trumps Gentile habitual residency or citizenship and Jews outside of hist. Palestine always have more rights than Gentiles inside of it.

      • puppies
        January 21, 2014, 9:36 am

        @talkback – Masada site closed by ISP censorship:

        link to richardsilverstein.com

    • puppies
      January 20, 2014, 10:27 am

      Are you Zionists all morons? I don’t believe it and it’s statistically unlikely. So how come you all continue to use “Jews” where “Zionists” applies, even after millions of warnings? Why this desperate and transparent insistence on transferring worldwide indignation against Zionist crimes to “Jews”? Obviously because Zionism cannot survive without fabricating racism directed at Jews.
      As for the Unesco, the decision is to be applauded, as no such “connection” can be established except in fictional elucubrations.

  13. petersz
    January 19, 2014, 7:34 am

    Remember Cry Freedom a 1987 film directed by Richard Attenborough, set in the late 1970s, during the apartheid era of South Africa? All it takes is one blockbuster film that resonates to global audiences to advance a cause.

  14. Kate
    January 19, 2014, 9:38 am

    Hey, never mind, it’s all the same name – Kate, Kathleen/Caitlin, Catriona, Katherine, Karen, Kathy, Kitty, Katya, Katrina, Trina, Yekaterina, etc., etc. – all from the Greek Αικατερίνη (Aikaterinẽ) acc to Wikipedia!

    • just
      January 19, 2014, 11:53 am

      Yes, it matters. I do apologize, You do yeoman’s work, and I thank you for it. You keep us apprised and honest– every day. Many thanks and apologies, Kate.

      You are my conscience.

  15. OlegR
    January 19, 2014, 6:38 pm

    Well this is our side of the story made in 1969.

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