Why Americans must see ‘When I Saw You’

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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.

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