I finally got round to watching ‘When I Saw You’, a Palestinian film directed by AnneMarie Jacir. This has been on my list since it came out in 2012 and each time I’ve set my mind on watching it, something would come up. However, last weekend, armed with popcorn and my laptop, making sure Mr. Fabulous was engrossed in the football, and JJ equally occupied with his Xbox, I pressed play and voila, here’s what it’s all about:
The film follows Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa), a Palestinian 11-year old boy in the Harir refugee camp for Palestinians in Jordan. The year is 1967 and Tarek and his mother Ghaydaa (played by Ruba Blal) are living in temporary prefab accommodation, as they wait for Tarek’s father to leave Palestine and join them.
Existing in a daily state of wait, Tarek does not fare well adjusting to his new life in exodus living solely in the hopes of one day soon returning to his home, his school, his friends. Although illiterate, he is a bright young boy with a knack for numbers. It is clear that he is suffering the consequences of displacement marked by aloofness, emotional outbursts, and a resolute unwillingness to accept his fate as the adults in the camp seem to have done. He struggles to grasp how life can keep going on when all he wants is to go back to a normalcy that was forcefully and without choice taken away from him.
And life, as we see in the camp, does seem to move on, albeit slowly and monotonously, as people of the camp marry, children go to school, men meet for coffee and one observes how even in these obviously harsh, exposed conditions with very little privacy there remains a sense of community with people trying to restore a sense of normalcy to their lives. Yet, always the waiting.
Tarek’s mum, who works in a make-shift sewing establishment, is clearly unhappy with the way things are but reassures her son that the camp is the safest place for the time being and the place where Tarek’s father will eventually come to join them. So, they too must wait.
One cannot blame Tarek for his unwillingness to adapt as the screen spans a long queue of men waiting to use the outside toilet, if one could call it that, which once Tarek gets a turn is revealed to be a cesspool of flies and human excrement, as if further proof were needed to the dire miserable day-to-day infringement on human decency in the camps. One shudders to think how people got by and is constantly reminded of the more recent refugees from Syria.
Day in, day out, expelled from school, Tarek anxiously awaits the arrival of the trucks that hoard in more of the refugees fleeing to safety and yet none deliver his father and nobody has news of him or his whereabouts. Who they do bring with them though is ‘freedom fighter’ Layth (played by Saleh Bakri) who is on the look-out for recruits to join the fight for reclaiming Palestine from the Israelis.
This is when Tarek’s interest is spiked and he develops a fixation that lies in abandoning the Harir camp to join the guerrilla Fedayeen. Spurred on by his panic that try as he can, he is forgetting details that should have been easy to remember from back home, and inspired by his mum’s words that home ‘is where the sun always rises’ he sets on his individual quest to join the fighters and return home.
This is where the film takes on a very interesting turn even more so when Ghaydaa joins her son and we meet the young men and women of the guerrilla. Expecting them to be blood thirsty individuals out for revenge, I was slightly taken aback by the director’s choice to present the audience with a group that was more about love not war, compassion not revenge, campfires and songs. The atmosphere was light, as if the group were on a school camping trip rather than a quest to liberate a country. Thankfully this lightness was balanced by the sturdy presence of character Abu Akram (played by Ali Elayan). Again, a notable refreshing take on the Fedayeen considering that although known as ‘freedom fighters’ by many Arabs, were tagged as terrorists by many of the Western world leaders.
‘When I Saw You’ is the story of a refugee, an 11-year-old Palestinian in this instance, that has had the carpet swept from under his feet. It is also about life witnessed through the eyes of a child who sees the world as vast and the possibilities as endless and the solutions as obvious unable to accept the finality and the unfairness of how things really are.
As young as he is, Tarek is a leader in his own right and whether you agree with the rightness or wrongness of the mission at hand, one thing is certain: the character is played by a mighty fine debuting actor.
‘When I Saw You’ is a Palestinian film directed by AnneMarie Jacir. A multi award winner for best Best Asian Film at the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival, NETPAC award, Best Arab Film at the Abu Dhabi International Film Festival, Special Jury Prizes at the Oran Film festival of Arab Cinema and the Cairo International Film Festival, the Film Critics Don Quixote Award of the Carthage International Film Festival, and Audience Choice Award as well as the SIGNIS Award for Best Film at the Amiens International Film Festival.
The film is available to buy or rent on itunes.