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Tackling the Tough Palestinian Story
by Doniphan Blair
Tarik (Mahmoud Asfa) comes of age with a shave and a smoke in Annemarie Jacir's 'When I Saw You'. photo: courtesy A. Jacir
"WHEN I SAW YOU" IS A GOOD-LOOKING
and great-acted film which has received acclaim from the Berlin and Abu Dhabi International Film Festivals as well the 17th Arab Film Festival, which screened recently in Oakland as well as San Jose, LA and SF, where it was the opening night film. It is also Palestine's submission to the Academy Awards.
Unfortunately, unlike previous AFF openers I have seen, I found it narratively-closeminded—unless it's holding its cinematic query extremely close to its vest, until its final frame, in fact.
Written and directed by Annemarie Jacir, a prolific and talented Palestinian poet as well as filmmaker, who has made over a dozen, often award-winning, features and shorts, "When I Saw You" is produced entirely by Palestinians (a first), filmed in Jordan and concerns a boy named Tarik, masterfully manifested by Mahmoud Asfa.
Tarik feels trapped in the refugee camp, into which he was recently forced by the brutal if brief Arab-Israeli war of 1967. In addition to missing his old home and teacher, he longs for his father, who is apparently still in the West Bank.
Although the story is well-developed, even including humor (even military humor!), music and romance, after Tarik joins a Palestinian "fedayeen" fighters camp, it soon becomes a monomaniacal exegesis on the Palestinian right to return to their ancestral homes.
Alas, "The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture," Hitchcock noted and drama functions better as dialogue than polemic. While the Israelis are entirely unseen, except in the distance in the penultimate scene, the only argument among the fedayeen is: Should we attack now or wait until we are better trained?
Nevertheless, the obviously talented Jacir can't help but explore the complexities within her characters. Tarik remains fixated on finding his father even as he injures his doting mother (the excellent Ruba Blal), denigrating her for driving his father away and abandoning her to join the fedayeen in the hills.
He also does poorly at school. But he is math savant able to do big figures in his head, which symbolizes to me that he should be able to crunch the numbers of the Middle East, notably the quantity and size of the Muslim, Arab and Jewish countries.
Palestinian poet/filmmaker Annemarie Jacir is the director of the Arab Film Fest's opener, 'When I Saw You'. photo: courtesy A. Jacir
In this era of Arab Spring protestors reaching for the stars but often falling harshly to earth, to highlight the nostalgia of Palestinians returning to their homes seems to me to be a profound waste of the power of art.
Although "When I Saw You" concerns Palestinians expelled by the ill-fated Israeli seizure of the West Bank, they fell into the refugee situation established in 1948 when the 750,000 Palestinian refugees were only a fraction of the decade's over 30 million refugees world-wide.
If it is ever to be solved, the unique tragedy of the Palestinians must be addressed by Arab artists. Unfortunately, the elephant in the room is the fact that their horrific tragedy is not that the Israelis brutally forced them from their homes, a traumatic experience the Palestinians share with tens of millions of other refugees, but that they were denied refuge by their fellow Arabs.
In the late 1940s, there were three million German refugees, of whom almost a million were murdered in transit, 13 million Indian-Pakistani refugees, a million of whom were killed, and the 950,000 "Arab" Jews expelled from Arab countries, who were in desperate need of a single Jewish nation to flee to.
Admittedly, some will suggest I am a bit biased given I am Jewish and my mother is a survivor of Auschwitz. But since she was also a refugee who travelled thousands of miles and through a dozen countries before finding a home, I might have some extra insight.
If Middle Easterners had accepted the legitimacy of the Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms, anti-Semitism and then the Holocaust in the 1880s, 1930s, 1940s, 1980s, or in 2000 at Sharm El Sheikh, when the combined charisma of Clinton and Arafat could have made it stick, there would be peace now and at least some "Right of Return" enacted.
The great tragedy of the Middle East is that the Arabs elected not only to deny refuge to the Jews of Arabia, whom they themselves expelled, as well as to the Jews of Europe, whom the Europeans expelled—two vaguely understandable positions between parties at war—but to deny refuge to their co-religionists and cousins, the Palestinians.
When Tarik's mom (Ruba Blal) criticizes the teacher in the refugee camp, is the filmmaker taking on the Palestinian educational system? photo: courtesy A. Jacir
Admittedly, that denial was under the pretext that the Zionists would be defeated, allowing the Palestinians to return, but to this day the Lebanese, Jordanians, Syrians and other Arab states have largely denied citizenship to the Palestinians, a position made even more absurd by the millions of Arabs who sought refuge in Europe and the Americas and have been granted citizenship there.
For example, the Gaza Strip was conquered and made a closed refugee camp by Egypt in 1948, a ruling enforced to this day, despite the Israeli withdrawal in 2005 and the fact that Hamas, the elected rulers of Gaza, emerged from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. To add irony to insult and injury, Hamas' sworn enemy Israel is still tasked with supplying Gaza with electricity and transport routes.
This immense and enigmatic reality is crying out for filmic exploration. It probably has to be addressed through a story which brings the players together in a fresh way, like Palestinian and Israeli dealers collaborating to use Gaza's tunnels to traffic drugs, as suggested by Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Diab, see
, or a black comedy, "Dr. Strangelove"-style.
Throughout history, refugees have been assimilated into new societies, often within one generation, as was the case with my family, but the Palestinians are the first-ever eternal refugees (certified by the UN).
Even more tragically, the Middle Eastern denial of refuge to the Palestinians as well as the Jews sets the stage for the abrogation of rights of other minorities, the Coptic Christians in Egypt, the Sunnis in Syria and Iraq and the Shi'a in many other countries.
Triply tragic is that monotheism emerged in the Middle East specifically to unify a population divided by three major civilizations, dozens of deities and hundreds of tribes. Alas, the obvious symbolism of one god creating all humans equally was unable to appease human nature and was co-opted by crazed sectarians for short-term political gain.
Meanwhile, the one and half million Arabs living in Israel have citizenship, vote, are represented in the parliament, receive social services, etc. To be sure, 65 years of wars and threats inhibited the normalization of their status and the West Bank Palestinians remain oppressed and in a terrible limbo.
Tarik enjoys himself at the fayadeen training camp probably not sure of what comes next. photo: courtesy A. Jacir
Of course, this latter problem is the one Jacir is attempting to address. Fortunately, her ending is ambiguous and perhaps that is her point. Because the problem is so intractable, she may feel she has to lure in her audience with a single-minded storyline but then, at the very end, confront them with the hint of a second possibility.
Unfortunately, I couldn't discern what that was nor could much of the audience. One viewer, whom I overheard exiting the show, said to his mate: "A great movie. She got it exactly right, except for the training of the feyadeen. It was much more rigorous."
Yes, reaching a "Two State Solution" is critical. But the Middle East is now under attack from much bigger forces notably the movement of the many forward towards democracy and of the few back to the medieval practices of al-Qaeda or the even older Sunni-Shi'a civil war.
Yes, reviving the feyadeen to fight the Jews would unify Islamists and democrats alike, as well as the Iranians, but that would probably only end like earlier conflagrations, if not much worse. Regardless of outcome, it would postpone the parsing of the underlying problems which artists and filmmakers and especially the Arab ones are obliged to eventually have to investigate.
Posted on Oct 28, 2013 - 10:39 AM