TIFF11 INTERVIEW: Annemarie Jacir, writer/director of When I Saw You

While at the Toronto International Film Festival I had the pleasure of sitting down for a chat with Palestinian-born writer/director Annemarie Jacir about her sophomore effort When I Saw You. With the World Premiere a mere hour away, one could see the excitement and passion she had for the film and the North American stage it would be debuting on.

Already with a Foreign Language Oscar selection from her native country for 2008’s Salt of This Sea, it wouldn’t be surprising to see this new film meeting the same fate. An authentic look at a young boy searching for a home he can’t understand is no longer his, the story is a universal one set against the backdrop of political revolution in the Middle East. Of the three movies I saw at this year’s TIFF concerning 60s and 70s era youth movements—The Company You Keep and Something in the Air the others—this was by far the best and it’s only made better through Jacir’s illuminating details about researching, shooting on location, and creating personal work.

The Film Stage: I wanted to start by seeing what the impetus was for telling this specific story.

Annemarie Jacir: Different things. I think I was in the mood to do something—because my first feature film [Salt of This Sea] was very much based in reality today and a sort of depressing situation. I was interested in a hopeful character and a hopeful time period.

I was interested in the time period. I was interested in [a] character that was full of hope and maybe naivety but really—is he really that naive? He doesn’t understand borders. He’s completely logical. He asks questions that no one can answer—I was interested in that kind of character also.

Myself being an American—we’re kind of indoctrinated into siding with the Israelis and your film really humanizes the Palestinian viewpoint. Do you see this as a way of educating audiences? Or was that not—

No. It’s not that idea. It’s not the purpose. I think it’s good—I hope the film gets seen because it’s not about this side or that side. I wanted it to have a personal story, about a mother and son—a boy [Mahmoud Asfa‘s Tarek] who is trying to be independent from [a] mother who he sees as overbearing. Because he’s a child with her, but when he finds this group of people he thinks he’s one of them. He has no political idea—it’s not a political film in that way. He has no idea what these guys are doing, no idea what they’re up to. He’s in a political context but he’s not—

They’re almost closer to home than the refugee camp is.

Yeah. And that’s all he cares about. He wants to go back. People in the refugee camp are like, “No we have to wait.” So he thinks he’s found people who are [thinking] like the way he’s thinking. That’s as basic as it is.

But yeah, it will be interesting I think in North America because [of] those guys—these freedom fighters, fadayee. I think people here have been indoctrinated to sort of [think they] are terrorists. But these guys aren’t; [this is] who they were.

I’m not saying the film is realistic. I never want to say that about it since it’s from [Tarek’s] point of view. But these were young people who were—like the 60s everywhere—[who] felt empowered, felt they had agency and wanted to take that agency to do something about their own lives. And no different than anybody in the 60s anywhere else—whether they’re political groups or anti-war movement or anti-colonialists, you know what I mean? There’s so many different—and they’re all somehow all over the world connected to each other. More than today, I think. People in that time period more in terms of a political atmosphere were much more connected than today. These guys knew what was happening all over the world. They knew about student movements in France, they knew about anti-war movements in the US. They were—it’s this Leftist ideology.

But there’s no war in it. You don’t see any violence.

Yeah, you hear about what happens to the camp, but you don’t actually see—

Yeah, you don’t see what these guys go and do [also] when they go on these reconnaissance missions or—we don’t know what they’re doing because I wanted to stay with the boy’s point of view of not really understanding what’s happening and how dangerous this atmosphere is.

These guys were hiding in that forest—that’s the actual forest they were in. That location is interesting. It’s the real location that the Palestinian fighters were hiding in and were constantly moving those tents from one part of the forest to another part of the forest. And when we went location scouting it was incredible because we found all kinds of stuff. We found bullets, we found this whole—there’s just a couple scenes in the film in the tunnels, but those tunnels were actually huge and we found all these tunnels and they’re connected to each other.

Because the Palestinians continued to stay there until the 70s. This time period of the film, it was still—they were new in the forest. But in reality they stayed there longer. And we found a tunnel that was like a hospital. Like you go inside and then suddenly it opens up and there were six rooms. Huge rooms. We found medical supplies like IV bags, all kinds of stuff because after they got out of there it was just abandoned. No one goes there much anymore. So it was really interesting to be in the actual location of where this was happening.

Did you get to speak to anyone who was there at the time?

Yeah, a lot. I did a lot of research, a lot of visual research like photographs and film archives for both the refugee camp look and then also the fighters. They documented a lot because they became like sexy in the international press at some point. So there’s actually a lot of photographs of those guys and how they were living in tents and what they were wearing.

There was a lot of research and I talked to a lot of people who were active at that time period. And that was kind of funny to them too because they were used to expecting like a political interview and I was like, “So what kind of cigarettes were you smoking? What was your favorite song?” These were the types of questions I was asking.

Well yes, those two scenes of [the fadayee] singing—they are just beautiful scenes. The human spirit incarnate.

Yeah, also because that’s what people did. It’s before all the entertainment that we have today. You’re in the middle of nowhere—yes they were training by day but they’re also [there] at night.

Did you tell the interviewees that it was going to be about a little boy coming into their camp? Were they conducive to that? Saying what might have happened if that actually occurred?

Yes, I did. They were like, “A boy shouldn’t be there.”

“Yeah, but if a boy is there …”

“Oh, we would take care of him.”

The guy who plays Layth [Saleh Bakri]—the sort of flirt with the mother [Ruba Blal‘s Ghaydaa]—for him it was very important to his character. He was like, “For me that boy is him.” For him as an actor that’s what [he’s] trying to protect. “It’s kind of who I am before I come to this.” He had his own conflict about [how] the boy should be there but the boy doesn’t have a father but he needs a father figure. So that was interesting too.

And then there’s the General character [Ali Elayan‘s Abu Akram]—just the way he interacts with Tarek is perfect. It kind of has a humor to it, but he’s still—I mean there’s that scene where he says, “You’re under my command”. There’s a very regimented chain of command.

Yeah. And also, the boy thinks he is one of them. But to them he’s not. He’s a kid.

He’s kind of like a mascot in a way. But he doesn’t realize that until he thinks he’s going with them on that mission with the other guys. He realizes he’s not—I mean once his mother shows up to the camp he’s once again a little boy. Whenever she’s around he’s like reduced to that. And he’s trying to be independent. He thinks he’s one of the guys.

Also, there’s the parallel—we see how good he is in math even though he can’t read and is chastised for it at the camp. As soon as he gets out of there, though, the fadayee appreciate him for what he’s good at. They know he’s smart and use that. It’s interesting when the mother comes in and she can see he belongs.

Yeah, exactly. He belongs—he’s more at home there. He’s good at math, but he’s not good at other things and so instead of being ostracized like in the refugee camp for that, [the fadayee] found everybody has their own thing they bring to the table.

And then it’s also, [his mother] kind of starts to replace—not to replace him—but she [becomes] the outsider. He’s got his own thing going on and she kind of throws that off.

Yes, like them knowing what he eats—nothing slimy.

Yes! Exactly. [laughter]

Could you talk a little about the actors? I know you’ve worked with Saleh Bakri in your first film. Have you worked with any of the others?

No. Actually I wanted to say: the actors that are the group of fighters—most of them are sons and daughters of the real fighters. So that was another interesting element to working on the film. These are the children of those guys. So that was nice too, it brought in a whole other element.

The boy [Asfa], it’s his first time acting. And the woman who plays the mother [Blal]—who is here [at TIFF]—I have not worked with her before but she’s an experienced actress and has been in a lot of theatre and a couple of films and I’ve wanted to work with her since I saw her in a film a couple years ago. She’s great.

Did you write the character of Layth for Bakri?

No. I didn’t write it thinking of Saleh, but I like working with him. He was good for the part.

How was Mahmoud? Did he catch on quickly?

He’s very smart. He’s so smart, that kid. I learned a lot from him. I mean that’s why I cast him. He’s very childish, [but] he’s got this openness and he’s not self-conscious. He’s not shy to do things. He asks a lot of questions and is very much like [the character] Tarek.

But at the same time he’s really mature and I think there’s a lot of reasons for that. He lives in a refugee camp. He has a big family. His older brother is Autistic and he sort of takes care of him. So he has that sort of mature side to him where he’s childish but also very—he has to defend his brother, his older seventeen-year old brother. So he’s got like a tough—

For example, in the opening sequence when he’s skating and those kids yell at him and come and push him. The first time we shot the scene—and [this] shows Mahmoud’s, (which is not like Tarek), it shows Mahmoud’s like street tough personality—he’s skating and those kids yell like, “Fuck your mother”. And when we first shot that, he stopped and turned around ready to punch the kid. And we’re like, “No, no!” He knew it was coming but then when he heard it, somebody yelled it at him, he was like—you could see it in the take. He just stops and turns around.

[We’re like], “You have to keep skating and those guys jump on top of you.”

As far as getting the look and everything with your research, could you talk a little about the fadayee. This is the start of the conflict in this period but the fight had been going on. Could you give a little background history?

It was the start, but they really weren’t a real army. They really were young people, volunteers, men and women. They’re not sophisticated, trained soldiers, so I had the actors go through military training but not that much because it’s not an army. You see them marching—they don’t march perfectly. I don’t know, someone who’s really into armies would probably laugh at them. But I wanted to keep that so they’re people who believe they have agency to do something. They want to change their lives. They believed at that time that change was possible.

Should we infer that the General and Layth—because they are very driven, very methodical. Would they have an army background?

You know who would is the General. Perhaps he was in the Jordanian army. He trained and left and now is training these young volunteers. That would be a realistic situation at that time.

It [gets] worse—like you said because what happens later [suicide bombings, etc.].

[…] I wanted to allude to this, but it’s not what the story’s about. The story’s about Tarek and his mother. But also that group of fighters later would grow and split into different factions and things got much bloodier and messier. So I wanted to allude to this with the character of Majed [Firas W. Taybeth] who Layth clashes with. I wanted to just allude to [the] egos when you have a group of people like that—egos and people who are more militant than others. Different opinions of what direction we should be going in.

So I wanted to have hints of that there because much later in Palestinian history, that’s what happens. There are splinter groups and some of them become more violent and some of them become less violent and some of them leave and some become corrupt businessman. I wanted to also have a hint of things [going] in that direction. But that’s not the story, but it’s there.

And it being through his eyes, did you—not necessarily make it like a fantasy—but did you alter any details to have things appear better or worse because of them being through the perspective of this boy? As far as him idolizing these fighters?

Yeah, he idolizes them. And in a way he doesn’t understand what they’re doing really, but also they’re the rockstars. These are these cool guys and they’re listening to music and they do this and it’s a little boy impression of who they are and how they’re living. That’s definitely part of it—not to have a real understanding of what’s going on.

Layth, for example, is going back and forth delivering letters. They all have their jobs and their roles there. It comes back to this thing where Tarek is like the mascot. He likes some of them and falls in and out of love with some of them. Layth is the hero, the rockstar. This is the guy when he appears to him—he’s intrigued by him. When he comes to the refugee camp, [Layth is] the one who finds him. But then that relationship—he’s no longer impressed with him.

It’s almost like jealousy when the mother comes in. She’s taking Layth away.

Yeah, exactly. So [Tarek] goes somewhere else—he’s more with Abu Akram.

And those hand-offs in the forest—where Tarek is sent out to retrieve weapons and the like. Who would be on the other side of those exchanges?

Yes, these guys, for example, are using him too. He’s a mascot, but those two guys are like, “We can find a job for him. Let’s use him to go do our shit work.”

But yeah, for example, that guy, those weapons were—I mean this is also when we were in the location. Like the hospital, we found stuff donated and they actually had the names of the countries that were donating. East Germany was donating, Russia was donating—it’s crazy. Cuba [too]. And also there’s like people from Cuba coming there training each other. I know of some people from the IRA who were—these Leftist movements. China, they were there.

There’s a lot of documentaries. They were totally mingling and training. Anyway, different time [laughter]. Totally different time.

But that guy who brings the weapons—in that specific case—local peasants were also helping these guys. It’s a whole process of smuggling in stuff. And when we shot there we also found a lot of local guys—not Palestinians—like Jordanian peasants who live in the area. And they were like, “We were completely helping these guys out.”

I mean there was a lot of tension between the Jordanian army and the Palestinians and the Jordanian army basically massacred and wiped them out. It’s a very touchy subject making the film in Jordan. We hit a raw nerve I discovered. It’s still a subject that people didn’t want to deal with.

Did you have issues with the government?

Yeah, we did. We had issues with our location.

To shoot in Jordan you need to get a location permission from the Jordanian army. And everybody gets it. There’s a lot of film shoots in Jordan—like Arab films. But [also] The Hurt Locker and whatever.

Everyone is shooting in Jordan these days because it’s like the film set for Iraq and for a lot of stuff. They never say no to anything. They said no to us. Yeah, they said no to us. We had the film commission, we were like, “What’s up?” And they’re like, “It’s the subject. You’re hitting on our raw nerve—the Palestinian/Jordanian tension and what happened in those years”.

It’s still an issue. The issue is they just don’t want to talk about it. “Let’s pretend it didn’t happen. Let’s not discuss it.” And we had a lot of that reaction from people, like, “Why do you want to talk about this now? Leave it alone.” It was interesting.

So they completely looked past the human aspect and just saw the political climate?

Yeah. And I was like, “It’s not about that. It’s about this boy, this time period.”

“Yeah, but is it political?”

I’m like, “It’s not political, no. He’s in a political atmosphere, yes.”

How did they finally agree to give permission?

We got the film commission involved, we had to show the script and have a lot of discussion, and they let it go. But we also had one location where we couldn’t get some of our crewmembers through. It’s also because the location we were shooting for the refugee camp is like way in the north of Jordan. It’s like the Jordanian/Syrian/Israeli border. So it’s full of military and they’re like, “We don’t want cameras around.” Nobody wants cameras.

A logistical nightmare.

Yeah, it was a nightmare [laughter].

How long was the shoot?

Five weeks.

We had to build—the refugee camp we completely built because the refugee camps don’t look like that anymore because at the time they were temporary. They were those tents and those zinc houses—it really looked like that. Now they’re like concrete, two/three/four stories. We had to build that location and then the second location was in the forest. So those were our two main locations.

Now with this being the world premiere—what plans do you have? More festivals? Or releasing?

I hope so. Yeah, I hope we release soon. More festivals—I mean this is the world premiere so it will hopefully go well tonight. [My first film] Salt of This Sea had a really good release in Europe—France, Spain. It was good. [But] it took two years before it got released in the US after the premiere. So I really hope this one is not—it will not take two years to be released.

Two years? Wow. I know it was Palestine’s Foreign Language Oscar selection—

Yeah, but it still took two years before we found US distribution. It was the last country—the last territory we sold was the US.

But this is hopefully different also because it is in Toronto. I think it’s already an indication that maybe it—I think maybe it has a wider audience than Salt of This Sea because of the boy, because it’s a simple story. Whether you know about the politics or not is irrelevant. If you know, great, but if you don’t you can still follow the story.

Yes. For me—I am totally ignorant to all of [the politics]. But it’s interesting that that is the background. You get it’s in there but you’re seeing it from this family aspect.

Yeah, and that’s the key. That’s the story. That’s the kind of story I’m interested in too.

Look, I can make a documentary and the documentary would be really interesting and great too, but there were these personal stories. Personally, those are the films I like and those are the films I like to make. To see that side of what happens if a little kid ends up in a place like this. What happens to a young mother who’s suddenly—a sexy fighter is flirting with her. Right? Nothing happens, but it’s there. Those are real situations.

Premiere photos courtesy of Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images North America; Film Stills courtesy indie PR.

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