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August 18, 2014

When I Saw You

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Lamma shoftak
Annemarie Jacir - 2012
Kino Lorber Region 1 DVD

The first image in Annemarie Jacir's film is a pair of roller skates worn by a young boy. A title announces that the film takes place in Jordan, 1967. On the soundtrack is Arabic rock music. That opening scene belies what is to follow, although those with some knowledge of history should pick up on the clues immediately.

The young man, Tarek, lives in a refugee camp in Jordan with his mother. They are among the Palestinians displaced by the Six Day War. The population increases seemingly with another truckload of passengers. Tarek gazes at each truck with the hope that his father will be among those new residents, or that someone will at least have news of this father. While Tarek is illiterate, and barred from school for distracting the other students, he proves his ability with numbers, figuring out large sums in his head. For a moment there is the dread that what is about to come is a Palestinian variation of Rain Man.

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That Jacir indirectly addresses the political context of When I Saw You is ripe for interpretation. Tarek expresses his longing to return home to his mother. The reasons for why the two live in a camp in what is later revealed to be a more remote part of Jordan are never explicitly stated. Seeing Yasser Arafat on television discussing the Palestinian fedayeen, Arafat's paramilitary group, Tarek only understands that these are people returning to the Palestinian territories. Wandering on his own to return home, Tarek is discovered by a man he recognizes from the village, and is taken to a fedayeen boot camp. It is later at the camp that a news report mentions an attack by the Israeli military of the refugee camp.

There may be other reasons why Jacir chose indirect historical references for her film. In the greater scheme of things, Jacir's story might be understood as that of Tarek seeking out a place where he belongs. A perpetual outsider even in the refugee camp, Tarek seems to find a temporary home with the fedayeen, where his ability with numbers is noticed by the Mao enamored military leader. While home is a specific place for Tarek, Jacsir also suggests that home is an abstract ideal.

That the DVD is released at this time makes watching When I Saw You more difficult. For that matter, it's impossible for me to be entirely objective regarding the tangled history of Palestine and Israel, and that whole, messy, conflicted region. On the other hand, I'm not one to run away from a film or filmmaker that might want to challenge my point of view, because I like the idea of writing about independent filmmakers. And I hope to see Jacir's debut film, Salt of this Sea.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 18, 2014 07:18 AM