Seeing is Believing: Jacir Revisits Historical Period of Palestinian Refugees in Sophomore Feature
Director Annemarie Jacir’s much celebrated 2008 film, Salt of This Sea, was a hypothetical drama about a Brooklyn born Palestinian woman who travels back to the land of her origins to retrieve her recently deceased grandfather’s money. What she encounters is a ruthless history of repossession and she quickly discovers that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is alive and well, and, American or not, she falls on the side of a repressed minority. And for those who criticized Jacir’s film for her protagonist’s histrionic naïveté and markedly American reactions to her dramatic situation, her new follow-up film, When I See You provides us with a similarly constructed main character, albeit one whose immaturity is more forgivable as it’s a young male child. However, this period piece leaves behind much of the colorful flourishes of Jacir’s first feature, instead exposing itself as merely a sweaty exercise in didacticism.
It’s 1967, and the Arab states have just waged a second war against Israel in an effort to reclaim Palestine. But when they lose, the Israeli army is deployed in the West Bank, spurring another generation of Palestinians to flee to refugee camps in Jordan. There, we are introduced to a young mother, Ghaydaa (Ruba Blal) and her eleven year old son, Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa), separated during this conflict from her husband Ghassan. They anxiously await news of him every day, but are painfully aware that he’s not even sure what refugee camp they’re in. Attempting to settle into a rhythm, Tarek quickly encounters problems with his new teacher at school, a man that realizes Tarek may be head of the class but finds the child’s combativeness and intelligence intimidating. When Tarek is no longer allowed to return to school, he takes off for the woods, determined to return to his home in Palestine on his own. Soon, he runs into a group of fedayees (fighters), secretly engaging in military training to fight for freedom. Befriended by Layth (Saleh Bakri) and bonding with their militant leader, Abu Akram (Ali Elayan), Tarek quickly becomes the group mascot. But when Tarek’s distraught mother finally stumbles upon them after searching for her lost son, she too is drawn into making a choice—return to the endless waiting and poor living conditions of the refugee camp, or stay with the freedom fighters.
Just as Jacir’s first film had moments of extreme tactlessness and useless antagonism spattered throughout the narrative, we’re treated to the same sort of obliviousness with her protagonist here, though the argument would be whether or not it comes across as more excusable in When I Saw You. Surely, Mahmoud Asfa’s performance is believable and engaging, but there are moments where he’s so disrespectful, unruly, and out of control in regards to not only his mother but the rebel forces leader that it’s difficult to empathize with his plight. What’s frustrating is that Tarek’s actions potentially endanger his caring mother, and his vocal criticisms of her during several moments cow her rather than spur her to correct his disrespectful behavior. True, Tarek is in defiant pursuit of reclaiming his home, but his actions only further victimize his mother, a woman unable to even make the choices she feels would best protect her child. There’s a flaccid attempt to build a connection between Ghaydaa and Layth (Saleh Bakri also starred in Salt of This Sea), which also fails to provoke any real emotion.
Working with a reduced visual landscape for the majority of the film, Jacir is unable to work directorial flourishes into the visual pattern of the film as had been on display in her previous feature. Unfortunately, this makes When I See You even more glaringly didactic, showcasing a resonant political message that’s never outdone by the weak narrative or thinly drawn characterizations.
Reviewed on September 09 at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival –CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA Programme.