When I Saw You (Lamma shoftak)

Palestine (2012) Dir. Annemarie Jacir

Palestine has been in the news recently due to a horrendous and needless situation that has seen many innocent lives lost. Unfortunately this is not a new experience for the Palestinians and one would imagine that there could possibly be any tales of an uplifting nature to emerge from these embattled people. Writer and director Annemarie Jacir clearly refuses to accept this.

Set just after the war of 1967 we meet 11 year-old Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa) and his mother Ghaydaa (Ruba Blal), refugees from Palestine now residing in a makeshift community in Jordan. They’ve been separated from Tarek’s father and await the arrival of each new group of refugees for any word on his location or well being. While Ghaydaa works in small sweatshop Tarek is thrown out of a school, resulting in Tarek becoming increasingly unhappy with the camp. So he decides to run away, where he is taken in by a group of soldiers at a guerrilla training camp.

This is one of those films that is set during a war yet is not actually about war, focusing on the people that are being affected and not the conflict itself. Yet it looms over the entire proceedings like an ominous dark cloud silently waiting to pounce, yet never doing so but the mere threat alone is enough to cause much unrest.

However the true tension, at least for mother and son, lies in not knowing what has become of Tarek’s father, something which occupies Ghaydaa’s thoughts the majority of her day while trying to watch over Tarek. He too feels the same strain of missing his father but as a child, his dreams of a reunion are based on different ideals. Being younger his way of dealing with things is completely different, the idea of consequences not quite the serious concept it should be.

With nothing else happening at the camp and their living means as meagre as you can get, Tarek can’t even find any distraction at school as his teacher proclaims this clearly precocious pupil as distraction. The truth is he is vastly more intelligent than the rest of the class, and his way with numbers might suggest a very mild case of Autism, but this was 1967 when this was largely unheard of, so it goes unspoken. Ghaydaa tries but she tires easily of her hyperactive son while each new day brings no news of her husband.

Annemarie Jacir is not only intent on trying to cast a brighter light over what is an unpleasant and ghastly situation but she throws in some social commentary regarding the way the Palestinians were treated by their Jordanian hosts. It seems many locals didn’t take kindly to this influx of their impoverished neighbours and weren’t shy in saying so, looking down their noses at the refugees – showing no sympathy for the reasons why they are fleeing their home country.

But this isn’t a film which tries to engender shameless pity for Palestine nor does it play the propaganda card although I am sure some people may find some kind of subtext within. The closest we get is the stern leader of the guerrilla camp Abu Akram (Ali Elayan), an apparently humourless chap who finds even the simplest of recreation activities like playing cards as a bourgeois activity and changes the radio from music to news reports. Despite this curmudgeonly attitude Tarek looks up to Akram, buying into his devoted rhetoric about fighting for such an important cause and decides he wants to be a soldier too. Then Ghaydaa shows up after searching for her missing son and now he has two conflicting adult figures to obey.

The news we see regarding today’s Middle East conflict has shown how children are very much on the frontline when it comes to wielding weapons and defending their countries. Jacir doesn’t put Tarek in that position no matter how much he believes he wants to be a soldier, and surprisingly it is not just from Ghaydaa either – the rest of the camp and even Akram tell the lad to stay back from the missions, the later putting his foot down although he does intimate that in few years time things will change.

Despite this Tarek is treated more as a person than he was back at the refugee camp, his junior status not even precluding him card games or basic training. It’s no wonder that he prefers this to the refugee camp and not even his strong willed mother can tear him away from it. We know this people are soldiers and their current raison d’etre is one with dangerous consequences which necessitates violent actions yet they are a tight knit and welcoming little commune serving as an extended family to one another.

By creating this set up Jacir wryly puts forward the ironic idea that there is more humanity among this group of fledgling fighters than in the refugee camp, a place where the camaraderie and community spirit is absent for Tarek and Ghaydaa. In the two leads roles newcomer Mahmoud Asfa and Ruba Blal create a convincing chemistry between mother and son, the most poignant moments being silent interactions when one is sleeping and the other tenderly watches over them.

When I Saw You concludes with an open ending that gives us little to base our conjecture on. Some has professed a tragic denouement while I prefer to believe that it was the first step to reuniting with their absent loved one.

In all Annemarie Jacir, in just her second feature, has given us a quietly thoughtful look at the affects of war through the eyes of a child and uses this as a basis for whatever her agenda was. There are a few subplots that demand greater exploration, including the beliefs of the trainee guerrillas, but for what we do get is nicely done, if just on the cusp of something truly great.