tue 16/07/2024

When I Saw You | reviews, news & interviews

When I Saw You

When I Saw You

Palestinian drama of small scale but deep emotions impresses

Mahmoud Asfa as Tarek, "impulsive, even capricious with other adults"

Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir excels at catching both individuality of character and wider background context in her second feature, When I Saw You. The initial background is a refugee camp in Jordan in 1967, where displaced families arrive from their lost homes across the border after the Six-day War (the film’s title alludes to the fact that Palestine is so close as to be almost visible, at the same time almost impossibly far away).

And the character is 11-year-old Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa, main picture), a mischievous yet thoughtful boy who’s there with his mother Ghaydaa (Ruba Blal), as both wait for news, or the arrival, of their missing father-husband.

You might expect the atmosphere there to be depressing, and visually Jacir and her cinematographer Hélène Louvart (and no less art director Hussein Baydoun) certainly create a crowded space of bleached and dry colours. But there’s a great closeness between mother and child (beautiful performances from both the non-professional Asfa, whom Jacir found in a refugee camp in Jordan, and the experienced actress, pictured below right). Tarek is impulsive, even capricious with other adults, especially a teacher (he’s banished from classes, though he clearly has a skill for maths far beyond his years). That makes for some nicely acute comedy, enhanced by the sheer expressive plasticity of Tarek’s face – which changes from serious, even sulky into the broadest of smiles in a second.

Jacir's handling of music is no less accomplished than her visual sense

The rhythm of camp life is all too settled, broken only by the periodic arrival of lorries with new refugees, sending Ghaydaa frantically out to ask for any news of her home village and husband. And by the comings and goings of some of the men, particularly Layth (Saleh Bakri, with Ruba Blal, pictured, bottom left), who clearly has business elsewhere. When Tarek learns from a chance conversation with another camp resident that her family has been there for 20 years already, since the expulsions of 1948, his headstrong impatience drives him to strike out for his home on his own, with the simple yet passionate conviction of a child that there’s nothing stopping him from getting there.

At which point Jacir changes the register of her film. Lost in his wanderings, Tarek is taken in by a group of freedom fighters, feydayee who are in military training in the hills, a group of young men and women under the strict command of an experienced, ideologized soldier (Ali Elayan). The colours change too after the dry, almost desert-like atmosphere of the first half: the greens of the trees come alive, and there’s a sense of fertile darkness in the hills, as in a lovely, long interlude around a campfire with song (a memorable composition from Ruba Shamshoum).

We might think that the arrival of Ghaydaa in frantic search for her lost son (she’s been tipped off in the subtlest way as to where he might be) would bring that interlude to a rapid close, but Jacir makes its extension convincing.

What’s keeping them in the lethargy of the refugee camp after all, when in these hills there’s a potent sense of being together with young people with ideals who are training for real action, as well as real human contacts for both mother and son? Not that it’s a portrayal of simplistic heroics, given that there’s a sense of developing disunity there too, of the kind of cracks between fractions which would in reality develop in the PLO and its associated structures over the decades that followed.

Jacir leaves the ending of her film open in a final freeze frame: mother and son have started on another journey, but to where and what we are left to wonder for ourselves. It’s a subtle ending to a subtle film which, if it shows traces of influence from expected quarters (Iranian cinema particularly, neo-realism in general), has certainly caught something very particular that is Jacir’s own. Her handling of music is no less accomplished than her visual sense. We’ll have to wait to see what the director may develop into if she moves on towards bigger drama in the future: When I Saw You, like the remarkable work of its lead actors, is a little gem.

Overleaf: watch the trailer to When I Saw You


That makes for some nicely acute comedy, enhanced by the sheer expressive plasticity of Tarek’s face


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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