Annemarie Jacir is set to return to the director’s chair for her brand new feature film When I Saw You: the second feature film of her directing career.
We caught up with the director/writer to chat about the film, working with central actor Mahmoud Asfa, and how the film has been received worldwide.
- You are back in the director's chair with When I Saw You, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
It is a story that is set in Jordan in 1967, and is about a mother and son who have just become refugees. It really is about to whom what is happening doesn’t make sense: the concept of war and politics doesn’t make sense to him. He decides to do things his own way.
- You have penned the screenplay as well as directing, so where did this project start for you? And what inspired the story? This doesn’t necessarily doesn’t focus on the politics, but on the human story.
Yeah. I wanted to do this film from a child’s point of view. This is a character that is coming of age at a period in time in the late sixties where people were a t a very specific point where they wanted to change their lives, and were doing something about it. I wanted explore that coming of age story with a boy at this time period.
This is a period that we don’t see in film: I have never seen a film about this time period, which is so important to us as Palestinians. We were much less isolated than we are today. There was a movement in the world were people were very connected to each other. There was also a great hope in that: I wanted to do a story about hope. It is not nostalgic; I didn’t want to do a film that was like ‘look how great the sixties were. We were so much better looking, we were hopeful, and everything was better’.
I wanted to tell this story because that hope was there were regular everyday people and they wanted to do something about their lives: I think that is very relevant to today. Tarek is the hero of the film for me, as he doesn’t sit still long. He needs to leave the refugee camp because it doesn’t make sense to him, he doesn’t like being there, he wants to go back home. Therefore, he leaves.
Then he finds a group of fighters, at first he is excited because he thinks that he has met people who want to go home as well and think like him. At some point, he sees that all they are doing is just talk and rhetoric and nothing is happening. So he stays on his path, he decides to leave them, he moves past them even.
Without burning the end of the movie, the end is about someone who keeps taking action and doesn’t get held back by politics, bureaucracy, talk, waiting: he hates the word ‘to wait’. It is the last film of the word actually. Tarek is someone who doesn’t wait.
- What sort of research did you do for this project? Were you able to speak with anyone who was in the refugee camp at the time?
I did a lot of research. I talked to many people who were in the camps. I did many interviews and a lot of talking to people who were in the camp, but also to people who were politically active at that period.
Then I had lots of visual material, archival material, and lots and lots of photographs and film. That was really key as I wasn’t alive at that time and I didn’t live through that period. That was important for me, it was important for the production designer and the DOP.
It is a film from a child’s point of view and sometimes it is like a fantasy, but at the same time, I wanted it to look and feel realistic: that is what the refugee camps looked like; those are the tents, that is how people are dressing and what they are eating. It was important to have that reality and authenticity in there.
- Can you talk a little about your writing process - so you build the story first and then the characters? Or do you focus on the characters first, for example?
I think it depends on the project. For my own work, I do write scripts that I direct, like When I Saw You and my previous film Salt of the Sea. I am also a screenwriter and work for other directors.
Right now, I am doing a book adaptation for a producer, which is a whole other process as it is about getting away from the book and finding what the story of the film will be: it is always different to what a book is.
For my own projects, I usually collect images first - there is not necessarily a story or characters there until much later. With When I Saw You, the last scene of the film is where I started - I don’t usually work like that - that last scene came to me and then I started to develop the ideas, the characters, and the story. But it did begin with that last scene.
- And how much has the screenplay changed from that initial idea that you had to the film that we see on screen?
The screenplay is pretty much what you seen on scene. I did something this time to what I usually do, as I didn’t share the script with the actors. Mahmoud Asfa, who takes on the role of Tarek, never read the script. This is actually comes from conversations that I have had with directors of whom I admire greatly and are mentors as well as friends: one of those people is Ken Loach and I was talking to him about how he works with actors.
I wanted to try something like that, where you don’t impose the story on the actors. In life, people don’t know what is going to happen the next day. Mahmoud is not a professional actor - he has never acted before - and I was afraid that it would be overwhelming for him to be given this whole story.
I preferred to work with him in a different way, where we worked on building the character. Who is Tarek? Where does Tarek come from? What is his life like? We spent months on working on the performance and just who this character was: we did all t his without working on the script.
We also worked on building the relationship with his mother. Ruba Blal takes on the role of his mother; I worked with her and both of them together just building this mother/son relationship.
When it came time to shoot, I would give Tarek one or two scenes - if it was a dialogue heavy scene I would give it to him one or two days before - otherwise, I would work with him on set on figuring out what was going on and where in the story we were: in film we do not shoot chronologically.
- I was going to ask you about working with Mahmoud. They say that you should never work with children, so how did you find that whole experience?
(Laughs) It was great, great, great. Everyone always tells you not to work with children and animals, but I loved working with him. I adore him; he was wonderful to work with. I understood when we had some of the classroom scenes with the other kids just how lucky I was to have him.
When I worked with all of the other kids for the school scenes, they wanted to go home after five minutes and they were completely bored on a film set (laughs), it was really difficult.
Mahmoud was different because he was never bored, he was really a professional and it was like working with a professional actor. He was always available, he didn’t complain, he was just wonderful. He is a smart kid - he is a lot like Tarek in the film.
- He has no acting experience prior to this film, was that a help for you as a filmmaker?
At the beginning, he thought ‘ok, I have to act’ all he knows about acting is what he sees on TV, so that is what he thought he had to do. It was all about getting him to be himself as he is such a beautiful spirit and character - that is why I chose him to be Tarek.
So I really had to bring him down to that. One day he did something and I said ‘that is it that is what we want’. And he was like ‘I didn’t do anything’ and I was like ‘yeah, exactly. I don’t want you to do anything’.
- Can you talk a bit about the casting process, and what you were looking for in your central roles?
With Tarek, it was really this character who was a dreamer, a free spirit, a little bit stubborn: I like stubborn characters as they can be annoying sometimes or you can love them. People’s reaction to Tarek is very funny as some people just adore him and some people are like ‘this poor mother has to deal with this boy.’ I like characters like that.
For me, the mother was always someone who was like Tarek once. She has become a single parent at a time period where women were frequently judged for their actions and for their behaviour: if something was wrong with the children then the mothers were blamed for it.
She is a woman who has been through a very difficult period, as she has lost her homeland, she has lost her husband, and she has this free-spirited son who wants to be independent from her, so she is really protective and reserved. She doesn’t feel that she has the privilege to be as free as Tarek, she has to protect what she has left.
Finding an actress, I felt that Ruba could really reflect that. I wanted this hint at the possibility of another relationship, the possibility of this flirtation - she is still a woman.
For me, it is also a coming of age story for the mother. She takes learns and takes something from Tarek: it is not just children who learn from adults, children really do teach us something. What this child teaches his mother is an important part to this story.
- You shot the film in Jordan, and I was reading that you did face some challenges in getting the permission to film there?
It was tricky because politically, this is a very sensitive subject in Jordan still. This time period saw Black September, things were very tense between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and no one wants to talk about that period today.
When we were getting permission, when institutions found out that the story was about this period they would get very nervous: film institutions would distance themselves from the project. We did have individual support in Jordan, which was really crucial to making the film.
The fighters in the film, many of them are children of the actual fighters: I didn’t know that when I cast them, I just cast them because I liked the way that they looked and their spirit. It was interesting because, in many ways, they were re-enacting their parent’s lives. Those guys talk about growing up in Jordan and being Palestinian in Jordan, they have felt a tension and continue to feel a tension.
- The movie has played quite extensively on the festival circuit, so how have you found your festival experience?
It is great. What is wonderful about travelling with a film… we make these films to share them, to be seen and to connect with other people in the world. For me, it is really interesting as each country is different some people get the humour.
I will actually be interested to see how the UK responds, because I think that the British humour and the Palestinian humour is quite similar. Some people don’t get the humour in the film - it is not slapstick humour it is more deadpan and rye sense of humour. I think that the British have something similar to that. Everywhere is different.
It is always special to discover how other people relate to the film: maybe they have never had this political situation, but they have been separated from someone in their life. I think that is what film does; it connects people to each other; sometimes in ways that are obvious and sometimes in ways that you don’t expect.
- Finally, what's next for you going through the second half of this year?
I am actually working on a British/Palestinian co-production; it is in the very early stages. It is about two friends - one is Palestinian and one is British - and it begins in London and ends up In Bethlehem: which is my hometown. It will be a black comedy.