x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

When I Saw You seen for the first time in Toronto

The Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir tapped into undiscovered acting talent and chose a time not yet explored in such a way to break new ground in her film When I Saw You.

The film explores the relationship between a mother and son as they are forced to flee Palestine and cross the border into Jordan. Courtesy TIFF
The film explores the relationship between a mother and son as they are forced to flee Palestine and cross the border into Jordan. Courtesy TIFF

In her second feature-length film, When I Saw You, the award-winning Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir explores the often tense relationship between a mother and her 11-year-old son, Tarek, as they flee across the border from Palestine into Jordan in 1967. Separated from his father and finding life difficult in a refugee camp, the boy (played by the newcomer Mahmoud Asfa) searches for a way home. We spoke to Jacir after the film's debut at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Getting a movie made isn't easy, but did you find it even harder given the subject matter and the decision to film in Jordan?

Production-wise, filming in Jordan was very difficult. We had to build the refugee camp for the film and we didn't have permission from the army to build there. You have to apply for permission to shoot in Jordan and they rejected us, even though the film commission told us they'd never rejected anybody. Also, some of the cast members are children of [Fedayee] fighters, and the issues that When I Saw You explores are still very sensitive ones in Jordan. Making a film is always a struggle, but when you have all these other issues, too, it's not easy.

Did you ever feel the need to self-censor or to hold back in your storytelling?

No, no. You can't hold me back [laughs]. No, I become more stubborn, that's how I'm like Tarek.

This is the first Arab feature film dealing with this specific time period. Did you feel an added responsibility to "get it right"?

1967 is such a hugely important year for us, so there was a lot of research that went into it, but I wanted to be free about it, too. It helps that it's from the point of view of a child - I'm not trying to make a documentary. There's freedom in that, but I wanted it to be absolutely true, so I interviewed a lot of people who were active in that period about everything from music to the larger political questions.

This is Mahmoud Asfa's first time acting. Were you specifically looking for an untrained actor?

He was the perfect person for the role, so whether he had a lot of experience or not, it didn't matter. As soon as I met him I knew that he was the right one.

Where did you find him?

He lives in the Irbid refugee camp in the north of Jordan. We did a huge search of about 200 kids in refugee camps, community centres and schools until we found Mahmoud. It was luck, really. We went to his school and the headmaster said: "There're a couple of guys, but this kid is really special."

How much of Tarek's story is based on you?

A lot of Tarek's story is, and a lot of his mother's story is. I mean, I'm the writer, so it all has to come from a place that's familiar. I didn't live in 1967, but there's something personal that's in everything. Being Palestinian and always in search of home, and the fact that borders have separated us from loved ones and that authorities have decided where you're allowed to be and where you're not allowed to be is an experience that we're all living. We're all trying to get back home.

When I Saw You will screen again at the Toronto film festival on Saturday. Visit www.tiff.net.

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