When I Saw You
Film Title: WHEN I SAW YOU
Director: Annemarie Jacir
Starring: Saleh Bakri, Ruba Blal, Mahmoud Asfa
Running Time: 98 min
Set in Jordan in 1967, this engaging Palestinian drama concerns Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa), a high-spirited pre-teen who lives in a refugee camp with his mother, Ghaydaa (Riba Blal). The boy clings to memories of his earlier, settled life: the towel he owned, the lavatory he didn’t have to share with hundreds of other Palestinians, the food that looked like food. He hopes that his father, who was separated from the family in the chaos of conflict, will find him so they can all go home.
Aggravated by uncertainty and the terrible conditions of the camp, Tarek frequently rages against his stoical mother, accusing her of suffocating him and driving his father away. Too smart for his own good, he displays an extraordinary mathematical talent and yet is expelled from his makeshift school for not being able to read and for distracting his classmates. He eventually runs away and is discovered by a member of a Fedayeen paramilitary group (Saleh Bakri), who brings the boy to a nearby training camp.
Much of the tension in this delicately constructed film derives from the disparity between Tarek’s POV and history. For Tarek, Fedayeen training is a holiday camp, replete with fun physical activities, sing-songs by the fire and praise from his Mao-quoting commander. Hélène Louvart’s cinematography sets up a neat dichotomy between the steely, earthy colours of the refugee camp and the sunnier, greener pastures of the training ground. But the viewer and the boy’s clear-eyed mother realise there’s more going on than camp-side Cat Stevens covers and outdoorsy adventure.
In keeping with many recent Arabic films – think Saudi Arabia’s Wadjada and Iran’s Offside – writer-director Annemarie Jacir cunningly buries political critique in a warm-hearted, all-ages period piece. The performances are excellent, particularly from Blal and young Asfa, who’s cheeky, open-mouthed curiosity allows us to love Tarek, even on his very worst behaviour.