Salt of this Sea’s opening scenes show black and white images of Palestinians fleeing in boats during the 1948 Nakba before cutting to Soraya (Soheir Hammad), a US-born Palestinian woman who we see being lengthily interrogated in an Israeli airport about her religion, her surname, her father’s name, her grandfather’s name and all of their places of birth (Brooklyn, Lebanon and Palestine respectively).
The jump from 1948’s events to Soraya’s ordeal at the airport skilfully demonstrates how the past entirely defines and controls Israel, Palestine and by definition, Soraya’s identity.
Soraya’s life in Brooklyn, where she has spent her whole life, is not shown to us and we instead meet her as she makes her first trip to Palestine. This is a trip she has made in her mind many times, as is evident in her knowledge of the place, its history and the tiny details of her grandfather’s daily walk from home to work to Jaffa.
When she is eventually allowed to go, a friend picks her up at the airport and asks her why she mentioned that she was going to Ramallah – the process would have been easier had she left out this detail. “But why should I lie? I have nothing to hide and they would have found out eventually, Soraya protests.
The consequences and limitations of truth (and competing truths) dominate “Salt of this Sea and Soraya’s experiences.
She is in Palestine to collect her grandfather’s legacy, contained in a British bank account frozen in 1948, but is told by its supercilious British manager that the account is no longer current, there is nothing she can do, and if she needs money he, personally, will lend her some.
She encounters the same miscomprehension during a dinner party with Palestinians who dismiss her insistence on the Palestinian right of return with the same cavalier attitude she received from the bank manager. She is from America; why on earth would she want to come here?
Emad (Saleh Bakri), the waiter who serves them during this meal, both embodies and challenges Soraya’s Palestine. Emad has been trapped in Ramallah for years, denied the right to cross its checkpoints and refused permission three times by the Israeli authorities to travel to Canada, where he has a scholarship.
The Palestine Soraya has dreamed of is the prison Emad longs to escape, but she clings on tenaciously to her right to, and the logic of return.
Emad and his family eventually become the incarnation of the only Palestine she has ever – and never – known, the Palestine taught to her by her parents, and experienced in the Palestinian community in Brooklyn, which she rediscovers in the warmth of the welcome offered by Emad’s mother.
In every other respect the Palestine which Soraya dreamed of inheriting gradually slips out of her reach: she is denied a residence permit by the Palestinian Authority because she lacks the “correct paperwork; her humiliating encounters at Israeli checkpoints confirm that moral authority holds no currency in the face of a military authority and, most crushingly, she has been denied her grandfather’s money.
It is these circumstances, a shared desperation, which bring Emad and Soraya together in a daring criminal plan to take Soraya’s money no matter what. It works, and they escape with friend Marwan.
From this point on “Salt of this Sea is a road movie reminiscent of “Thelma and Louise in the risks the group run and the joy they – and particularly Emad – find in the simple act of experiencing freedom.
This joy is fragile, and snatched, because they are after all outlaws, and trespassers. This is made most evident when Soraya locates the house built by her grandfather, now owned by an Israeli woman who is initially welcoming and sympathetic. Inside the house Soraya’s grief at her loss – now painfully tangible – gradually increases.
She offers to buy the house back (she is told that as a Muslim she does not have the right to do so) before becoming hysterical and forced to leave under the threat of the police arriving.
The power of “Salt of this Sea, a contender in the Arab Competition of the Cairo International Film Festival, is in its restraint. Director Annemarie Jacir allows the reality to speak for itself rather than manipulating it into an overblown vision of good vs. evil. She accomplishes this by telling Soraya’s very personal story of her lost home, the story of a Palestine lost by all.