The heart of Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir’s award-winning first feature “Salt of this Sea pulses with rage, sadness, despair and irony. The political drama-cum-romance-cum-road-movie contains Jacir’s signature themes and features: strong attention to landscape, symbolism, melancholic visual poetry, bittersweet humor and, most importantly, a dissection of the mystified, disjointed Palestinian identity.
A poet, writer and theater director, Jacir received her master’s degree in film from Columbia University. She emerged to the international film scene with a group of award-winning short films that include “A Post-Oslo History (1998), “The Satellite Shooters (2001) and “Like Twenty Impossibles (2003), the first Palestinian short film to be included in Cannes Film Festival’s official selection.
Named by Filmmaker magazine as one of 25 New Faces of Independent Cinema, Jacir is now regarded as the one most important new face of Palestinian and Arab cinema.
“Salt of this Sea is the highlight of next week’s Refugees Film Festival, an initiative by Tadamon – The Egyptian Refugee Multicultural Council, together with a group humanitarians, lawyers, members and students, held in commemoration of World Refugee Day.
The film revolves around Soraya, played by Palestinian-American poet and author Suheir Hammad. Soraya is a third-generation Palestinian refugee from Brooklyn who returns to Palestine to claim her grandfather’s frozen savings in a bank in Jaffa. Confronted by the repressive and brutal reality of the occupation, Soraya decides to rob the bank. Assisting her is Emad (Saleh Bakri from “The Band’s Visit ), a student and a waiter attempting to flee the smothering confinements in which he was born.
Winner of San Sebastián International Film Festival’s Cinema in Motion award and Dubai International Film Festival’s best screenplay prize, the highly-acclaimed “Sea played for months in France and Belgium last year.
In April 2009, the film was released in Spain and the Netherlands, secured a slot in the Tribeca Film Festival and continues to be screened in various festivals around the globe.
Daily News Egypt met up with Jacir during her last visit to Cairo, when she spoke of her long struggle to produce what turned out to be one of the landmark Palestinian films of the decade.
Daily News Egypt: The central idea of your film is quite peculiar.
Annemarie Jacir: The idea of the film came from different places. There was an actual bank robbery in Bethlehem in 2000. Palestinians robbed a Palestinian bank under military curfew. And there was a huge debate, whether they were criminals or not. That’s one of the sparks of the story.
I know a man from Jaffa, this really gentle, kind and amazing man, whose bank account was frozen in ’48. He became a refugee. Two years later, he saw the British bank owner in Jerusalem, tried to talk to him, the [bank owner] treated him like a homeless guy. The man suddenly grabbed his collar and shouted “I’m a client, I’m a client of your bank. Suddenly all this anger came in, after all this s**t; the Nakba, and losing everything, and becoming a refugee.
We lost our home, we lost our land, and those bank accounts were frozen; they were safety deposits in those bank accounts, material things. Those little details about Palestine were lost too.
Another thing is that my family is from the West Bank, and I’ve been going back and forth to Palestine all my life. I know the West Bank very well, but I’ve never been inside ’48 until I was an adult. And I was shocked. The West Bank is crowded, and it has military occupation, and to cross that line is to see literally how much land and space there is. Five-hundred villages were demolished and they’re empty, and those refugees are living one hour away in camps in Syria or Lebanon. That blew my mind.
During research, I became obsessed with those villages, because they don’t exist on the map anymore, they have new names. I kept a diary of where the villages were, what their state was, what remained; a church, a mosque, a school. Sometimes there’s one or two buildings remaining, sometimes there’s nothing.
How, as a first-time filmmaker, were you able to secure funding?
Funding took five years; [it] was very difficult. I resorted to French producers like all Palestinian films. I tried to avoid the French at first. I started with the US because Soraya is an American character. She’s Palestinian but she’s very Brooklyn. But we didn’t get any support from them.
I later decided to approach the French. They were great; they were very intelligent, they understood the script very well. The only problem they said they’d have is that it’s the first feature-film of a female director and those are always difficult to fund. Later, they realized how the politics of the film would be more of a problem.
We got rejected from so many funds, in France and all over Europe. The only people who gave a flat-out reason were the Germans. They said ‘we have no doubt about the talent of Annemarie as a writer and director; however we find the script to be nothing more than propaganda.’
We have 17 sources of finance for this film, eight co-producers, and that’s not because they were all so excited about the film. There was no Arab funding for the film. I did try to get Arab funding, and their response was, it’s not commercial.
I could’ve made this film years ago had I agreed to take Israeli money, and they threw it at me actually. They’re dying to co-opt Palestinian filmmakers and artists.
Even with a script like yours?
They don’t care about scripts. They didn’t read mine, but even if they did, they would’ve still agreed to fund the film.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the film is your depiction of the absurd Palestinian system.
The system is a problem, and the Palestinian authority is not represented in the best light either.
Did you have any qualms regarding that fact that Saleh Bakri starred in an Israeli movie especially since you firmly support culture boycott?
I indeed support culture boycott. I’ve never shown my work at Israeli Film Festivals or institutions or places that receive Israeli money abroad. That’s a very clear issue with me. But with regards to Saleh, I can’t not.(she pauses). For me, he’s a Palestinian. And those guys in ’48 are isolated.
They’re isolated from the Arab world and we shouldn’t isolate them more.
Some Arabs don’t even know that there are Palestinians living in Israel.
Saleh would never refer to himself as an Israeli Arab. He gets offended by that term. Israeli Arabs are Arab Jews who live in Israel. He’s like, I’m a Palestinian.
By making this film, were you attempting to make a political statement?
I wasn’t. It’s about what’s like being a Palestinian refugee today. Three generations later, Soraya doesn’t live in a refugee camp. She lives in New York in a working class immigrant community. It’s about third and fourth generations who are dreaming of Palestine.
I was fascinated by someone like Suheir Hammad who’s so Palestinian and so Brooklyn at the same time. On one level, she’s marginalized in the US.
She’s not white, she’s not wealthy. She’ll never be part of mainstream America. Just like Emad who lives in Palestine and he’s a refugee in his own country. The two of them grew in completely different worlds, yet they both were left out of the system and that’s how they connect.
When Soraya arrives to Ramallah, because of the way she speaks English, she gets plugged into this elite Ramallah bubble; it’s a lifestyle she cannot connect with. She’s shocked to hear Palestinians say forget the right of return, and she doesn’t feel home at Palestine until she meets Emad and his mother. That’s the world she knows; that world reminds her of Brooklyn.
How did the shooting go?
We started filming in Ramallah, and it was no problem at all. Rumor started in there that the film is about the right of return, so everywhere we went, people were cheering for us and bringing us food. They were so proud of Suheir too.
I wanted to have as many Palestinians on the cr
ew as possible. We had a lawyer who worked as a production assistant; we had a jewelry maker, a radio DJ. Everybody was putting a little bit of themselves into it.
The problems we faced were with Saleh Bakri and all the Palestinians with Israeli IDs. They’re all, according to Israeli law, not allowed to be in Ramallah. So when the [Israeli] army was in town, we tried to stay out of the way.
The real difficulties started when the movie became a road movie. We wanted to film in ’48, Jaffa, Jerusalem, so we applied for a shooting permit and we got rejected. Eighty percent of our locations we were not allowed to film in. We had to build the airport for example because we were not allowed to film there, even though so many films are shot in the airport. Me and the DOP shot the last two scenes in the film at the airport until we were kicked out. We made it work eventually.
The film has several stolen moments. In a way, the film was like the bank robbery. Soraya tried to do it the right way; it didn’t work, so they robbed the bank. So that’s kind of how we made the film.
The second part of the film is essentially a road movie. Were you influenced by certain films of the genre?
I don’t think it was the plan to do a road movie. I’m always fascinated with travel, the freedom of movement, because Palestinians don’t have freedom of movement. For me, the beginning of the film is about being trapped. You can see Soraya in lots of interior locations, in the ministry’s office, in the airport; she’s boxed into places. Once they rob the bank, they take things into their own hand. That’s when it becomes a road movie. That was more the idea.
Suheir has never acted on film before.
When I first approached Suheir, she was like, no way, I’m not an actor, I can’t do this. After the reading the script, she said this is not acting, this is my life. It was interesting working with her because everything had to be very clear to her, because she’s not actress. In the part of the house in Jaffa, I had to keep her away from the actress who played Irit (Shelly Goral), because that woman was actually a very sweet person. She refused to serve in the army and she went to jail for that. She’s anti-Zionist and I knew if Suheir had hung out with her, she would’ve liked her and she wouldn’t have been able to do that scene. I even told Suheir that she’s so Israeli (she laughs). Later they became friends though.
After you finished shooting, there were more setbacks on the way
Yeah. Editing was done in Europe and the Swiss lab we were using “accidentally destroyed the entire scene where Emad gets arrested with Soraya in the mini-market; the most important scene of the movie. No one was able to explain what happened. The DOP was like I’ve been shooting for 20 years and I’ve never had this problem. It was a lab in Switzerland, not like a lab in the middle of nowhere. We had to re-shoot that scene but, the Israelis wouldn’t allow us back.
I haven’t been able to go back since then. I’ve tried many, many times, but they denied me entry. That’s why I live in Jordan now. I can’t go back to Ramallah anymore.
“Salt of this Sea will be screened on June 16 at 7:30 pm in Rawabet Theater. For more information on the Cairo Refugees Film Festival, visit firstname.lastname@example.org.