Annemarie Jacir has taken the Arab film world by storm; her newest film, When I Saw You, has been screened at film festivals around in the world, in addition to being Palestine’s 2013 Oscar Entry. The feature film was entirely Arab-financed, and was one of the first to be made with all Palestinian producers. We sit down with Annemarie to discuss the process of filming, how it has changed in recent years, and the importance of film in the MENA region.
1) What was the experience of filming in Jordan like?
The first time I made a film in Jordan (in 2004) I spent half the time in the police station. We were detained five times. So things have come a long way! Making When I Saw You was a tough but beautiful experience. Jordan is a country mostly made up of refugees and people from other places… Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and so many other countries. I wanted to reflect that in the characters in the film. It’s what makes Jordan beautiful as all these people and cultures have contributed so much to the culture of Jordan, to the art scene, to the literary history, to the architecture and so much more. I think people here in general accept and celebrate that about Jordan. I was so moved by the support we received from people here and it’s why the film exists.
2) How did you choose the characters?
I like flawed characters, characters who are marginalized, and who sometimes find difficulty finding their own place in the world. For me, both Tarek and Ghaydaa are people full of spirit who find their lives have taken a turn they never imagined. The film is about how they deal with that.
3) What do you think is the importance of film in the region?
I think independent film is important everywhere in the world, especially radical filmmaking. We need new ways to approach the world, to approach our lives, to approach the arts and I do believe that is happening in our region. I would like to see more and more of that.
4) How do you think the film industry is changing in the Middle East?
Thankfully things are much easier now than they were ten years ago — funding is available, there are support systems for young filmmakers, and most importantly with the rise of digital technology, films can be made very cheaply. This is the best thing to happen to the Arab world.
5) How did you do research for the characters and the story for When I Saw You?
I do a tremendous amount of research for a film. It’s a major part of the creative process. For When I Saw You, much of the work is based on my past work collecting and preserving the Palestinian film archives. There’s also the work involved in interviews and the work involved in designing the film. That means every single thing you ever seen in the frame — it involves my work as a writer and director, the work of the production designer, the work of the DOP, the art department — everything you see no matter how small, has been a subject of discussion, research and work. For the characters, I don’t do intellectual research but emotional research, and that’s mostly an isolated process. I try to work on the backstory of every character no matter how small in the film. I need to be able to answer questions about who that person is — for example to know how they might react in any possible situation, whether or not that’s in the film.
6) Do you have a favorite scene from the film?
My favorite moment is when Layth and Ghaydaa are having a cigarette and looking at Palestine from across the hills. She asks “How did we lose everything?” And he says, “We didn’t”. I love that moment. As a writer, you dream things will come off the page as you hoped. As a director, you work with your actors to get your vision across in every line and they come to embody their characters and give you something magical. I feel lucky to have had such a collaboration with such a talented cast as them.