In “Salt of This Sea,” Palestinian helmer-writer Annemarie Jacir used the fugitives-on-the-run genre to allow an American-Palestinian to audaciously claim her right of return to ancestral land. “When I Saw You,” her sophomore feature, concludes with a similarly defiant gesture, but grounds it in a warm-and-fuzzy narrative about a wistful lad’s adventure in the wake of the Six Day War. Here, the Israelis remain an unseen, almost unnamed presence that prevents the characters from returning to their homes. Already tapped as the Palestinian foreign-language Oscar submission, this dramedy should see healthy arthouse play.
In the summer of 1967, Israeli forces seize control of the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Thousands of Palestinian villagers flee into Jordan, where they find housing in makeshift refugee camps. Among them are spirited 11-year-old Tarek (appealing non-pro Mahmoud Asfa) and his worried mother, Ghaydaa (Ruba Blal). Tarek’s father is missing in the chaos of war.
Although he looks angelic, Tarek is not an easy child. Wise beyond his years in some respects (he’s like an idiot savant with numbers), he is still unable to read and is picky about food. But for his mother, his disobedience is a greater concern.
Unable to settle in at the Harir camp, Tarek secretly sets out in search of his father. In the Dibeen forest, he discovers a clandestine site where volunteers from the refugee camps receive military training in order to become freedom fighters and liberate their lands.
Colored by Tarek’s rosy romanticism, the training camp and its combatants resemble a friendly ’60s-style commune, pitched between comedy and idealism. The men and women sit around the campfire at night, singing and arguing about politics. They even treat the pint-sized Tarek as a comrade-in-arms, giving him important tasks to perform.
Although Jacir’s screenplay bundles things in a far more sympathetic package than that of her strident, didactic debut, the underlying theme is once again the tragedy of seeing a land that people know intimately now denied them.
In a cast composed of mostly non-pros, professional thesps Blal and Saleh Bakri stand out: Blal as the protective mother who still retains an unconventional spark, and Bakri (the lead in “Salt of This Sea”) as a bearded commando with eyes for Ghaydaa.
Handsome lensing by Helene Louvart (“Pina”) contrasts the crowded, claustrophobic spaces of the Harir refugee camp with the open freedom of the Dibeen forest. Other craft credits are pro, with the period music track a particular delight.