By Laila Ujayli
Most of the images shaping award- winning filmmaker Annemarie Jacir are from the ‘only constant’ in her
life: Palestine. In some, Israeli soldiers stand on rooftops in Bethlehem. Her family members are strip-searched on a bus. Patrols pass by the front of her house like clockwork. Among these portraits of military occupation, Jacir also depicts resilience and togetherness: her family gathered around a television screen to watch news of the First Intifada, and her cousin’s gifted bracelet adorned with the Palestinian flag. Jacir can still ‘see that bracelet on [her] wrist as a child’, and remembers ‘trying so hard to hide it because [she] wasn’t allowed to exhibit those colors—it was illegal’.
Jacir is now a renowned director, screenwriter, and poet. Like Twenty Impossibles, her self- referential short about a film crew detained and interrogated at an impromptu Israeli checkpoint, was the first ever Arab short film to be an Official Selection of the Cannes International Film Festival. In Salt of This Sea, her first feature film—and the first Palestinian fictional feature directed by a woman—Jacir told the story of a young woman visiting her homeland for the first time. Her two latest features, When I Saw You and Wajib, are also set in or along Palestine’s borders, and brim with humour and empathy.
I am so excited to speak with Jacir that I can barely sit still. On a sunny afternoon under statewide lockdown in Virginia, I pace my apartment and hold my phone to my ear, listening to Jacir discuss topics ranging from the interface of documentary and fiction in her films to the responsibility of artists in times of crisis. The questions I messaged her over Twitter are open on my laptop screen, along with a screenplay on Syria’s war that I cannot seem to finish writing.
The current news, however, looms over the sunny afternoon. In addition to the pandemic, we discuss our proximity to 15 May—Nakba Day—which marks the expulsion of around 700,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948. 72 years later, Israel continues its oppressive policies, pursuing a program of de facto annexation of much of the Palestinian West Bank.
Jacir does not artificially eschew such political realities in her work. She says Like Twenty Impossibles is ‘about the privilege of certain passports and IDs’. And in her latest film, Wajib, a father and son weigh righteous resistance with the reality of navigating life under occupation. Her images, both written and filmed, confront the theft of Palestinian land and property, as well as the forced displacement and armed resistance of a people. More than a decade ago, Jacir structured an essay on Palestinian refugees’ right of return by describing a sequence of images that spoke to her in a refugee camp in Lebanon: a family of 11 sharing a single room, a schoolteacher using a missile shell as a flowerpot. That latter image, she tells me, ‘said everything to [her] about that moment’.
But Jacir rarely engages with politics in ways that feel didactic. Instead, politics are embedded within her work, in the details of the environments, relationships, and circumstances presented, rooted in the images’ architecture just as politics are embedded within society’s architecture. Palestinian reality is political, so her films are too.
Jacir’s commitment to the ‘realness’ of her images is unsurprising given the trajectory of her career. She began in documentary and experimental filmmaking, and her incursions into more classical narrative territory retain some interplay between documentary and fiction. Jacir elaborates, ‘I do believe that documentary, fiction, experimental, all these distinctions, it’s not really relevant so much. The line is so blurred. I cross between them often’.
This is no more evident than in The Salt of This Sea. She says a scene at the infamous Qalandia checkpoint—between Jerusalem and Ramallah —contains shots of both the ‘real Qalandia’ and the ‘set Qalandia’. ‘There are moments that are just pure classic documentary’, she continues. ‘[Y]ou see an image: [Soraya, the protagonist] is driving by the wall so that’s an actress in a car. There’s an image of a child being passed over the wall by the parents and that was just what happened in front of us while we were shooting.’ This is a recurrent approach in her films. At the same time, Jacir says Salt of This Sea is a fiction, ‘about fantasy, about the dreams you could have’. Indeed, most of her films retain a fantastical quality and, especially in her newer films, have a wry, satirical edge that undercuts absolutes. Both documentary and fiction, the real and nonreal, come together. ‘It’s all fiction and it’s all real’, Jacir says. ‘It’s 100% fiction, it’s 100% nonfiction’.
Still, Jacir says she finds ‘a lot more freedom’ in working with actors and a written script. That freedom is the ‘essence’ of everything in her work, she tells me, one that she courts in her artistic practice. ‘I’m always looking for a space of freedom.’
Likewise, Jacir is ‘drawn to stories in which characters move through spaces or try to find their own freedom within spaces’. She is interested in ‘the architecture we create—geographical, physical, political, and imagined’. Her films’ simple plots often centre on characters moving through, interacting, and commenting on environments they are alienated or estranged from. This makes her films’ landscapes immediate and tangible, beyond a mere backdrop to events. She describes her characters ‘raging against or refuging or struggling with their environment’ as simultaneous insiders and outsiders.
The tension between characters and their environment sets up stories about marginalisation, a common theme in Jacir’s work. She again offers the example of Salt of This Sea’s Soraya, who travels to Palestine for the first time following her grandfather’s death. Despite having never been, ‘[Soraya] is obsessed with every detail of Palestine. She knows all the ins and outs like so many children of refugees [...] It is her homeland, and she can’t find herself in it’. Instead, Soraya makes her first real bond with Emad, a Palestinian refugee. ‘They connect and they understand each other, and they connect on a deeper level as marginalised people.’
This story of marginalisation, Jacir notes, resonates with audiences across the globe. ‘I’ve always been from a community that is the underdog’, she says. ‘My human connection comes from the fact that I know deeply what it means to be misunderstood or left out or erased. I take my films to countries like Bosnia, I screen the film in Sarajevo or in Ireland and they really understand all the details of it in a way perhaps other places don’t, even if they’ve never been to Palestine’.
Jacir is careful, however, not to suggest cinema is an absolute bridge to other experiences. While the camera and cinema can bring people together, they can also separate people. She says she learned this lesson while working as a cinematographer in Lebanon’s Shattila refugee camp in Beirut and meeting with a survivor of the infamous 1982 massacre, carried out by Lebanese Phalangists, and materially-supported by Israel. She reflects:
There was a woman telling us about how she had survived the massacre in Shattila and it was so difficult to listen to. It was so painful. And I felt so weak because she had gone through and experienced such a horrendous thing and survived and was sitting there telling us about it. She had the strength to talk about it, so I felt I had no right to be weak, to show weakness in the face of such bravery. I remember hiding my face behind the camera and looking at her through the lens [...] The camera was on a tripod, [so] I didn’t need to be looking into the lens the whole time, but that gave me a distance that I felt if I didn’t have at that moment, I would’ve broken down. And I didn’t want to break down in front of her.
How an image is constructed, then, can have massive implications for a viewer’s experience, offering the illusion of proximity or highlighting the starkness of distance. They can glorify occupation or celebrate resistance: ‘[when] you talk about being very close to the subject or far away, there’s definitely an emotion tied with everything, an intuition and an instinct tied to everything,’ Jacir explains.
Given the social and political pressure encircling us today, the stakes underlying the responsible construction of images feel particularly high. This is what makes that unfinished screenplay glaring at me from my laptop screen so difficult to finish. I often stop writing and find myself asking, does my work venture into dangerous tropes or does it challenge assumptions? Can I even write about a Syrian refugee when I have the privilege of an American passport? In light of the Middle East’s current state of crisis, do artists have a renewed responsibility to ask themselves political questions when creating art about the region?
I ask Jacir whether she has ever asked herself those questions during her career. Of course, Jacir clarifies that she does not and cannot ‘represent Palestine or Palestinians, nor do [her] stories’. Her characters ‘only represent a character that was written’. She says, ‘I really feel very strongly that I cannot represent anything’. Each of her respective films tells ‘just one story out of millions of stories’. At the same time, she answers, ‘I think you always, always have to ask yourself those questions when creating art. You ask yourself political questions. You’re part of the world around you. You are part of it’.
LAILA UJAYLI just completed an MSt Film Aesthetics and now reads Public Policy at Lady Margaret Hall. If you have the misfortune of meeting her, prepare for a long-winded explanation of how, yes, those subjects are in fact related.
Art by Isabella Lill