Good intentions are the preserve of the deserved, which is a paradox that Berlin Film Festival prize-winner When I Saw You (2012) never completely overcomes. Following on from her acclaimed 2008 debut film Salt of This Sea, director Annemarie Jacir stumbles with this slight tale of a mother and son detached from their Palestinian home after the Six Day War in 1967 and newly arrived in a Jordan refugee camp. Theo Angelopoulos took as his life’s work the representation of Greek 20th century history and Palestinian filmmakers (Elia Suleiman being the exception) are trapped in a fait accompli that has similar traits to those that Angelopoulos chose.
The clarion call of the horrible experience of being stateless and living in what has been called the largest refugee camp in existence, but leaving artistry as a second thought to their reality (another exception who does the reverse being Hany AbuAssad) is alas what we are generally faced with when watching Palestinian drama. For this reason a lot of Palestinian cinema is hard to judge critically without seeming a potential enemy that has no interest in engaging with the situation of the effects of exile, land theft and Israeli apartheid; but that is what we must do, so as not to fall in the trap in acclaiming work that speaks to our political perspective but that as art fall down. When I Saw You decides to take the route of perspective of a callow youth, Tarek, who pines for his missing father and homeland.
After being kicked out of school he wanders off aimlessly towards Palestine but ends up in the training camp of PLO ‘fadayeen’, where he is adopted by the assorted trainees until his mother arrives looking for him. The scenes in the training camp are by far the most interesting, in the sense of what we observe not what we are told. Soldiers spouting Marxist rhetoric, men and women training and shooting together and none of the religious sectarianism and infighting that one now finds within Palestinian politics. Again though the film shows an idealistic world that is without conflict, you would never guess the participants are to be sent into war torn Palestinian in the coming weeks to face death and destruction. Spirited stoicism is one thing, but not the holiday camp atmosphere we are shown.
In fact, the only conflict we are faced with is that of Tarek and his mother, and her wish for them to go back to the Jordan refugee camp. At times, When I Saw You falters under the modern dictatorship of the child’s perspective, which has become another cliché (like the freeze frame supposed enigmatic ending) in the palms of the unoriginal hands of yet another filmmaker who thinks they are alone in having discovering Roberto Rossellini’s Germany: Year Zero or François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (to name but two). When I Saw You too closely resembles a Children Film Foundation treatise on a subject that deserves (and needs and demands) better treatment; something that will focus people’s gaze on the horror and displacement of exile and all that entails. Alas, this is not that film.