Camp fol­lower

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM - TARA BRADY

WHEN I SAW YOU

Di­rected by An­nemarie Jacir. Star­ring Saleh Bakri, Ruba Blal, Mah­moud Asfa, Ruba Shamshoum Club, IFI, Dublin, 98 min Set in Jordan in 1967, this en­gag­ing Pales­tinian drama con­cerns Tarek (Mah­moud Asfa), a high-spir­ited pre-teen who lives in a refugee camp with his mother, Ghay­daa (Riba Blal). The boy clings to mem­o­ries of his ear­lier, set­tled life: the towel he owned, the lava­tory he didn’t have to share with hun­dreds of other Pales­tini­ans, the food that looked like food. He hopes that his fa­ther, who was sep­a­rated from the fam­ily in the chaos of con­flict, will find him so they can all go home.

Ag­gra­vated by un­cer­tainty and the ter­ri­ble con­di­tions of the camp, Tarek fre­quently rages against his sto­ical mother, ac­cus­ing her of suf­fo­cat­ing him and driv­ing his fa­ther away. Too smart for his own

Mah­moud Asfa in When I Saw You

good, he dis­plays an ex­tra­or­di­nary math­e­mat­i­cal talent and yet is ex­pelled from his makeshift school for not be­ing able to read and for dis­tract­ing his class­mates. He even­tu­ally runs away and is dis­cov- ered by a mem­ber of a Fe­day­een para­mil­i­tary group (Saleh Bakri), who brings the boy to a nearby train­ing camp.

Much of the ten­sion in this del­i­cately con­structed film de­rives from the dis­par­ity be­tween Tarek’s POV and his­tory. For Tarek, Fe­day­een train­ing is a hol­i­day camp, re­plete with fun phys­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties, sing-songs by the fire and praise from his Mao-quot­ing com­man­der. Hélène Lou­vart’s cine­matog­ra­phy sets up a neat di­chotomy be­tween the steely, earthy colours of the refugee camp and the sun­nier, greener pas­tures of the train­ing ground. But the viewer and the boy’s clear-eyed mother re­alise there’s more go­ing on than camp-side Cat Stevens cov­ers and out­doorsy ad­ven­ture.

In keep­ing with many re­cent Ara­bic films – think Saudi Ara­bia’s Wad­jada and Iran’s Off­side – writer-di­rec­tor An­nemarie Jacir cun­ningly buries po­lit­i­cal cri­tique in a warm-hearted, all-ages pe­riod piece. The per­for­mances are ex­cel­lent, par­tic­u­larly from Blal and young Asfa, who’s cheeky, open­mouthed cu­rios­ity al­lows us to love Tarek, even on his very worst be­hav­iour.

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