Salt Of This Sea writer/director Annemarie Jacir Photo: Stephen Freiheit
In the first of our Fresh Visions occasional feature series, which aims to spotlight up-and-coming filmmakers Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir talks about the making of Salt Of This Sea - about a Brooklyn-born Palestinian who realises her 'dream' of returning to her ancestors' homeland - and the bright future of Palestinian filmmaking.
AH: How did the idea for Salt Of This Sea develop? Given some of the suspension of disbelief demands that the film makes on the viewer (the remarkably successful Ramallah bank robbery, the ease of the three main characters in entering Israel disguised as Jews), do you see it as an allegory, or more of a film based on the neo-realist tradition of filmmaking?
AJ: The film is, of course, fiction but absolutely realistic. For Palestinians who live in Palestine, there is no suspension of belief whatsoever - everything in the film is very realistic and possible, absolutely based in the reality. Even the bank robbery - which is where the original idea of this film came from - an actual bank robbery which took place in Bethlehem five years ago, where three men and a woman from one of the refugee camps robbed a local bank. The ideas for the film came from these sorts of events - the fact that many of us get in and out of the checkpoints with remarkable ease despite the fact they dot our entire landscape.
It's funny, but for some reasons people who have never been to Palestine find the film requires a kind of "suspension of belief" and for those who live inside, they find the film absolutely realistic.
AJ: This is a result of a long, long struggle. I am involved as a co-producer on the film so I also raised money myself. In the end, JBA was the main producer and juggled the 8 co-producers. We managed to get tiny bits of money from here and there until we had enough to shoot. We still haven't finished but we were able to finish and hopefully soon will pay off the debts we owe. Our budget was $1.2 million but we only managed to get $1m. In terms of artistically, I had absolute freedom, final cut, etc.
AH: The opening scene of the film is from an old news clip, well known to some… showing a particular scene from the actual Palestinian Diaspora during the creation of the state of Israel. Can you explain, to our readers, which town and/or event is shown in this introductory scene, in which we see Palestinian residents literally being forced to sea? Where was the rest of the movie filmed?
AJ:The opening sequence is from the military archives in Jerusalem and is the destruction of Jaffa. For the refugees dispossessed in 1948, the sea was the last thing they saw of Palestine. There's an essay written by Shafiq Al-Hout, a Palestinian exiled from Jaffa, where he speaks about this moment in 1948… They were on the boats and he was looking at Jaffa and the boat was moving further away, Jaffa shrinking before his eyes and he never realized that would be the last time he’d see his home… That's the first shot of my film. The film was shot in Palestine - in 80 locations, from Ramallah to Jerusalem to Jaffa. There is one sequence in the film which had to be shot in Marseille, France, however, as the Israeli Authorities have prevented me from returning to my home in Ramallah for one year and a half now.
AH:Are you familiar with “Little Egypt” on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, NY? Did you spend any time there growing up?
AJ:I did not grow up in the United States. I grew up in the Arab World. I studied cinema for a few years in New York and of course am aware of Little Egypt. The Arab community is very tight in New York. Now I am living in Jordan and I do miss many things about New York.
AH: Is that where (NY) you met Suheir Hammad? If not, how did you meet her?
AH: What about Saleh Bakri (who played the role of Khaled, in Israeli filmmaker Eran Kolirins’ The Band’s Visit)? How did you did you arrive at your decision to cast him in the role of Emad? Did you also try out other actors for this role?
AJ: I was searching for Emad for about six months up and down Palestine - focusing mainly on the refugee camps and in the West Bank. I put ads in the newspapers, etc. I heard about a young stage actor in the north who had not acted in film yet but was interested. This man was Saleh - the son of Mohammad Bakri, a star of Israeli, Palestinian and European cinema. Saleh had no yet acted in Kolrinis' film and didn't have film experience yet… Normally I like to work with non-professional actors and people whose lives are close to the stories I'm telling… But I auditioned him and I immediately saw true depth in him. He has a sort of restrained sorrow and rage. I immediately sensed that Saleh was the ideal actor for the part. He knows very deeply who “Emad” is and connected to him in a profound way.
AH: Have you met his father, Mohammed Bakri (Jenin, Jenin), and are you familiar with his work? Did that documentary influence the look of Salt Of This Sea, in terms of what some film reviewers have characterized as its “gritty, neo-docupic style”?
AJ: Of course! Mohammed is a friend and a star to me. Although I think our films are visually very different in terms of camera language, style, and look, I still am a great fan of Mohammed Bakri. Usually my style is very much a hand-held, realistic, where fiction is always tied to reality and a feeling of the landscape. Like twenty impossibles [Annemarie's short film] is very similar to Salt Of This Sea visually - it's the style I like to work in.
AH: Like you, a number of other directors of Palestinian origin, such as Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention), Rashid Masharawi (Laila’s Birthday) Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now), and Michel Khleifi (Tale Of The Three Jewels) have received increased critical attention in the last few years at major International film festivals. Do you network professionally in any way with these directors? Are you friends, competitors, or both? And in a related question, do you see the Palestinian independent film making movement as being in resurgence now, and if so, why?
AJ: These filmmakers are friends, colleagues, and an inspiration to me. The reason I founded the Dreams of a Nation project is to promote our cinema, to help make sure these films get seen, and make them more available to the public. I see something very great happening in Palestinian cinema - with many more amazing films coming. We don't even know those filmmakers names yet but in five or ten years we will - there's a wave of talented people coming and I hope for more and better films always.
AH: What is it like being a woman director in the Arab world?
AJ: Being a woman director is not really an issue for me in Palestine - half our crew was made up of women, and I was very close to all members of the cast and crew - we were a team - male and female. I must say, however, that what has been more difficult for me is to work with older, white European men. They tended to question me and have a problem with authority positions - probably as I am not only a woman, but also young and on top of that a Palestinian. They are not used to that. This took some time to deal with but then it was okay.
AJ: Yes, I have seen The Dupes. It was not a direct influence but all our cinema - Arab cinema - somehow means something and somehow influences us. I can say, however, that Ghassan Kanafani - who wrote Men In The Sun, which is what the Dupes was based on - has been a major, major influence. Also Return To Haifa by Kanafani. There's a definite tie with Salt Of This Sea - Soraya goes back to find her house occupied by an Israeli woman, whereas in Kanafani, they find their house being lived in by a Palestinian family.
AH: Ghassan Kanafani was assassinated by the Mossad in Lebanon, the same year the film was produced. Do you feel threatened, in any way, as an artist?
AJ: When I lived in the US, I was threatened several times - both as a filmmaker, while showing my work, as well as a festival curator and promoter of Arab cinema. That includes death threats. I have also been censored and silenced many times. But that's the case for all Palestinian filmmakers I think - and all we can do is keep making films, art, and believing in what we do.
AH: One of the overriding themes of Salt Of This Sea is the desire of its protagonists to rebel against the bantustanization of Palestinian existence. However, do you think some Arab filmmakers, in general, and Palestinian ones in particular, may be limiting themselves artistically and commercially by confining their films to certain recurring, somewhat predictable topics - for example, cultural alienation and inauthenticity of Self, particularly when living in a Western country; the widespread need by many people of Arab ethnicity to migrate from their homeland in order to survive; the unending political, military and cultural subjugation by the despised or mistrusted Other? In other words, are serious Arab and/or Palestinian filmmakers in danger of being pigeonholed by focusing almost exclusively on such themes?
AJ: I don't agree with you that Arab filmmakers and Palestinian filmmakers are focusing exclusively on certain themes. Salt Of This Sea is about the right of return in a way that I have never seen dealt with in a feature film. Elia Suleiman's work is like no one else's. Hany Abu Assad, Rashid Masharawi, Mai Masri, etc - they are all dealing with different themes, styles, stories, etc. I don't at all see any pigeonholding or a repetitiveness - and certainly far less than in European cinema or American cinema which, perhaps due to the larger number of filmmakers, tends to repeat many of the same stories and themes again and again.
For me, Salt Of This Sea doesn't just deal with the Israeli occupation but is a condemnation of the Palestinian Authority, its failings, and the elite of Ramallah today. Emad and Soraya are both marginalised and left out of the system in Palestine, their class, their status as refugees - and this is the failure of the Palestinian system and bureaucracy. Of course, it's very important for us as Palestinians to be self-critical and not paint things as black and white.
AH: Finally, what are your plans with respect to distribution for this film in the US and Europe?
AJ: We are lucky to have been in major film festivals of course, but my focus is my own community and my own audience - the Arab audience. This film had its world premiere in Amari refugee camp in Palestine, and then went to Aida camp, Burj al Barajneh camp in Lebanon, and has screened and many small, community-organized festivals like the Boston Palestine Film Festival, Toronto Palestine Festival, Beirut Cinema Days, and Amman's Palestine week. Distribution in Europe has been excellent so far - we have released theatrically in France (playing for more than three months), as well as Spain, Switzerland, India and Belgium. We have had a great reception in Europe and the Arab world. We've also sold to Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, etc.
Salt Of This Sea is Palestine's Official Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film 2009. It is not yet scheduled for release in the UK. For more information on the film, visit the official site