The bad girl of Palestinian cinema talks about being uncooperative, disliking the press and being stalked by Israeli film festivals.
Words by Dalia Al Kury.
ANNEMARIE JACIR”S Salt of this Sea was the hottest Palestinian film of 2008-2009. It”s the story of Soraya, a Palestinian born and raised in America who discovers that her grandfather”s savings were frozen in a bank account in Jaffa in 1948. Determined to reclaim what is hers, she fulfills her life-long dream of returning to Palestine. There she meets Emad, a young Palestinian whose ambition, contrary to hers, is to leave forever. Tired of the constraints that dictate their lives, they decide that to be free they have to take things into their own hands.
Jacir was born in Palestine, and spent her childhood between there and Saudi Arabia. When she was 16 she moved to the United States for her formal education. She has written, directed and produced a number of award-winning films, but Salt of this Sea was her first feature. In 2008 it was an official selection of the Cannes International Film Festival, it won the prestigious FIPRESCI Critic”s Prize and was named Best Picture at the Milan film festival, as well as taking numerous other awards.
Today, Jacir is based in Amman, which is where her next film is slated to be set. JO caught up with her to find out more about the new movie and the life of a truly independent filmmaker.
‘SALT OF THIS SEA’ HAS SCREENED IN MORE THAN 100 FILM FESTIVALS. WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITE?
There are many, but I”ll give two. In order to make sure the film was seen by its main audience, we self-distributed the film in Palestine, in the refugee camps as well as in 30 Palestinian villages inside 1948 Palestine. For the past two years the Israeli authorities have prevented me from returning to Palestine, but I was able to attend the screenings in the refugee camps in Lebanon. I don”t think I will ever fully be able to describe how intense it was. It was amazing.
Being an official selection of the Cannes Film Festival was of course a great honor. But what was most special about that moment was that the exact day we walked up the red carpet for the world premiere of the film was the 60th commemoration of the Nakba. It was very intense for us.
Salt of This Sea is about the Palestinian dream of return. It carries the story of millions of people, and the final dedication in the credits is in remembrance of the Nakba and the Dawiyma massacre, and in memory of my dear friend Hasan Hourani, my teachers Edward Said and Ibrahim Abu Lughod, and the fathers of three of our crew members who passed away that year. We were there for all of them and we felt their legacy, a legacy which inspires the heart of the film. It was an honor to be there in their name, and to show that sixty years later the Palestinian spirit will never be crushed and our struggle continues.
OF THE 16 PRIZES YOU’VE WON, WHICH DO YOU FEEL MOST PROUD OF?
Unfortunately most juries are a joke. Prizes mean nothing and the reality is most of the time the best films are overlooked.
WHY DO THEY CALL YOU “THE BAG GIRL OF ARAB CINEMA”?
I”m not sure. Maybe I ask too many questions, I”m careful where I show my work and how. Maybe because of the subject matter I deal with. There”s an expectation on Arab filmmakers not to be too political: to make films that are geared towards a European or American audience, to make films that are essentially unthreatening to that audience.
I”m not interested in making cute films that appeal to a commercial audience, or films with sympathetic, conventional characters that everyone can relate to. That”s boring to me, and I have more faith in my audience than that.
I also don”t play the game filmmakers are expected to play, so I get labeled as uncooperative. I hate the whole glitz scene, the “red carpet” theatrics, and I find the celebritization of filmmakers ridiculous, as well as the shameless self promotion that goes on, schmoozing up to press and festival directors.
DO YOU THINK IT’S ALSO BECAUSE YOU ARE ACTIVE IN THE BOYCOTT MOVEMENT?
It”s true that filmmakers who support the boycott of Israel are increasingly being demonized. They consider us “problem” filmmakers. Every festival I”m invited to, I check the sponsors to see if there”s any Israeli government money before I decide to participate.
When we started the Toronto boycott this year, even though it was successful and many international filmmakers joined us, we were also attacked, and for most of us there has been a price to pay. Anyway, it”s all part of this larger movement to dumb down and de-politicize Arab youth with raunchy music videos and empty cinema. And of course it”s about normalization with Israel.
The people from the Haifa and Jerusalem film festivals stalk Arab filmmakers. No joke. I”m literally stalked by them, and it becomes an obsession for them to “trick” me somehow into being in their festivals–since I have never, ever screened in an Israeli festival, nor will I ever.
I think most Arab filmmakers are similar, and increasingly more and more international filmmakers are boycotting Israeli festivals, like Ken Loach and many others. But [the Israeli festival scouts] are such stalkers, they”ll put the most horrible films in their festival as long as the director is Arab–and not only that, they”ll give it an award! The next day all the Israeli press can celebrate how open and non-racist they are towards the brown people.
BEING A DIRECTOR CAN BE A LONESOME JOB, AND PSYCHOLOGICALLY INTENSE. DO YOU BALANCE YOUR SERIOUS CAREER WITH ANYTHING LIGHTER OR ARE YOU A HAPPY WORKAHOLIC?
I can”t stop working. I don”t have weekends or days off. I”m an insomniac and I never feel that work is done. It”s a bit psychotic, but there”s always so much to do. That being said, I both love and live for light moments, for silliness and fun.
ARAB CINEMA IS RECEIVING MORE ATTENTION THAN IN THE PAST. HOW DO YOU SEE THIS TREND?
It”s fantastic and I hope it gives more and more people a chance to have their voices heard and tell their stories. What is dangerous is the trend I see developing of Arab cinema being “ghetto-ized” by the special attention. What I mean by that is that Arab filmmakers are being placed in a vacuum rather than part of a wider, international world.
WHAT FILMS ARE YOU HAPPY TO SEE COMING OUT FROM THIS REGION?
There are many wonderful films coming out of the region, and something very exciting is happening: films coming from people who don”t have rich parents or investor friends, who have not had the opportunity to study abroad, who do not speak several languages or have wasta. Those are the films that I am happy to see and hope to see more of.
WHAT CAN CINEMA DO?
This is a question that I think about often. The situation of so many people in the world is so dire. Right now I really don”t know the answer. There are so many cliché sentiments one can say in response about how it can “show the humanity of people” and blah blah but in reality it”s a question that remains. One sure thing I can say is that when Salt of this Sea was released in cinemas across Spain this year, what we decided was that from every ticket purchased, one euro would go to medical aid for Gaza. So in that way, cinema can definitely do something.
AMMAN IS YOUR BASE NOW; WHAT CAN THIS CITY OFFER TO YOU AS A DIRECTOR? DO YOU SEE YOURSELF MAKING A FILM BASED ON A JORDANIAN STORY, OR WILL WE ONLY SEE PALESTINIAN FILMS FROM YOU?
So far I”ve made films in Palestine, Lebanon, Europe and the United States, and not all of them are “Palestinian-themed.” At the moment I”m working on a film that takes place in Jordan, and I hope to shoot the film here. My producers and I are trying to see if that”s possible. The RFC has been wonderful and I”m so impressed with their work and what they are trying to do locally on so many levels in Jordan.
But it also seems Jordan is a very expensive place to shoot, more than almost any other place I”ve been, and for an independent film, that can be a major deterrent. Services, crew salaries, etc.–it”s high for a local film. It might turn out that even though the film is set in Jordan, we may not be able to afford to actually shoot the film in Jordan. This is a very expensive city and unfortunately a lot of people see cinema only as a business, the opposite of what independent filmmaking is about.
Just the other day I had to transfer some VHS tapes to DVD. We called production houses around town to get a price and were quoted from 25 JD/hour to 250 JD! I”m not a company. I don”t have support. That”s a lot of money for me. I ended up going downtown and doing it for 4 JD/hour at a certain DVD store.
WHAT’S YOUR NEXT FILM ABOUT?
It”s about an autistic boy and his mother who live in Jordan. I”m currently looking to cast a boy with high-functioning autism somewhere between 8 and 12 years old.
ALL THE JORDANIAN SCREENINGS OF ‘SALT OF THIS SEA’ WERE SOLD OUT, INCLUDING at THE AL HUSSEIN CULTURAL CENTER, WHICH SEATS 500 PEOPLE. HOW WAS THE JORDANIAN RESPONSE FOR YOU?
The screenings in Amman blew my mind. I couldn”t believe that turn out, and I couldn”t have asked for a better reception. It was very, very special. What I loved most is that the audience was so absolutely diverse. Amman is a city with some very special people.
WERE YOU SURPRISED BY THE FILM’S SUCCESS?
I never expected that we”d have a theatrical release in eight countries or that we”d sell to more than 35 territories. I”m still amazed the film played in French theaters for four straight months. Who are these people watching the film? And I sincerely hope that all the funders who rejected us, and told me again and again that now is not the time for this kind of film, have taken note.
IT’S A GREAT SOUNDTRACK. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THAT?
I”ve worked with the same music composer for the past ten years. I don”t like to over do things with music and keep it very sparse. I”m also very specific about music. The idea was that the soundtrack would reflect the worlds of the main character – both nostalgic and modern. So we have classical music like Asmahan (my favorite leading lady) along with tracks of local Palestinian musicians and good friends – Mohsen Subhi, allah yirhamhu, Shadi Zaqtan, and Marwan Abado. The song that gets a lot of attention is the opening and closing credits song – I love the original Bahriyya and I asked for it to be re-worked and set in a new context. I felt my friend Tamer Nafar of DAM would best be able to understand my idea and we invited DAM into the studio and worked on this Salt of this Sea theme song. It was incredible to see them in action.
HOW’S FUNDING COMING ALONG, CONSIDERING THE ECONOMIC CRISIS?
The economic crisis has hit hard and cinema is certainly affected by that. It took six years to fund my last film, and I really hope this time will be better. Like independent filmmakers all over the world, the only choice is to keep working and keep hoping for a change and for some kind of movement.
WHAT’S THE WORST PART OF LOOKING FOR FUNDING?
The never ending mission of always looking for support. That every project you want to do is entirely dependent on external elements. One really develops thick skin with all the rejections, too! It can be humiliating, too, the way Arab filmmakers are always begging for support–and that for the most part we get it from Europe and not from the Arab world, unless you happen to know lots of rich people.
That being said, anyone out there want to fund our next film? We”re raising the funds now. Do you have a car you want to donate to the production for a year? An office space? Want to be a producer? Please contact me.
OK, no I”m not.