In the winter of 2000, I went to a two-day symposium at the Museum of the City of New York about Arab Americans. I was born in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, but spent my adolescence in the Midwest, only returning to New York after college to pursue a career in film, and this symposium was one of the first times I remember being surrounded by Arab Americans other than my family members. As I looked around the auditorium, I saw a tall, young woman running around photographing the event. She worked for the museum, but also seemed familiar to those gathered in this room full of Arabs. She had a commanding presence that caused her subjects to stop what they were doing and pose for her camera. I decided I had to meet her.
Her name was Annemarie Jacir. She was Palestinian, raised in Saudi Arabia, and was studying film at Columbia University. She told me she wanted to make a film about the experiences of Palestinian refugees. I was immediately on board: My grandfather was Palestinian, my grandmother Lebanese, and I was deeply driven to better understand that part of my identity. Within a year, Annemarie and I were en route to Lebanon as part of a team of six. The trip altered all of our lives. The conditions of the refugee camps where we filmed contrasted starkly with the wealthy Beirut neighborhood where we were staying. Hearing stories from people of many generations of refugees, one trauma after another, and seeing their intense vulnerability, we felt the heavy weight of our responsibility as filmmakers.
Though we would work together again, the intensity of the experience with that film sent us down different paths – Annemarie taking a turn towards fiction, while I remained focused on news and documentary work. I caught up with Annemarie recently over Skype while she was in Amman, catching her in a reflective mood, waiting to go to Athens to edit her second feature length film, When I Saw You (Lamma Shoftak), which is premiering this month at the Toronto International Film Festival. We talked about that first trip to Lebanon and how it affected us, remembering one woman’s story particularly well. During the Israeli invasion into Beirut in 1982, this woman saw her family murdered during the Shatila massacre and was raped by both Israeli soldiers and the Lebanese Phalange. “She was going through such detail about it. I remember I was so freaked out, I was just crying and crying,” Annemarie recalled as we spoke. “I remember thinking, ‘I shouldn’t be crying. She’s not crying.’ I didn’t know how to react as a filmmaker. I remember being really aware of putting my eye behind the camera and watching her through the lens because it helped me distance my self… It was actually the first time I realized that looking through a lens or at a screen is a way to create distance.”
When we returned to the U.S. after filming, we turned our footage into the short film, Palestine is Waiting, but Annemarie and I felt compelled to do more to bring the stories of Palestinian refugees to a wider audience. We traveled again to the Middle East, this time to Palestine, with fellow filmmaker Dahna Abourahme. Our documentary feature film Until When… was released in 2004. Elements of these journeys gave us pause. I remember in particular our passionate conversations about whether or not it is worth it to potentially re-traumatize people, asking them to revisit their most painful experiences on camera for the “greater good” of raising international awareness. I raised this with Annemarie when we spoke recently.
“I think in a way I stopped making documentaries after Until When...,” she said. “I mean, you are asking people so much – you’re demanding so much time, and they give and they give and give, and we’re sitting there recording. And then we go to the editing room and we cut. It’s picking and choosing what about this person’s life will be represented. In that way, I prefer fiction, because you are writing and creating with the actors, and everyone is creating something new, with full awareness of what that means. Even though I love documentaries, I don’t think I am comfortable making them.”
Annemarie began concentrating on screenwriting at Columbia. The transition was inspiring: she loved the collaboration, working with actors, breathing life into her scripts. Despite the change in genre, her work remained rooted in the Arab world. Her first feature, Salt of This Sea, was shot in eighty locations throughout the West Bank and in Israel. The film stars Brooklyn-based Palestinian-American poet and activist, Suheir Hammad and follows Soraya, a Palestinian-American who travels from Brooklyn to Palestine to reclaim what was stolen from her family when Israel was created.
In our conversation, Annemarie recalled shooting Salt of This Sea as an endless battle. All of her crewmembers were denied permits to shoot inside Israel, and eighty percent of her location permits were denied. She circumvented these obstacles with tenacity and creativity. Her crew shot the film “guerilla style,” setting up their permit-less sets in the streets and shooting until stopped by Israeli police or soldiers. Because she was shooting on Super-16mm film, Annemarie needed to get it out of Israel to be processed. It would be seized and confiscated if she or any of her crew tried to get it through customs. Luckily, one of her French producers coordinated with the French consulate to put the film reels in diplomatic cars, exempt from search at checkpoints and customs, and they made it out.
One of the key scenes in the film was inadvertently destroyed during processing in the Swiss lab. It happened after Annemarie had already left Palestine. She and her crew tried to return to reshoot the scene, but were denied entry by Israel. They ended up having to reshoot the scene in Marseilles.
When the film was completed, Annemarie wanted its first screening to be in Palestine in honor of the people for whom she’d made it. She was denied entry by Israel again. She hired an attorney, who eventually told her that the Israeli government sees her as “security problem,” a designation that, according to her lawyer, “means nothing, and at the same time means everything. It’s a bureaucratic trick that is used so they never really ever have to answer the question why?” She would try, and be denied entry, seven more times. Salt of This Sea ended up premiering at Cannes in 2008.
Her mystery designation as a threat to Israel would continue to haunt her. When Annemarie became engaged to Ossama Bawardi, a fellow Palestinian filmmaker from Nazareth, she was determined to make it to her own wedding. Palestinians from the Galilee often hold weddings that last five or six days. Starting several months before the wedding, Ossama tried futilely to get Annemarie special permission from the Ministry of the Interior to attend their wedding, spending hours in the office pleading with the officials to let his bride in. It was to no avail; the wedding went on without Annemarie. She was stuck at her apartment in Amman.
On the last day of the wedding, Annemarie received a call from Ossama: He had finally received permission from the Ministry, but she had to travel right now. Annemarie ran out of her house, grabbed a cab, stopped at the bridal store (where she was storing her dress in anticipation, and where all of the woman cheered for her) and caught a bus to the border. When she got there, the soldier told her she was denied entry. She called Ossama, panicking. He told her not to leave the checkpoint; he would figure it out. The soldiers at the border insisted that she get on the bus back to Amman, but she held out long enough for Ossama to sort it out. Finally, she was given a one-week visa – much shorter than the three months typically allotted, but all she needed for the moment.
Annemarie’s second feature film, When I Saw You (Lamma Shoftak), was inspired by her experiences living in Jordan – close enough to see Palestine, but denied permission to actually enter and live there. The film’s main characters are eleven-year-old Tarek and his mother Ghaydaa. They become refugees during the 1967 war, fleeing to Jordan on foot. “In his twelve year old mind, he can’t understand why, if he walked there, logically, why can’t he just walk back,” Annemarie said of Tarek’s character. He is similar to Soraya from Salt of This Sea, she continued, in that “both have this naïve hopefulness. But he differs because he wants to go home simply to go home, because he is suddenly living in a refugee camp – not because he has a political understanding of what Palestine is.”
After the success of Salt of This Sea, one would think that funding and producing a second film would be easier, especially shooting it in an Arab country without the Israeli government blockading the crew’s every move. This was not the case. When she went to shoot When I Saw You, Annemarie had to get permission from the Jordanian Army for their main location, which was initially refused. The production houses in Jordan operate “like a mafia,” she said. Ultimately she was able to obtain equipment for cheaper prices from Germany. The Jordanian Tourism Board (JTB) offers significant assistance to film productions in Jordan in the hopes that films shot there promote tourism to the country. A couple months prior to Annemarie’s shoot in Jordan, JTB awarded Disney Studios (which was shooting its first Arabic-language movie in the Middle East) free transportation and hotel rooms. However, JTB denied production assistance to When I Saw You. Disney’s film was shot inside a Jordanian sports stadium, while Annemarie’s is entirely outdoors. “It showcases Jordan’s landscapes & ruins –it’s like their dream, or so I imagined,” she said. Despite the relentless challenges, When I Saw You has been selected as the official Palestinian entry for the Oscar and will have its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on September 9th.
Annemarie dipped into the art world last year when she was invited to do a piece for a gallery in Amman. She collaborated with the political cartoonist and artist Nidal El-Khairy on the subject of censorship and self-censorship in Jordan. She asked well-known writers, journalists and bloggers to write a piece they would like to see published in a newspaper, but one that would never actually be published because of the censors. “Eight people wrote about homosexuality, virginity, sex,” she said. “Actually a lot of people wrote about sex, which was interesting – and also about religion and politics. I then asked them to censor their own articles, because everything that gets printed in Jordan has to go through a censor.” Annemarie then tried to print the articles, including the blacked-out “self-censored” sections, in a mock newspaper. The printing house she approached unexpectedly refused to print the mock paper, even with the offending words blacked out, for fear of retribution from the government. Annemarie was not able to find a publishing house in all of Jordan willing to print the piece. She also, in the process, discovered that there is a law on the books in Jordan forbidding that anything written about God, or the King, touch the ground. She planned to display isolated words and phrases from the censored sections throughout the gallery – including on the ground.
The Arab world remains where Annemarie feels freedom as an artist, despite all of the obstacles. In the West, she told me, she feels ghettoized either as a woman or a Palestinian filmmaker – that despite the critique in the West about how the Arab world treats women. “You go to film festivals in the U.S. and in Europe and most of the directors are men,” she said. “Arab film festivals [feature] at least 50 percent women directors. That’s not to say everything else is perfect.” Indeed, Annemarie has made her home for the time being in Jordan precisely because things are not perfect there. “I think it’s really important to stay and help build the film industry here, and not just make a film and leave. That is why I stay in the region,” she said. “It has become harder though, because everything seems to have become extreme – either extremely de-politicized, like dumbed-down pop culture, or becoming really conservative. That other space is shrinking, so I think it is important to be here to insist on that other space.”
At the symposium where I first met Annemarie twelve years ago, she invited me to attend the first rally in Washington, DC, for the Palestinian Right of Return. She told me she was going to rent a car with some friends. It would be the first demonstration I had ever been to, just before the second Intifada and a year before 9/11. It turns out I wasn’t the only one Annemarie invited – soon she was organizing several cars, then looking into chartering a bus. Eventually she chartered two large Greyhound buses and filled them with people she mostly recruited herself. While Annemarie would not turn to narrative film for a few more years, she already knew how to command an audience, and how to turn that audience’s emotions and passions toward action. Like Soraya and Tarek, the characters in her film, she is not just awaiting her return to Palestine: She has turned the camera on her own story, compelling the world to contend with the humanity and steadfastness of her people.
Suzy Salamy has been working in the documentary and news world for twelve years. She worked as Director and Producer for the television show GRITtv with Laura Flanders and as a Producer at Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman. Her documentary work concentrates on the Middle East and includes the documentaries About Baghdad with InCounter Productions and Until When… with Falafel Daddy Productions as well as the Deep Dish TV Series about the 2006 Lebanon/Israel war, Nothing is Safe. She has also taught video production and media analysis to youth at Global Action Project in NYC and Al Bustan Seeds of Culture in Philadelphia. She is currently pursuing her Masters in Social Work at Hunter College.