When I Saw You (Lamma Shoftak): Abu Dhabi Review

When I Saw You Film Still - H 2012

When I Saw You Film Still - H 2012

Engaging 1967-set drama provides a child's-eye view of the Palestinian resistance, with the youthful lead's naturalism a crucial plus.

Palestinian writer-director Annemarie Jacir's sophomore feature stars newcomer Mahmoud Afsa as a young Palestinian refugee in 1960s Jordan.

In theory the last thing world cinema needs is yet another presentation of wartime strife through the innocent eyes of a child, but writer-director Annemarie Jacir's Palestinian drama When I Saw You (Lamma Shoftak) is sufficiently likeable and flavorsome to justify adding to this overstocked sub-genre. Her trump card is newcomer Mahmoud Asfa, 13 at the time of filming, whose performance as a maths-prodigy refugee in 1967 Jordan nimbly avoids the pitfalls of mawkishness or excessive precocity.

Premiering at Toronto, the Jordan/Palestine/UAE co-production was then named best film from the Arab World in the well-contested New Horizons competition at Abu Dhabi and has been named as Palestine's submission for the Foreign Language Oscar. Jacir's bland and seemingly non-sequitur choice of title won't be a help on any platform, but festival exposure could well translate to healthy small-scree sales and further awards might even yield limited arthouse release in receptive territories.

Himself reportedly discovered in a present-day Jordanian refugee camp, Afsa -- now 14 -- holds the screen with a maturity some way between his years as Tarek, a boy who's a natural whiz with numbers but is unable to read or write. His education and general prospects aren't helped by the fact that he's had to flee his home following Israel's triumph in the Six Day War of June 1967. He escapes with his mother Ghaydaa (Ruba Blal) over the border into Jordan where they make the best of things at the Harir Camp, the kid dreaming of a reunion with his absent father.

Tarek's dissatisfactions with his new surroundings lead him to wander off in search of new adventures, which he finds with trainee guerillas at their nearby encampment. The boy is thus propeled fairly quickly towards adulthood, although the film thankfully stops short of his becoming a fully-fledged child soldier. Jacir, following up her well-received 2008 Salt of this Sea, is more concerned with evoking period atmosphere and exploring character than with dramatic incident, and several of the main plot developments occur off screen.

This approach results in a steady-paced, wryly humorous affair which doesn't quite conjure the hazardousness of the situations Tarek and Ghaydaa find themselves in. The momentum sags somewhat in the second half, though ruggedly handsome Saleh Bakri (from Salt of this Sea) and amusingly crusty Ali Elayan more than pull their weight as rifle-toting commando Layth and his commanding officer Abu Akram. The tense finale meanwhile wraps things up on a high note, the somewhat unfashionable device of a climactic freeze-frame proving a welcome alternative to current arthouse cinema's seemingly obligatory sudden cut to black.

Venue: Abu Dhabi Film Festival (New Horizons)
Production company: Philistine Films
Cast: Mahmoud Asfa, Ruba Blal, Saleh Bakri, Firyas Taybeh, Ali Elayan,
Ahmad Srour
Director / Screenwriter: Annemarie Jacir
Producer: Ossama Bawardi
Executive producers: Annemarie Jacir, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos
Director of photography: Hélène Louvart
Production designer: Hussein Baydoun
Costume designer: Hamada Attalah
Music: Kamran Rastegar
Editors: Annemarie Jacir, Panos Voutsaras
Sales agent: The Match Factory, Cologne
No MPAA rating, 97 minutes