salt of this sea

a film i’ve been dying to see & the challenges of palestinian cinema…

The challenges in making a film of return, and having it seen
Annemarie Jacir’s ‘Salt of the Sea’ is lauded overseas but has yet to be seen in Palestine
By Jim Quilty
Daily Star staff
Saturday, August 02, 2008

The challenges in making a film of return, and having it seen

BEIRUT: It’s often not easy doing something for the first time. Consider Annemarie Jacir’s latest film “Salt of the Sea,” which has the distinction of being Palestine’s first feature by a female director. It had its world premier in May at the Cannes Film Festival, where it screened in the prestigious Un Certain Regard category.

Having your first film selected for Cannes is an honor, but “Salt of the Sea” was meant to have its world premier in Palestine, not France, and specifically in Ramallah’s Al-Amari refugee camp, where much of it was shot. That screening didn’t happen because Jacir was herself ferrying her work back to Palestine, but Israeli authorities (who control access to Palestine) wouldn’t allow her to cross the border.

A one-time resident of Ramallah, Jacir has been repeatedly denied access to Palestine because she is regarded as a security risk. Recent inquiries have revealed a new wrinkle in her status.

“The Israeli Interior Ministry say I have a Lebanese passport,” she remarked in Amman, from where she has launched a couple of subsequent forays to cross back into Palestine, most recently in July. “Apparently they think I’m planning to smuggle more Palestinians into the country.”

The challenges the 34-year-old writer-director has faced in having her work seen in Palestine – the film’s natural audience, in her view – bears a strong echo of the difficulties she faced in making the film in the first place. Her predicament, and what it suggests about both the production and reception of art in Palestine 60 years after the Nakba, underlines something of the nature of the Israeli occupation.

The director has no shortage of tales about the obstacles the Israeli state threw up to impede her film shoot. “The main obstacles we faced were related to permits,” she recalled. “There were maybe 25 permit requests that were rejected.

“My male lead, Salah Bakri, is a ‘ 48 Palestinian and so wasn’t allowed to be in Ramallah. We had the same problem with my production manager and some other crew, including the Europeans, like my [director of photography] Benoit Chamaillard.

“We had about 80 locations around Ramallah, Jerusalem and Jaffa. We applied for permits to bring the crew out of Ramallah and every single application was rejected. We were denied access to most of the locations we wanted to use. I think the reason is that we had no financial or production assistance from Israel.

“We were denied permission to shoot a very important scene at Ben Gurion Airport, so we ended up having to build a set and shoot it there. We wanted to shoot another important scene in Haifa. When they denied permission, we had to move the principal actors and crew to Marseilles to shoot the scene there.

“All the gear for the shoot was in the back of my production manager’s beat-up old pick-up truck – a silver Mitsubishi. That old truck got shipped to Marseilles because it was cheaper than renting a vehicle in France. He left it there.

“There’s a key aerial shot we needed – from a helicopter approaching Jaffa from the sea. Since I’m a security risk, the Israelis wouldn’t give me permission to be in the helicopter for the shot. So my camera operator had to shoot it alone.”

Such bureaucratic obstacles punctuated a more general state of tension connected with making a film in a country under military occupation.

“We had plenty of police visiting the set and harassing Salah,” she recalled. “One day the Israeli Army blew up the Nazareth Restaurant. My French production designer Franciose Joset had been there just half an hour before. That sort of thing’s very upsetting for the European crew.

“I’m not sure but I think this is the only film shot inside Israel without Israeli line producers. When I told my friends I planned to shoot in Palestine, they told me it would be impossible. I told them we’d show them it could be done. And we did.”

It’s surprising that a feature could be made under such circumstances – especially when you factor in the other, more mundane, challenges Jacir faced in getting her film made. Funding was one: “Salt of the Sea” has no less than eight co-producers, from Europe, the US and Palestine.

Presumably such limitations would detract from the quality of the finished product. The invitation to Cannes suggests otherwise, as does the film’s reception at its first post-Cannes festival, New Delhi’s Osian’s-Cinefan Festival of Asian and Arab Cinema, where it took both the Special Jury Prize and FIPRESCI (International Film Critics’ Guild) Prize.

“Salt of the Sea” is Jacir’s first feature but she has played a prominent role in the independent cinema of Palestine and the region for some years now. She has been involved in a number of curatorial and film production projects and in 2004 she was among Filmmaker magazine’s 25 New Faces of independent cinema.

Jacir has made and collaborated in a small number of intelligent short films and documentaries that combine the eye of a political dissident with a poet’s sense of aesthetics. Her 2003 short, “Like Twenty Impossibles” was the first Palestinian short film to be in Cannes official selection.

The obstacles emanating from Israeli authorities in making “Salt of the Sea” stood in marked contrast to the assistance Jacir and her crew got from Palestinians during the shoot.

“The way people supported us when they found out what the film was about,” she says, “was really amazing. So many people went out of their way to help us, bringing us food and water. We had extra production assistants everywhere we went.”

One of the good things to emerge from the shoot, she says, was that it contributed to building up Ramallah’s grassroots filmmaking experience.

“We basically had to train our own production crew,” she says. “A lot of our people were working on their first film – a jewelry-maker, a DJ, kaza. At the beginning of the process, they had no experience making films. But since we wrapped up the shoot, they’ve kept working: there have been three features and seven or eight shorts shot around Ramallah.”

“Salt of the Sea” tells the story of two third-generation refugees who meet in Palestine. At the center of the story is Soraya (Suheir Hammad), a Palestinian who grew up in Brooklyn.

She discovers her grandfather’s Jaffa bank account was frozen in 1948, the year of the Nakba, and that the funds were never released. When she learns that a branch of the same bank has opened in Ramallah, she returns to Palestine, intent on collecting her family’s savings.

Once there, she meets Emad (Bakri), who lives in the nearby refugee camp of Al-Amari. Unlike Soraya, who has long dreamed of returning to Palestine, Emad wants nothing more than to leave.

“She’s a very direct but naive character,” Jacir says. “The film’s about her going to Palestine and falling into life among the elite there. When she meets this guy from Amari Camp, she finds she can’t relate to him at all, but they connect.”

The film’s premier at Cannes was a bittersweet experience. “On one hand,” she says, “it’s such a great honor to be premiered there, especially with this year being the anniversary of the Nakba.

“But the film was such a labor of love for us and the people who helped us in the camp that it seemed more important to share that pleasure with them. Prestigious as Cannes is, there’s a sense that this film is for us.”

The filmmaker says that she still intends to have her work seen by the people who made it possible. “I’ve decided I’m going to screen the film in Palestine anyway, whether they let me in or not. Right now it’s scheduled for August 21 in Al-Amari Camp.”

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