A Bitter Sea

For a people dispossessed and silenced, the need to preserve the past can be equal to preserving life, one's identity. Annemarie Jacir's work in independent film breaks this silence by showing us characters who don't play by the rules. Born in 1974 in Bethlehem (West Bank), Jacir grew up in Saudi Arabia and moved to the U.S. when she was 16. She worked in the Los Angeles film industry before enrolling in Columbia University's film program. Among her short film credits are A Post-Oslo History (1998), The Satellite Shooters (2001), and Like Twenty Impossibles (2003). Salt of This Sea (2008) is her first feature film, currently screening in U.S. theaters.


Banned from returning to her home in Ramallah, Palestine, Jacir now lives in Amman, Jordan. As co-founder of Philistine Films (philistinefilms.org), she shot and produced several documentaries of the Arab world. Until When turns the lens on four families living in the Deheisha refugee camp outside Bethlehem. In 2005, she collaborated with Algerian-French filmmaker Nassim Amouache on A Few Crumbs for the Birds about a handful of Palestinian refugees eking out a living in Ruwayshed, a derelict, oil-smuggling town near Jordan's border with Iraq. Like Salt of This Sea, shooting was completed despite the opposition of state authorities, who insisted the film crew find a more tourist-oriented subject.


In 2003, Jacir co-founded the Dreams of a Nation cinema project (dreamsofanation.org) dedicated to the promotion of Palestinian films. That same year she organized and curated the largest traveling film festival in Palestine. She has taught at Columbia University, Bethlehem University, Birzeit University, and in refugee camps in Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan.


Her feature film Salt of This Sea, written by Jacir, concerns Soraya, a Brooklyn-born Palestinian (poet/activist Suheir Hammad), who travels to Israel to claim an inheritance from her grandfather—$15,572.16 in today's U.S. dollars. When she's told by bank officials that all Palestinian deposits disappeared with the new state of Israel in 1948, she refuses to give up. Allied with waiter Emad (Saleh Bakri), who wants to leave Ramallah as much as Soraya wants to stay, she embarks on a quest to recover what's hers, both the money and her ancestor's home. In the process, she and Emad become fugitives. "They refused to give us the right of return, so I took it," Soraya explains defiantly.


MULLENNEAUX: I saw Salt of This Sea in Manhattan in August. Why did it take so long to get theatrical distribution in the U.S.?


JACIR: It's strange how long it took. The film premiered in 2008 and was theatrically released in France, Switzerland, Belgium, India, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Holland, and the UK. But the U.S. has always been a much more difficult place for the kind of work I'm doing.


How has it been received so far in the U.S., the Middle East, and Europe?


The response has been better than I could have imagined, especially from the Middle East and Europe. Being an official selection in Cannes was a great honor as was receiving the International Federation of Film Critics prize. Unlike film writers in other countries, many U.S. critics did not understand the film's political nuances. But audience reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. We won the audience award in New Orleans, Houston, and Chicago and we won Best Film in Traverse City, Michigan. I never imagined that Salt of This Sea would speak to someone in middle America, someone so far from this story. That was a pleasant wake-up call.


I understand that the idea for Salt of This Sea comes from an actual bank robbery. Is this true?


Yes, the story was inspired by a bank robbery in Bethlehem that happened during a military curfew. Three people robbed a bank, two men and a woman. The questions raised by this robbery—whether or not they were criminals, why they robbed a local bank rather than an Israeli bank—intrigued me more than the robbery itself. The film was also inspired by a more sober story. My friend's father is from Jaffa and in 1948, along with all the other refugees from Jaffa with bank accounts and safety deposit boxes, his life savings were frozen by the Israeli state. He remained a refugee all his life, trying to get his savings back. So far, he has not succeeded.


How was the film financed?


Through the support of a large number of European co-producers and small funders, each putting in a tiny amount to make this film happen. We never met our budget yet the film was made.


Salt of This Sea opens with historical footage from the military archives in Jerusalem of the expulsion of Palestinians from the port of Jaffa in 1948. Israeli tanks knock down walls and houses, panicked refugees wade into the sea to overcrowded boats. Soraya's grandfather would have been one of those refugees. Were there other reasons you chose this scene?


Palestinians leaving Jaffa in 1948  

I had never seen those images in a feature film before and they were crucial for me to set the stage. This is a fictional story, but it's based on our history. Our houses were destroyed. All our lives, our history has been erased and denied.


The title Salt of This Sea refers to Jaffa, doesn't it?


Yes, the film talks so much about the sea, about the characters' relationship to it, about what the sea means to Palestinians. Some refugee children have never seen the sea. They can't reach it. For those driven out in 1948, the sea was the last thing they saw of Palestine. There's a book of memoirs written by Shafiq Al-Hout, a Palestinian exiled from Jaffa, where he speaks about this moment in 1948. They are on the boats and he is looking at Jaffa as his boat moves away, never realizing that it will be the last time he sees his home.


The next scene shows Soraya's arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, where she is questioned and given a full-body search "for your own security."


At the airport, she expects to be treated like everyone else. After all, she has a U.S. passport, but she also has an Arabic surname, Lebanon-born parents, and intends to stay with a friend in Ramallah. Now Soraya understands that she's different from everyone else. Like many Palestinians, I discovered at the border that I was Palestinian.


Where was the film shot and how did you get permission to shoot?


The film was shot in 80 locations. We filmed on all sides of the apartheid wall—the checkpoints, the green line, the red line, or whatever other ridiculous new border has been put up to separate human beings from each other. Israeli authorities refused permission to shoot in most locations and refused to let many members of my crew travel. In the end, they refused my return to my home in Ramallah, so one scene had to be shot in Marseille, France.


Suheir Hammad is a Brooklyn-born poet. Why did you choose her to play Soraya?


Suheir Hammad and I used to read poetry together. Her story resembles Soraya's: a family exiled in 1948, born in a refugee camp, a life among the immigrant working class of Brooklyn, and a deeply rooted Palestinian identity, along with other identities. When I told her about my idea she answered, "No way, I'm not an actress. I could never be someone I'm not." I persuaded her to read the screenplay. She read it and said, "Absolutely, that's me, I can do it." And she is Soraya, not only because of their similar backgrounds, but because of her fire, her depth, the anger she struggles with, and the love and light she emanates in order to survive.


How did you find Emad?


Soraya (played by Suheir Hammad) and Emad (Saleh Bakri)—photo from www.philistinefilms.org

During the casting process, I heard about a young stage actor who had not acted in film yet, but was interested. This was Saleh Bakri, the son of Mohammad Bakri, a star of Israeli, Palestinian, and European cinema. Initially, I wasn't interested in him because I like to work with nonprofessional actors and people whose lives are close to the stories I'm telling. But I auditioned him and I immediately sensed that Saleh was the ideal actor for the part. He has a sort of restrained sorrow and rage. He knows very deeply who Emad is.


I understand Bakri was not allowed into Ramallah because he is an Israeli national.


That's correct. We had to improvise a solution, which was for him to slip through to Ramallah and when the Israeli army came to check on the set, he had to hide.


I found the scenes in which Soraya and Emad set up house in the ruins of Emad's family village of Dawayma very moving. What happened in Dawayma?


One of the largest and best-documented massacres of 1948 occurred in Dawayma village, yet it is one of the least-known outside of Palestine. I didn't feel that it was necessary to talk specifically about the Dawayma massacre. That's where Emad comes from and he carries this burden with him. When he and Soraya first meet, he says that he is from Dawayma. She understands what that means. Once they are in the village, the only "sign" of the massacre is the memorial that they decide to build. This is a private moment between them and I wanted it to remain very personal.


Why do you choose to have Soraya and Emad ousted from their refuge by an American Jewish academic?


The character of the teacher who "catches" them comes from a story an Israeli friend told me about how he used to be taken on excursions as a kid and told about Romans, ancient history, and all these things as they played in the ruins. When, as an adult, he discovers that the ruins they were playing in were actually the demolished remains of Palestinian homes and that the demolition had occurred in his parents' lifetimes, he was shocked. His whole world fell apart and he began to understand how duped he had been.


You have said Salt of This Sea is not merely a condemnation of the Israeli occupation, but also a condemnation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the elite of Ramallah. How so?


The failure of the sham peace talks, the hypocrisy of Palestinian society, a corrupt government and elite living in a bubble in Ramallah, gaudy PA mansions, marginalization of refugees. Soraya hates Ramallah. She doesn't find a home there. She never feels welcomed in Palestine until she meets Emad's mother in the refugee camp. That's the first time we see Soraya smile.


Has Salt of This Sea been screened in Palestine?


The film had its world premiere in the Amari refugee camp near Ramallah, then went to the Aida camp north of Bethlehem, and the Burj al Barajneh camp in Lebanon. We are lucky to have been in film festivals, of course, but my focus is my own community—the Arab audience.


What is the Dreams of a Nation project?


Simply to give films a chance to be seen. Distribution for Palestinian cinema is lacking except at random film festivals. We launched the online database (dreamsofanation.org) in January 2003 and it covers the history of Palestinian filmmaking, biographies of 66 filmmakers, film synopses, and a bibliography of critical writings on Palestinian film.


Have you experienced censorship?


I have 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. Each Palestinian film that is shot is a miracle to me.


You have said that Ghassan Kanafani (short story writer and resistance fighter) was a major influence on your work. Can you explain? Any other artistic influences?


There are so many influences—Edward Said, Walid Khalidi, and Mahmoud Darwish, besides Ghassan Kanafani. Cinematic influences are Italian Neo-realism, French New Wave, and Iranian cinema. Filmmakers include Claire Denis, John Cassavetes, his Shadows was a major influence, Spike Lee, Tsai Ming-liang, Jim Jarmusch, and Jane Campion.


What is your next project?


A feature film about a larger-than-life Palestinian boy and his mother living in Jordan. Lots of fun actually.


Where is "home" for Annemarie Jacir?


Home is Palestine. It always has been. But Palestine is not always in Palestine.


Lisa Mullenneaux is a journalist and publisher based in Manhattan and Woodstock, New York. She is the author of Ni Una Bomba Mas: Vieques vs. US Navy, an account of the 1999-2000 civil disobedience movement on Vieques, Puerto Rico; Sleep Cheap in New York; and Vermont Antiquing. She also maintains a travel website (peningtonpress.com).