“I don’t like to label myself as a ‘female’ director, but just a director,” says Annemarie Jacir, and yet the award-winning moviemaker intimately understands the particular difficulties of women in cinema today. Banned from her native country of Palestine, Jacir sees the world of independent film as an important place of dialogue for female directors. “When you have an independent system, uncontrolled, women often have better chances of working within that system [than in] Hollywood,” Jacir says. She has embraced the opportunities provided by the independent film world and emerged with evocative films like the feature-length Salt of This Sea and the wry short film Like Twenty Impossibles.
Through the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, which pairs emerging artists with experts in their field for a year-long, one-on-one mentorship, Jacir had the opportunity to study under acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, Hero). Under his tutelage, Jacir began her newest feature film, When I Saw You. The film, set in the 1960s, is about a free-spirited Palestinian boy and the people he meets after arriving in a refugee camp in Jordan. Digressing from the poetic melancholy of Salt of this Sea, Jacir describes her most recent work as one of hope. “When I Saw You is a film I wanted to have a lot of fun with,” Annemarie Jacir explains, “and I did.”
Jacir took the time to talk with MovieMaker about the state of female directors in the film industry, her goal in making When I Saw You and the number one lesson she learned from working with Zhang.
Laurel Dammann (MM): Through the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, you had the opportunity of working with acclaimed director Zhang Yimou. How has your time with Zhang influenced When I Saw You?
Annemarie Jacir (AJ): I am in post-production on my second feature film, When I Saw You, and throughout the past year of working, my mentor Zhang Yimou and I have been on a very similar schedule. We were in development at the same time… we both shot in 2011 and are now finishing almost [at the same time]. Of course, my shoot was 40 days, and his [for The Flowers of War] was five months. We shot my film for $400,000, and his budget was $90 million. So there are some major differences! But after spending time on his set and with him, I learned one important thing from him, which is that the amount of money and toys—i.e., equipment—one has doesn’t matter. It’s always the same process. The only important thing is to find a way to tell your story well.
MM: In addition to being a director, you’re also a writer and poet. How do you bring these other backgrounds into your moviemaking?
AJ: It’s what I love about cinema—that it combines so many forms. Not only poetry, but music, dance, photography… For me, I began as a writer. Poetry and screenwriting satisfy two very different sides of me at the same time. Some things are just meant to be for the screen. Sometimes that is limiting, and that’s where poetry comes in. Poetry was my first love.
MM: What do you see as the role of women in Palestinian cinema today? As a female Palestinian director, how do you see yourself in relation to this role?
AJ: I think the situation of women in cinema is the same all over the world. Perhaps there are more female filmmakers working in the Middle East, and the reason for that, of course, is that most filmmakers work independently. When you have an independent system, uncontrolled, women often have better chances of working within that system [than in] Hollywood, for example.
If you look at the top festivals in the world, you notice very few female directors in competition. What I love about festivals in the Arab world is that, if you look at the list of films, at least half are directed by women. I don’t like to label myself as a “female” director, but just a director. However, that being said, it would be naïve to suggest that being a woman in this industry is not an issue. It definitely is, and the challenges of making [film when you’re a part of] the international scene are definitely more challenging for a woman.
MM: When I Saw You is described as “a story about that moment in a person’s life when he wakes up, when the whole world is buzzing and everything is possible—that moment you feel most alive.” What does this moment mean to you? How do you see yourself, as director, capturing this moment within the context of cinema?
AJ: After my first film, Salt of This Sea, which is very much about the reality of life in Palestine today, I felt depressed a bit. I always want to try to do something different than the film I did before, and after Salt of This Sea, I felt I needed to do something that was full of hope. When I Saw You is set in the late 1960s, and the late ’60s for Palestinians was like the late ’60s for everyone all over the world. Regular people felt that change was possible and that their own lives could be better. We were not as isolated as today, and dreams could become real. Of course, it’s also my fantasy of that time period, but I feel we need that fantasy. When I Saw You is a film I wanted to have a lot of fun with, and I did.
MM: What role do you see/hope that cinema plays in relation to the world around it? What do you hope audiences will take away from your own films?
AJ: Cinema is magical and wonderful. I hope only that my own films can contribute to storytelling and that I can succeed in taking the audience on a journey. I’d like to be able to share something of my stories with the world and contribute somehow to this art form that I love so much.