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Home > Life & Culture > Film
Female Palestinian filmmaker shines at Cannes festival
Rasha Salti, IMEU, Nov 16, 2008

For a list of screenings of Annemarie Jacir's Salt of this Sea worldwide, click here.

Palestinian filmmaker and director of Salt of this Sea Annemarie Jacir (left), stands alongside lead actors Suheir Hammad (right) and Saleh Bakri (center) before the film's screening at the Cannes Film Festival. (Julia Brechler)

Much is made of 'first time' experiences in life, but nothing in my good and bad education, or professional experience, prepared me for my first time at the Cannes Film Festival.

The emotional charge was furthermore doubled, tripled, even quadrupled because the first screening I planned to attend in the theater reserved for the Official Selection Un Certain regard section, was a dearly beloved's first feature film - Annemarie Jacir's Salt of this Sea - and the dearly beloved is Palestinian, and the dearly beloved Palestinian is a woman, and the lead actress, Suheir Hammad, is one of my favorite Palestinian poets and a friend very close to my heart.

In the weeks before I was readying to pack my bags, I day-dreamed about the moment, but it was impossible to imagine.

I just could not cast the faces of Annemarie, Suheir, or Kamran, faces so loved, so familiar, so close - in Cannes' overdose of glitz and glamour that I usually catch on television or in glossy magazine spreads.

I thought about Annemarie's primary school in Saudi Arabia. Could her classmates imagine that the tall and curly-haired girl with the funny name would climb the red-carpeted steps of Cannes's palace?

And the Israeli soldiers posted at the bridge, entrusted with humiliating Palestinian expatriates visiting hometowns and family, who checked her papers and passport - did they know she was storing images and dialogue lines, dreaming up a thousand film scripts, and that her first feature film would lead her to climb the red carpeted steps at Cannes?

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Review: Salt of this Sea

Annemarie Jacir: Artist and filmmaker

Suheir Hammad: Poet and author

I thought about her father, and the moment she announced to him that she planned to study film. I thought about the committee at Columbia University that reviewed her application to the film school. I thought about the benign moments we bumped into one another in New York and she said to me casually that she was working on a script for a feature film, a glimmer of mischief in her eyes.

This is what the extraordinary is made of, a series of ordinary moments, all seemingly mundane, amounting chronologically to a commonplace everyday, life as it were, until fate brings a fantastic twist, and a young girl taller than average, with unruly curls, a funny name and a wild imagination, living tirelessly a back and forth between Palestine and the world, climbs the red-carpeted steps at the Cannes Film Festival as the first Palestinian woman filmmaker with a feature film while still in her early 30s.

The recognition of the accomplishment by the international film industry is extraordinary. The accomplishment itself is miraculous, and miracles are the work of humans, neither stars nor divine powers. Miracles are the harvest of sharp and fearless focus that verges on stubbornness, an open heart brimming with generosity that verges on candor, a tireless appetite for hard work and insatiable drive for lucid self-criticism. Salt of this Sea is Annemarie's first miracle, made against unimaginable odds, in her own hands and the hands of a team she inspired to work with her in a country under occupation and a world that gives moral high ground to the occupier.

My daydreaming in the weeks that preceded travel was distracted by the aggrieving news that Annemarie was prohibited return home to the West Bank by the Israeli government. It was furthermore distracted by the violent clashes that erupted in Lebanon (my adoptive country) in the first week of May. A relative quiet was thankfully restored a couple of days before the day of the screening, and I could go back to my daydreaming. By then however, the daydreaming had become so charged with thrill, it was again, impossible to imagine.

The sky was ominously overcast, but the air not yet wet on the morning of the screening. I worked from a nearby cyber-cafe until the time came for me to stand in the queue at the foot of the red steps. The clouds burst in heavy rain minutes before I ventured into the street, even the weather is hostile to this screening, I thought. The crowd was thick in spite of the rain, it was not a capricious spring shower, it was a virile storm with strings of water that wet the bones. I was so thrilled it did not bother me, I barely felt the drench, my eyes searched for the beloved's faces, and the soundtrack of the film began to play from a speaker. My heart was racing, I was jubilant, laughing for no reason, almost jumping on my feet from excitement.

A scene from Annemarie Jacir's Salt of this Sea.
I took a seat in the front rows of the right aisle of the theater, the room was almost packed full by the time I walked in. I wanted to be close enough to the stage to see their faces. I also realized how wet my clothes and hair had become and tried to salvage some decency in my demeanor. The lights went out. A voice speaking in a microphone announced instructions to shut off our cell phones, followed by the title of the film and Annemarie's name. By then, the experience felt unreal. A projector beamed a circle of light at the entrance of the theater and a man wearing a black tie suit and a kufiyyah around his necked walked swiftly down to the front and climbed onstage. Applause. It was Thierry Fremaux, director of the festival. He smiled widely, exuding a warm welcome to the film and team. Touching the kufiyyah he immediately said, wincing, that it was just given to him as a gift. I wiped the first tear. Then he called onto the producers and director and lead cast of the film. They also walked in from the entrance of the theater, each with a beam of light following their steps. They climbed on stage. Second, third, fourth, and then simply flows of tears streamed on my face. A woman sitting next to me was a little perturbed with my melodrama.

Annemarie was gorgeous in a simple white dress embroidered in an ochre golden yellow, her simplicity and natural beauty were disarming. Suheir Hammad was magnificent in an olive green dress that molded her lithe sculpted curves and hung on one of her shoulders, an alluring white flower pinched her brown curls, her smile luminous, she looked like a star, resurrecting the lost glamour of the 1940s and 1950s. Saleh Bakri, lank and elegant in a tailored suit, resurrected old school star glamour as well with a masculine grace that seems long lost from the film industry.

Everyone wore a kufiyyah. I have not researched the annals of the Cannes Film festival to determine whether this was the first time ever or not. Ultimately it does not matter, nor it mattered to me sitting in the audience, watching them brandish their filiations to Palestine with so much pride and delight. Salt of this Sea claims a long list of co-producers from some eight countries, not all stood on stage, but those who did, also draped their necks with a kufiyyah, including Danny Glover, the American movie star who has recently ventured into production. Fremaux invited Jacques Bidou, the film's main producer to speak as well as Danny Glover and Annemarie. Her voice trembling a little from emotion, Annemarie reminded everyone in the audience that 2008 was the 60th year of our Nakba, Israel's glory and our catastrophe, theirs celebrated, ours silenced. She also acknowledged with her habitual generosity and eloquence the labor of love that had made her film a reality. The stage was emptied, lights shut down. And the first scene flashed on the screen. Black and white footage from newsreels of the Nakba. The beginning of our sorrows, sorrows we have carried generation after generation, perpetually homeless in spite of passports and IDs, indefinitely out of place or from another place wherever we end up.

Salt of this Sea reminded me of the one of the earliest translations of 'cinema' to Arabic, "Dar al-Khayal", or in English, "The House of Imagination". What if we returned to Palestine, we everyday folk, children of children of refugees? What if we went to the institutional descendants of the banks that held our families' savings and asked for the fortunes usurped? What if we visited the homes Israelis took from us and where they live? What if we looked them eye to eye, and told them we wanted our homes back, man to man, woman to woman, in the flesh, just like that. What if we decided to make homes from within the ruins of destroyed villages? What if we went back home on our own terms? Home where it was supposed to be, not the new homes negotiated in sinister deals between heads of states that have never felt the humiliation of homelessness. In Salt of this Sea, a young woman and a young man do exactly that. That which we have become prohibited from merely imagining anymore. Annemarie Jacir reclaimed our right to imagine, fearlessly and boldly free.

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