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Salt of This Sea: Annemarie Jacir

Annemarie Jacir's award-winning directorial debut (TFF 2009) represents a fresh, viscerally affecting, and definitive statement from second-generation Palestinian Americans.

Salt of This Sea


Annemarie Jacir's award-winning directorial debut, Salt of This Sea (TFF 2009), represents a fresh, viscerally affecting, and definitive statement from second-generation Palestinian Americans. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Soraya (spoken-word artist Suheir Hammad) travels to Palestine to retrieve her grandfather's savings, frozen in a Jaffa bank account after his 1948 exile. Struggling to feel at home in the land of her ancestors, she meets Emad (Saleh Bakri), a young Palestinian whose ambition, contrary to hers, is to leave forever. When confronted with unwieldy official policies that deny her access to the fruit of her grandfather's life's work, she must take things into their own hands, even if it's illegal. Stubborn, passionate, and determined to reclaim what's theirs, she and Emad set out on a road trip for poetic justice across a lush Palestinian (now Israeli) landscape—after which there is no return.


Tribeca Film Festival Senior Programmer Genna Terranova caught up with Jacir as Salt of This Sea begins its theatrical run in New York City.


Salt of This Sea: Annemarie Jacir
Director Annemarie Jacir


Genna Terranova: I am thrilled to hear that Salt of This Sea is being released in the States and that a wider audience will be able see the film. You and I first met at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, where it had an amazing turnout and reception. I have been curious to ask you how it all began. Can you tell me a little about the early stages of this project?


Annemarie Jacir: The project began six years before then. My own background is different than the character of Soraya, but I became interested in the “Sorayas” I met while living in Palestine—Palestinians who had grown up abroad and had never been to Palestine, but who knew so much about the place, almost in an obsessive way. And a lot of them were women in their 30s who, one day, packed up all their things and moved there. I wanted to explore a character like that. I’ve also worked in various refugee camps over the years, and am profoundly affected by the resilience and spirit of the people I have met.


More specifically, the seeds of the film grew from [getting to know] a close friend's father, who became a refugee from Jaffa in 1948 and had his savings frozen in a bank. I traveled with him to Jaffa to see his old house and walk through his neighborhood, his life, and his memories.


Finally, the film is inspired by an actual bank robbery that took place in my hometown of Bethlehem around 2000/2001. Two men and a woman robbed a local bank during an Israeli military curfew, and for days following the event, the topic of debate was whether they were “criminals” or not!


Genna Terranova: What were the biggest challenges in getting the film made?


Annemarie Jacir: Initially, it was finding support for the film. I had a short film in competition in Cannes and luckily met two wonderful French producers who liked the script—[but] it took 5 years to find the funding for the film, and even in the end we did not complete our budget.


Making the film was a bit of a miracle as well. Almost everything was forbidden to us. Palestinians are not allowed to travel from one town to another unless given a permit by the Israeli authorities. We were forbidden from filming in 80% of our locations, and our cast and crew were denied permission to move about. We applied for permits for the West Bank crew to leave Ramallah, and every single one was denied. In addition, Saleh Bakri and all the other Palestinians with Israeli citizenship were forbidden by Israeli law to be in Ramallah. I was even forbidden from filming an aerial shot because they told me I [was] a “security issue.” And later I was refused permission to return to Palestine entirely—so the film was completed in France.


I tried to make the film the “right way”—asking for permits, etc. But when so much was denied, we had to make a decision: either we don’t make the film, or we go ahead and do it in a sort of guerrilla style. It’s a little like the film itself—Soraya tries to get her family’s money out of the bank legally, but when she is met with refusal... well, sometimes you just have to go for it.


Salt of This Sea


Genna Terranova: How did you come to work with Suheir Hammad? How did you cast the rest of the film?


Annemarie Jacir: I have known Suheir for a long time—our connection to each other is through poetry. When I wrote [the film], I never had her in mind, to be honest. I auditioned Arab women from urban backgrounds in a few cities in the United States, but Suheir’s face came to me one day. In some ways, she is very close to the character of Soraya—the granddaughter of a family exiled from Palestine, born in a refugee camp, and living in a working-class immigrant community in the United States. It has formed who she is. The anger that Soraya has—the frustration of being made invisible her whole life—also exists in Suheir. And underneath the surface is the simple desire to be recognized and to be loved.


I approached her about the film and she refused immediately, as she had no acting experience. I asked her to read the script and she came back to me a week later saying, “I know Soraya. This won’t be acting.” It was true. We worked a lot together during the film, and sometimes it was very difficult—but she is always honest in the film. If she didn't feel something or understand it deeply, she just couldn't do it. Because she’s not a trained actress, she really had to believe what was happening and feel it. Every emotional moment in the film is exactly how she was feeling at that time.


The other actors are all from Palestine and, for the most part, are acting for the first time. [I found Saleh Bakri when] I was told of a young Palestinian theater actor who had never been in a film before, even though he was the son of the great actor Mohammed Bakri. I met with him and saw in him the depth, gentleness, and inner rage of Emad. He was shy at his audition, and perhaps a little insecure. I knew he was the right guy immediately.


Genna Terranova: You have shown the film to audiences around the world. What have you learned or taken away from the festival route as a filmmaker?


Annemarie Jacir: We've had an amazing run with this film—not just in film festivals, but with theatrical releases in so many countries—and I feel very lucky for that. We had the most amazing discussions in India and Cyprus—in Cyprus, the audience said, “This is a Cypriot film. If you changed the language, it would be a Cypriot story from beginning to end.” I met Sorayas and Emads everywhere. Screening the film in the various Palestinian refugee camps has also been part of that.


Genna Terranova: Can you tell me a little about the filmmaking community in Palestine and what the advantages and challenges facing up-and-coming Arab filmmakers are these days?


Annemarie Jacir: There is something very exciting happening in Palestine in terms of cinema. There are many wonderful films and new voices coming out of the region, and something very important is happening: films [are being made by] people who don’t have rich parents or investor friends, who have not have the opportunity to study abroad, who do not speak several languages or have “wasta” (connections). I hope that more and more people have a chance to have their voices heard and tell their stories.


There is some attention [being paid to] Arab cinema [right now], but there is a dangerous trend developing of Arab cinema being “ghetto-ized” by the special attention. Arab filmmakers are being placed in a vacuum rather than [being considered as] part of a wider, international world. Also, there is a constant attempt to “de-politicize” Arab filmmakers. Many festivals, awards and funds encourage us not to be “political,” and [want to reward us] for making cute comedies. There’s nothing wrong with cute comedies, but filmmakers who are doing other things are having a much more difficult time these days.


Salt of This Sea


Genna Terranova: Why do you feel audiences should come out and see your film?


Annemarie Jacir: I hope people feel like they’ve been on a journey [with the film]—and that they see a bit of themselves in it. The characters are flawed, a little lost sometimes, a little too clear about other things. Soraya is struggling inside and finding her way through the dark—it’s a story about young people in Palestine today who want to define themselves and do things their own way. It’s also a story that many people in the United States can relate to—that being from many places is not something that is a contradiction. Soraya is absolutely Palestinian and she is also absolutely a New Yorker. Those things do not conflict with each other.


Genna Terranova: And lastly, what is next for you? And what advice do you have for young filmmakers?


Annemarie Jacir: Right now I have three jobs teaching, and I work as a freelance editor. And I’m trying to get a new film off the ground: a feature set in the late 1960s in Jordan. We were lucky to have the project selected for this year’s Tribeca All Access [program]. It’s also a low-budget film, but we’re still struggling to finish the financing—like all independent filmmakers!


My only advice is to lose your dignity—when everyone says no and you get rejected from every fund, just apply again and again. Eventually something will come through.


Salt of This Sea opens on Friday, August 13, at Quad Cinema in New York.


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