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Movie Review

‘When I Saw You,’ a refugee’s view of war

Mahmoud Asfa stars in the Palestinian film “When I Saw You.”

When war or other disasters strike, children suffer the most. Uncomprehending, powerless, they can only endure. A few films have captured this tragedy from the child’s point of view – Réne Clément’s “Forbidden Games” (1952) or Elem Klimov’s “Come and See” (1985). Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir does not approach the horror or pathos of those masterpieces, but she does provide a fresh perspective on one of the world’s longest conflicts, through the eyes of 13-year-old Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa), a refugee in a Jordanian camp. Though the 1967 Arab-Israeli War has changed his world forever, Tarek doesn’t see why he can’t find his father and just go home again.

Because of this anger and stubbornness he has become a handful for his long-suffering mother Ghaydaa (Ruba Blal) and a major behavior problem for the camp. At the beginning of the film he’s shown joyfully fleeing on a pair of stolen roller skates, the skates’ owner and his friends in furious pursuit. Then a truck full of new refugees arrives. He rushes to see if his father is among them but is disappointed once again.


Confused, he misdirects his anger at his mother, blaming her for driving his father away. When he tells her he can’t even remember where their home was, she reminds him of what his father once said, that if he follows the shadow cast by the sun he will find his home again. Taking her at her word, he does exactly that, and wanders into the desert.

There he is found by Layth (Saleh Bakri), a strapping fedayee (Palestinian guerrilla fighter), who has been recruiting volunteers at the refugee camp. He takes Tarek to the guerilla outpost, which seems about as threatening as Camp Ivanhoe in “Moonrise Kingdom,” with men and women singing around the campfire, playing cards, running obstacle courses, and taking target practice with AK-47s. But after a while the fedayee drills seem as drab and pointless as the routine he left behind at the refugee camp, so he gets the itch to move on and fulfill his quest.


Some might fault Jacir for supplying little historical or political context and softening the harsh realities of the war and the life of refugees. There are glimpses here and there of a universe beyond Tarek’s understanding – a guerrilla’s copy of Mao’s Little Red Book (this was in the pre-Islamist heyday of the left-leaning Fatah), the sound of passing jets, radio reports of refugee camps being bombed. Perhaps more might have added an edge of irony, but the film remains true to Tarek’s point of view. We see the world as he does, with the boredom of endless dun-colored landscapes and tattered tents cut by the sudden brightness of a blue sky or a pomegranate or a fedayee’s propaganda paintings. The film’s last image freezes the screen, a reminder that after more than 45 years of adult folly, fences still separate children from their homes.

Peter Keough can be reached at