Salt of This Sea ملح هذا البحر

2 05 2009

I had been looking forward to this film for quite a while, and when the Tribeca Film Festival announced that it was showing it, I bought the tickets weeks in advance.

It didn’t disappoint.

Director and Writer: Annemarie Jacir

Stars: Suheir Hammad (as Soraya)

             Saleh Bakri (as Emad)

             Riyad Ideis (as Marwan)

First Release Date: May 16, 2008 (Cannes Film Festival)


There was much hype about this movie: it was filmed in the Palestinian territories (something not always easy to do), it was directed by award-winning Bethlehem-born Annemarie Jacir, its female star is the famous spoken-word poet Suheir Hammad, and it was going to talk much about the lost land, identity, Israeli-imposed restrictions, Israeli-imposed occupation.

The hype was not all exaggerated. The film was an emotional drain in many ways, but it gave a visual to what Palestinians go through every day in the West Bank, not to mention what it means to be a Palestinian, or a Palestinian-American, or a child of a refugee. It has a French style to it. Long silent scenes, really-focused dragged shots, an emphasis on thoughts and emotions rather than words; a stillness that sits deep instead of moving forward.


The Actors

Suheir, playing the role of Soraya, gave a great performance. She has real charisma and presence in the film. Her eyes: wide, dark, Middle-Eastern and deep, was all I could see in the movie. These eyes captured all the thoughts and feelings that her mouth didn’t utter. At times, however, I could see the real Suheir, the spoken-word poet that I watched diligently on YouTube. In one scene where she argues with Emad, she easily slipped into her poetry mode, her hands flailing in the air, her body bent forward, her neck jerking at every strong, broken word. She was the Brooklynite that she really is.

I also doubted her accent at times. In some lines, she seemed to speak “fos-ha,” the proper Arabic, not the colloquial Palestinian dialect. At other times, I couldn’t understand her attachment to this land. It seemed a little exaggerated, surreal. But I am in no position to cast a judgment on that.

Saleh Barki was the second important half to this movie. He embodied much of what Palestinian men look and act like. He seldom smiles. He seems broken yet strong and dignified at the same time. The first time you see him laugh or show any real happy emotions is nearly half the way through the movie.

In one scene, after Soraya yells at the Israeli girl who now owns the home that her family was evacuated from, Emad goes to Soraya and asks her why she lets them (the Israelis, the Jews) make her “crazy” like that, as if it’s occupation. She responds, “But it is occupation!” But Emad answers, “Not from the inside.”

That, I believe is the heart of this movie: dignity, resilience, and endurance. One line that I heard more than once in the film is, “Keep your head up.”


Meeting Suheir and Annemarie

Suheir Hammad and Annemarie Jacir came to speak to us at the movie theatre after the movie ended. There was a short Q&A session.

A member of the audience said that the airport scene was not exaggerated at all: the searches, the questions “for your own security,” the humiliation. This commentator was a Christian who had gone to Palestine, and because of her last name (she did not mention what it was) the Israeli authority put her through a worse ordeal. Director Jacir said that what we saw in the movie is really sugarcoated. It is a nicer version of what many people go through.

The checkpoints in the film were shot in real checkpoints until the Israeli authorities stopped that. That’s when the crew had to actually build checkpoints.

Another member of the audience asked Jacir about rumors that she was not allowed to enter Israel. Jacir, in fact, was denied entry. It wasn’t because of the film, she said, but due to an Israeli policy. Many Palestinians in the diaspora are not allowed to enter Israel or the Palestinian territories anymore. There is a movement today, she said, called “Right to Enter,” tackling this same problem

As a result, the last scene wasn’t shot in Palestine, but somewhere in Europe. I believe she said Switzerland.

The inspiration of the film, she said, was a mixture of things: news about a robbery in Bethlehem and the argument of characterizing these robbers as criminals or not, her own experience and life, her close relationship with a man (I’m not sure if it’s a grandfather or a friend) who mentally lives in Jaffa where he’s really from, but physically lives in Ramallah. That sense of belonging, of wanting, of being.

One of the problems the movie is facing today is distribution. Although it has been sold out in all of the film festivals they’ve shown in, no carrier in the U.S. is willing to distribute it nationally. It tells you something, doesn’t it?

This film is going to show in 40 different Palestinian villages and towns within the next month and a half.

Suheir said that they all miss Palestine. Most of the cast was from the West Bank.

“We miss the people,” she said calmly, “and really their commitment to nonviolence.”


My Friends’ Responses

I went to see this screening with two girls. One Palestinian-American and one Indian-American.

My Palestinian-American friend vouched for almost everything in the movie. She has been going to Palestine and Israel for the past several years and she knows it to be true almost all the problems: the airport, the scenes in Ramallah, the family, the identity dilemma, the Israeli checkpoints and restrictions.

In one scene, where an Israeli police officer approaches Emad and suspects him of being an illegal Palestinian in Israel, Soraya comes to save him by speaking to him in Spanish, and the officer backs away. My friend cried, “That’s so true! You can speak any language in this land but Arabic and you’d belong.”

The only thing that she said was unrealistic was that Soraya and Emad would’ve been caught in Israel long before they actually were. That, to her, was the fantasy movie-like aspect of the film.

My other friend had only known the Israeli side of this conflict until now. She had come because she loves Suheir Hammad and her poetry. When I talked to her after the film, she spoke with much shock. It was unfathomable to her that a man had not seen the sea for 17 years, that Palestinians have to get permits to go everywhere. She was, at the same time, confused about the history of the conflict. She said she doesn’t really know what happened and the movie doesn’t explain that well. She wanted to go read a book immediately after the film.

“Forgetting all the scores and who did what,” she told me, “This is about human condition, and humanity. And that’s where my loyalty lies.”

I couldn’t agree more.




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