When Annemarie Jacir pitched her thesis film at graduate school some 20 years ago, her advisor told her the best place for her script was in the garbage. It was an ambitious project for the young Columbia University student: A Palestinian film crew navigating their way through Israeli checkpoints in occupied territory as they attempt to reach Jerusalem certainly didn’t fit the traditional mold of thesis short films.
But the brilliance of Jacir and her work is that she is not a filmmaker who conforms. Steadfast in her ambition to bring this story to light, she put the project together through old-fashioned crowdfunding, sheer determination and grit. She shot the 17-minute short film, titled Like Twenty Impossibles, across a year and a half in occupied Palestine during the Second Intifada, one of the region’s most violent times in modern history, a brave feat for the then twentysomething writer, director and editor.
“It was crazy,” recalls Jacir about the shoot. “It was such a violent time and I remember being caught in the middle of some really terrifying moments where I really feared for my life.”
As the saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Like Twenty Impossibles premiered as an Official Selection at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, marking the first short film from the Arab world to enter the event. It went on to win numerous awards at international film festivals, propelling Jacir’s profound message.
“It was such an honor and such an amazing moment after such a difficult time,” says Jacir. “It’s the thing that changed my career. I felt it was the beginning of finding a community that for me is everything today–a film community of people who love cinema. It felt like the beginning of a family. On a practical level, because of that film I was able to connect and meet people that became my partners to help me make my first feature, and some of them I still work with today.”
Jacir’s journey to the director’s chair has been an interesting one. Born in Bethlehem and educated at an international school in Saudi Arabia, Jacir moved to Texas for her junior and senior years of high school. Interested in writing, she also spent a lot of time hanging out with a video editor friend in the editing room.
“I wasn’t thinking that would ever go anywhere, but I started playing with images at that point and editing,” she says. She became involved in high school theater, working behind the scenes and directing plays. In college, she majored in politics and literature but kept thinking about film, unsure what part she was interested in the most.
After graduating, Jacir took the plunge and moved to LA, taking various assistant roles before she scored a gig reading scripts in the literary department at a talent agency.
“That was really where I learned the craft and the formatting of screenwriting,” she says.
But LA didn’t feel like the right fit for Jacir. “I didn’t feel like I had a place there,” she recalls. “It wasn’t the kind of cinema that really interested me and there was something about the whole place that didn’t feel so creative to me.”
As a young woman in Hollywood, she says she was told on numerous occasions to hide her Palestinian roots. “I’ve never hidden the fact that I’m Palestinian,” Jacir says. “I have a lot of identities, female and Palestinian being two of them. But I was told more than once in LA that if I wanted to break into the industry, ‘Don’t say that you’re a Palestinian in this city, don’t talk about it.’”
Yearning for something more and unwilling to conform to Hollywood standards, she applied to graduate school at Columbia University in New York and after she was accepted, she drove across the country, putting LA behind her.
Since Like Twenty Impossibles first launched her voice into the international festival circuit, Jacir has written, directed and produced more than 16 films. She has been a member of the Un Certain Regard jury in Cannes as well as a member of the Competition jury in Berlin. She produces under the banner of Jordan and Palestine-based Philistine Films, which she founded in 1997. Her first full-length feature, 2007’s acclaimed Salt of This Sea, follows a working-class American woman, whose parents were Palestinian refugees, as she makes her first return to her family’s homeland. That film, which was the first feature film by a Palestinian woman director, became her second work to debut in Cannes, where it won the FIPRESCI Critics Award in 2008, and garnered 14 other international awards, including Best Film in Milan. It was Palestine’s official submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film (the category now called Best International Film).
Despite so many ‘firsts’ attached to her early work, Jacir is quick to eschew the notion that it means much. She’s graciously conscious of the female filmmakers and Palestinian artists who came before her.
“I think it’s important to know that there were and there are a lot of female filmmakers that are from Palestine and the Arab world,” she says. “It’s true that many are working in the documentary space more but there is a history there and I always feel those kinds of statements sort of erase the history. And that’s important to me because I think history is important. I owe a lot to those before me, a lot of doors were opened to me because of those who came before me.”
She adds, “As filmmakers, the kind of access that we have, it’s something that’s a really long term process and that a lot of people are involved in. There are a lot of people whose names I maybe don’t know who slowly, slowly opened these doors for us. These things just don’t happen out of nowhere. I’m aware of the generation before me, and the generation before that, and what they have done.”
Indeed, this is an important concept for Jacir as she pays homage to Palestinian generations in her films. Her second feature, When I Saw You, is a warm and heartfelt film about a Palestinian refugee in Jordan who became separated from his father in the chaos of war in 1967. That film was also Palestine’s Oscar entry in 2012 and, notably, the film was entirely Arab-financed, with all Palestinian producers.
Her third feature, Wajib, a comedy-drama road movie through Nazareth that sees a father and his estranged son come together to hand-deliver his daughter’s wedding invitations to each guest, also touches on the complex historical tensions between Palestinians and Israelis.
While she gravitates to stories set in this world, Jacir says story is paramount, rather than this idea of being a representative for all Palestinian voices.
“I don’t want to represent Palestine or Palestinians, I want to tell stories that I feel are real stories that are really interesting to me, that are complicated and aren’t just black and white,” she remarks. “I want to ask and leave questions. But sometimes, when you are in a space where you are the only film screening from that particular region, people really want you to be the spokesperson, or they want your film to represent something.
“It’s two-sided because the people who are not Palestinian want you to represent the country but then the Palestinian community wants you to use your film to tell the world about everything because for so long our story has been left out and we have been invisible.”
She adds: “I want to make films that question and make us ask things that make us uncomfortable. We’re not victims, but we’re also not heroes. Nobody is one thing.”
Where Jacir does feel an enormous amount of responsibility is in uplifting, supporting and teaching the next generation of filmmakers. Philistine Films was originally set up based on this principle of helping other filmmakers.
“We started off as a collective in which we were all doing everything,” she says of the company. “Whether it was shooting, directing or producing, we were all helping each other make our films. Films are collaborative, so when we first started out it made sense for all of these talents that pooled together to trade hats and help each other out.”
This sense of camaraderie has prevailed throughout her career, and a willingness to help future generations of filmmakers stems from her teenage years when, fresh out of high school, she came back to Bethlehem to teach English; before pursuing her graduate degree, she taught workshops.
“I knew I had a privilege because I spoke English well and I went to an international school, so I was able to study abroad,” she says. “So, I wanted to bring that back to Palestine for those who can’t travel and those who have not been able to have that opportunity.” Jacir has always strived to create opportunities for those who have not been afforded them, either by birth or by the system. When she shot Salt of this Sea in Palestine, she insisted on hiring as much local crew as possible.
“I had a wonderful French cinematographer—Benoît Chamaillard—but other positions I really wanted to hire as much as possible locally because people would shoot films in Palestine and the entire crew would come from abroad. I mean, how are local infrastructures supposed to start then?”
Jacir founded and curated the Columbia University-based Dreams of a Nation Palestinian cinema project, dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Palestinian cinema. In 2003, she organized and curated the largest traveling film festival in Palestine. She’s taught courses at numerous schools, including Columbia University and Bethlehem University, and she has been a mentor at the Doha Film Institute.
“When I first started in the business I had so many questions and I didn’t know who to go to or how to start,” she recalls. “But there is so much talent out there, and there are so many stories and so many creative people, so when I started doing a lot of workshops in Palestine, I just felt like I had to share whatever knowledge I had and spread it to the younger generation.”
She adds: “It’s this younger generation that I really believe are going to raise the bar. They will make movies and they will keep doing things better and better than the generation before them.”