In the final scene of The 400 Blows, Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Antoine Doinel famously runs along a beach at low tide before stopping to look at the camera. Antoine, without a home, is unable to cope in an institutional setting, and the ocean is his final oppressor, the ultimate unassailable authority of the boy’s stubbornness and imagination. Annemarie Jacir’s When I Saw You often alludes to this image of Antoine running. Like Antoine, young Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa) has a penchant for fleeing from situations that don’t suit him, but Tarek is also a Palestinian refugee in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. His homelessness is literal; he’ll never find a home because it isn’t there any more.
Along with his mother, Ghaydaa (Ruba Blal), Tarek lives in the subpar conditions of a Jordanian refugee camp. Being exceptionally smart and unnervingly good with numbers, he’s kicked out of the camp’s makeshift school for being a “distraction.” The coursework bores Tarek, so he amuses himself by correcting the teacher’s many mistakes, and without school to keep him busy, he runs away from the camp. Eventually he’s found and taken to a different kind of camp: a training ground for the fedayeen, Marxist-leaning Palestinian guerillas hiding in the Jordanian forest.
As a director, Jacir follows Tarek’s story with rare deftness. Like Truffaut, she films the story from the height of a child; the faces of the older refugees, oppressive forces against his innocent curiosity, are seen from his perspective. Patiently, we follow Tarek as he moves in and around the camp, bothering fellow refugees and scavenging for pomegranates in the local wildlife. Asfa’s performance successfully captures Tarek’s boredom and frustration, and like Antoine Doinel, he has a way of using defiance and sarcasm to make himself seem smarter than any ostensible authority figure.
In Jacir’s vision, the bearded fedayeen and their coed camaraderie can make their camp seem more like a college campus than a training ground for armed rebellion. They listen to Western music, quote Marx, and paint posters of revolution. It’s not difficult to see why Tarek prefers this to the pedagogical authoritarianism of his refugee-camp classroom. When Tarek’s mother tracks him down, she’s won over by the fighters, not because of their political stance, but because they make her feel like less of a victim. For Tarek, the act of joining the fedayeen is the act of joining a community. Jacir, however, makes sure we know this bildungsroman is a temporary one. Tarek is restless, and unlike a “temporary” refugee camp, the end of the fedayeen training ground is inevitable.