Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir has one highly awarded feature film to her credit and is now working on the second. In it she addresses an issue that brings conflict and suffering not only to her region, but to many parts of the world – borders. In her new film, borders and the troubles they bring will be seen through the eyes of a young boy.
Jacir was interviewed recently in Jordan, where she lives, about her new film, her hopes for her mentoring year with leading Chinese director Zhang Yimou and her professional life as a film-maker in the Middle East.
What have you been working on in recent months?
I have been working on my second feature film, a coming-of-age story about a boy. I’m in the casting process now. I have secured the location here in Jordan. I’ve seen about 200 boys aged between 11 and 13 as I chose the main actor. We begin filming in March 2011 and I’m very excited, as it’s been a while since my last feature [Salt of this Sea] in 2007.
Since then, I’ve been working on other people’s films as a freelance editor and screenwriter, and I miss being on my own set. I've also been busy with the U.S. cinema release of Salt of this Sea. Although the film was released in many countries, the U.S. release took some time to secure. So I'm very excited about that.
When we last interviewed you, you said your new film would be about borders between countries. You added that you hated borders. Why?
Borders to me are arbitrary and manmade. In the film, the boy who is the main character doesn’t understand what a border is and no one can really answer that question. Borders are ways to separate human beings from each other. I don’t see any positive purpose in them. They’ve done nothing but separate human beings and ruin the world.
When will you finish the film?
We will shoot for five weeks. And then it depends how things are organized with Zhang Yimou. I might go to China after the shoot to see him at work on his new film. And then I could start the post-production process on my own film later.
Has the mentorship already brought you any benefits?
Yes, I feel very honoured to have been chosen by Zhang Yimou. And I’ve been surprized at the number of people who know about the programme. People at film festivals have congratulated me for being selected as protégée. Some of them didn’t know who my mentor would be, so that’s their first question. When I say it’s Zhang Yimou, they say: “Wow!”
The other great thing was going to New York recently for a gathering with the five other protégés. It was wonderful to be among that group of people and be able to discover their work. They all work across artistic disciplines like I do in [Jacir is very interested in photography and writes poetry and fiction.] We, all of the protégés, had that common experience of delving into other disciplines.
Are you working on any other films or projects at present?
I’m working on a film for a producer from Singapore. I’m working on the script – doing an adaptation for a book. The story is set in Beirut. And I’m teaching too, teaching scriptwriting to people in a wide age group, from their 20s to their 50s. That’s part time. I really enjoy the work and it supplements my income. Just recently I participated in an art show where my installation addressed censorship. I’ve also been busy working as an editor for a couple of films by other directors.
I do a lot of different things. Independent film-makers need to keep busy because projects can take years to come to fruition.
You have previously spoken of your admiration for Zhang Yimou’s films. What sets him apart from other directors?
He has a distinctive style. His style is also very different from my style and that’s what makes me so excited about the mentoring year with him. He’s working on such a large scale compared to the tiny scale I’m working on, in terms of budget, story and actors. I’m excited to see how he works and especially the composition of his frames, which is so perfect. I want to see how he works with his team. His films are very beautiful to watch, but it’s not just about pretty pictures. He addresses a lot politically and socially, without it being heavy-handed. He has won a huge international following and his films are very entertaining, but it’s not shallow entertainment.
Middle Eastern culture is changing, with both an affirmation of Middle Eastern values and a willingness, in at least some countries in the region, to allow western cultural influences, with the opening of museums and universities with links to Europe. Is any of this making it easier for young, female film-makers like you to make their way?
The openness already exists. In Iran the breakdown of film directors is roughly 50-50 between men and women. And it’s similar in the Arab world. Film-making is new in the region, so there is no film establishment with prejudices against women. In Hollywood, for example, film-directing is traditionally a male environment. At festivals in the U.S., you won’t see that many female directors. At an Arab film festival, most of the directors are Arab women. So in some ways it is actually easier for women than it would be in Hollywood.
I’ve always noticed this. Having worked in many different parts of the world, I don’t feel labelled. When I work in the Arab world, I am a director. When I’m at a film festival in the U.S., I’m seen as a female film-maker and I always feel boxed in, I feel as though I’m encouraged to participate in women’s film festivals. It’s limiting.
Here in the Middle East, they don’t label me like that. There are other problems here, of course – but that’s for another interview!