The opening contains everything. A young boy on clunky old roller skates grinds his way down a gravel street, never achieving anything like momentum but still beaming anyway, as if the very possibility of fun and freedom is itself enough. Behind him, other boys holler in pursuit — they want the skates back. A title card tells us this is Jordan in 1967. The road cuts on through scrubby, endless desert, and the boy, getting nowhere, grinds on. Whose childhood didn’t feel like that once in a while?
After that perfect image, the shape of When I Saw You, the second feature from writer-director Annemarie Jacir, is familiar. Here’s a story of refugee life from the perspective of a brash and attentive kid, one just discovering — and often rejecting — the political realities grown-ups accept. Eleven-year-old Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa) dares to wonder: Why can’t a Palestinian boy march right back home?
Tarek lives with his mother in a Jordanian camp for the tens of thousands of Palestinians displaced after the Six-Day War. Mom and son both ache for their missing husband and father. Gifted with numbers yet miserable at reading or friend-making, mop-topped Tarek gets chucked from the camp’s schoolhouse for being the kind of bright, insouciant kid movies get made about. He corrects the teacher’s on-the-fly arithmetic, just like Will Hunting or Rain Man or any other magic character would have, and he’s hell on the other grown-ups, too. “You’re suffocating me!” he cries to his mother. Then, with nothing else to hold him to camp life, Tarek does what that opening shot promised: He hits the road . . . and doesn’t get far.
Tarek winds up in a fedayee camp, where young men and women train for guerrilla-style warfare against the Israelis. Jacir, a patient and observant director, shows us the place the way a kid might see it. Rather than grim soldiers-to-be prepping for close combat, the fedayeen at first seem almost jolly, running cool combat drills and singing around the campfire with the heroic homesickness of those dwarves in The Hobbit. We see a hunk of a warrior pose for a fetching photojournalist; we see the bullets that Tarek has fashioned into toy soldiers come in and out of focus as the boy sleepily regards them with first one eye closed and then the other.
Those bullets are the film’s second great image, everything wonderful and terrible about imaginative boys collapsed into one gauche bit of play. Tarek and the camp’s real soldiers will soon be disabused of their heroic fantasies, of course, but Jacir, demonstrating rare restraint, keeps the violence (and the politics) offscreen. Her focus instead is on the boy and his mother, Ghaydaa (Ruba Blal), who turns up at the camp to claim her son — and winds up sticking around when she sees that he has begun to flourish there. Tarek’s gift for numbers impresses the commander (Ali Elayan), and the soldiers take the kid on as a sort of mascot. Considering the most fun Tarek could come up with at the refugee camp was scooting broken bricks around like cars, why wouldn’t mom consider guerrilla boot camp an improvement?
Blal plays the mother as a hardy, stricken woman whose stores of love finally outweigh her willingness to fight; the performance, like Jacir’s direction, is matter-of-fact yet superbly detailed, each action suggestive of a wealth of swallowed-back feeling. As Tarek, Asfa is also extraordinary, albeit in a much rawer way, as if everything has been scraped from the kid but want. The thing he most aches for is that missing father, which means that his quest to get back home doesn’t end at the fedayee camp. By the end, soldiering with the nascent PLO no longer seems a Boys’ Life lark, especially as the commander begins to crack down on his recruits’ free-spiritedness: “Card-playing is a bourgeois activity!” Tarek’s zeal fully overwhelms his mother — and, quite likely, many viewers. Jacir ends on a third grand image, this one pregnant with both terror and hope. Like the first two, it lifts this somewhat familiar tale set against a dispiriting conflict into something fresh and urgent, yet another first-rate film from a Middle East rich with them.