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Suheir Hammad & Saleh Bakri in SALT OF THIS SEA (Photo: Lorber Films)

Written & Directed by
Annemarie Jacir
Produced by
Jacques Bidou & Marianne Dumoulin
Released by Lorber Films
English and Arabic with English subtitles
Palestine/France/Switzerland/Belgium/USA/UK/The Netherlands/Spain. 109 min. Not Rated
Suheir Hammad, Saleh Bakri & Riyad Ideis

Grandchildren of immigrants in the U.S. grow up with resonant tales of “the old country” that are colored with particular poignancy if their families arrived “homeless, tempest-tost,” as described on the Statue of Liberty. Salt of This Sea sensitively captures the confusion, difficulties, and frustration of a young Palestinian American, Soraya (Suheir Hammad), who tries to reconcile nostalgic and hopeful dreams with the complex reality for young Palestinians today.

The film opens as her grandfather and thousands of other Palestinians flee in boats from the disputed coastal Arab enclave of Jaffa when the boundaries of the new state of Israel are forcibly established in 1948. Many of these refugees longingly keep the keys to the houses they left, but Soraya comes to Israel today with an additional family legacy—her late grandfather’s bank book, determined to collect on his account.

Arriving at the airport, she confounds customs officialsher sense of ethnic identity doesn’t translate into Middle East divisiveness. A Brooklyn-born agnostic whose parents were originally from Lebanon, she says she’s Palestinian, but it’s her American citizenship that allows her in on a tourist visa. Retracing her grandfather’s steps via his stories, her first surprise is that Jaffa has been enveloped by modern Tel Aviv and is not within the borders of the Palestinian state. Wryly commenting that she’s carrying through on her “right of return,” she seeks out the nearest branch of her grandfather’s bank, even though that’s now in Ramallah on the West Bank. After tangling stridently with various bureaucracies, she’s shocked and resentful that the claims of Jaffa’s refugees are no longer a priority.

Biding her time, she waitresses in a restaurant and meets the hunky Emad (Saleh Bakri, in an eye-catching film debut). Calling himself “a child of the camps,” he longs to leave his Palestine of restricted refugees, almost as much as she’s trying to settle into it. Together, they generate a sweet romance, and their relationship becomes a prism to explore the changes in how they are perceived, separately and together, from one side of the border to the other.

Ever the brash American (Hammad is a noted slam poet), Soraya convinces Emad and a friend to take up her personal cause in a dramatic protest, and Salt of This Sea then becomes an imaginative road movie as they become criminal fugitives, for different reasons, on each side of the border. In Israel, Soraya and Emad furtively look for their families’ roots and for a place they can peacefully be together, in a West Side Story “Somewhere” kind of way. Soraya finds her grandparents’ house, now occupied by a hypocritical leftist Israeli peacenik; Emad discovers the haunted ruins of his family’s village that was destroyed in 1948. His joy at being able to see the sea for the first time is as touching as it is symbolicthey are on the same beach from where Soraya’s family fled 60 years earlier.

Writer/director Annemarie Jacir, in her first feature film, avoids stiff political didacticism by convincingly creating characters whose youthful naiveté is worth rooting for, even as their brief escape into optimism is sadly defeated. Nora Lee Mandel
August 13, 2010



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