Salt of This Sea (Jacir, 2008) is a drama about a Palestinian woman, born in America, who travels to Ramallah to try to retrieve the money that her deceased grandfather left in a Palestinian bank account when he was forced to flee his home in the 1948 exodus.
Salt of This Sea questions the line between documentary and fiction, despite explicitly being a fictional drama. Jacir’s story is so heavily based in real events that it’s painful to see how these event could be completely true. Salam Mir writes that “The crew of actors, all ordinary Palestinians dialoguing in distinct Palestinian accent, did an excellent job, perhaps because the story, landscape and history are a part of their existence (Mir, 2008)”. It’s this apparent of authenticity that lends the film such a sense of realism, despite a plot (about a bank heist) which on paper could seem exaggerated and surreal.
The conflict between realism and surrealism is also present in the character of Marwan, a wannabe filmmaker who at first seems to exemplify the urge to document present in many Palestinian artists, yet this trait is subverted when he explains to Soraya that he doesn’t want to make films about checkpoints and soldiers, but instead about love and romance. He wants to escape the drudgery, not document it.
Jacir’s documentary/fiction divide explicitly represents the dichotomy between the present-day Palestine and the one spoken of in its oral tradition: “The script […] blends the oral history Soraya knows by heart with the historical reality of Israel and the Palestinian territories. (Mir, 2008)”. And it’s highlighted in the film’s two leading characters. Soraya, fresh from New York, is full of idealism and the memories of a pre-Israel Palestine told to her by her father; whereas Emad, trapped in Ramallah without a permit or visa to leave, is pragmatic about Palestine’s situation and doesn’t want to fight any more; he just wants to escape. In one scene he admonishes Soraya for her naive idealism “You think Palestine is just oranges? Jaffa Oranges? What a fantasy! (Jacir, 2008)”. This adherence to the stories of old Palestine, as told by its elders is most notable in a scene in which Soraya describes her grandparents’ daily life in Jaffa in such minute detail that an astonished Emad asks her if she’s sure that she’s never been there. Maymanah Farhat writes about this representation of Palestinians born after the Nakba, who therefore have no direct experience of it:
In many ways the film’s main character represents the Palestinian diaspora, those belonging to generations born outside of Palestine whose parents or grandparents were forced from their homes at some point during the 20th century. Much of this population is deeply tied to its homeland through the stories of older generations and the recreation of Palestine through culture and traditions. This is exemplified by a conversation Soraya has with Emad at the beginning of the film. Her understanding of Palestine is based on notions of memory, heritage and community and she recounts the lives of her grandparents in Jaffa, giving the minutest details of their everyday being and environment. Emad remarks that it is as if she has already been to the seaside town she one day hopes to visit. (Farhat, 2009)
This blending of the oral tradition with the factual reality seems to be another representation of the mixing of documentary and fiction in Palestinian film. And perhaps this is why it’s becoming more prevalent as a generation which never knew a pre-Israel Palestine rises to prominence in Palestinian cinema. Are they trying to reconcile the stories that they’ve been told with the reality that they now live in?
The importance of home is vital to Jacir’s film. And spatial home is linked to temporal home through memory and history. When Soraya, Emad and Marwan arrive in Jaffa they seek out the house that belonged to Soraya’s grandfather before he was forced to flee:
Shortly after their arrival, Soraya finds her grandfather’s home and is invited in by the Israeli woman who now lives there. While she sees remnants of the home her grandfather built, with its ornate tiles that line the floor and old wooden doors, she is confronted with a jarring experience — the space has been completely transformed by an Israeli artist who, although against the occupation, dismisses Soraya’s claims of ownership of the house. (Farhat, 2009)
Soraya indignanly claims ownership of the house, but says that she will allow its new Israeli occupant to remain, if she admits that it was stolen. The Israeli woman refuses and rejects Soraya for living in the past, for not moving on. In return an incandescent Soraya screams at her “Your past is my every day, is my right now (Jacir, 2008).” The sequence is a mirror in some ways of the scenes in Port of Memory (Aljafari, 2010) in which the documentary crew film the man claim ownership of his house, especially the windows. Here too Soraya describes the disputed house as being made of “Our windows, our doors (Jacir, 2008)”.
The same sense of memory, and therefore identity, through place is explored later in the film when Soraya and Emad arrive at the ruins of Dawayima and decide to make it their new home:
For two nights, Soraya and Emad set up a make-shift home in a cavern, in the ruins of his old village Ad-Dawayima. In the discussion following the screening […] The film offers a poignant climactic scene when Soraya and Emad burn the map and other documents Soraya has cherished for years. They realize that their makeshift “home sweet home” cannot be reclaimed because the ruins are a part of the Biblical heritage, an Israeli tourist and archeological site. (Mir, 2008)
Dawayima is barren and seemingly abandoned, yet Soraya and Emad would rather live here that in the freedom of America or near his family in Ramallah. It’s a very clear visual metaphor about their desire to return to the past. And indeed, the way that Jacir photographs rural Palestine harks back to the way that Wedding in Galilee (Khleifi, 1988) presented it as an idyllic representation of the past.
A sense of repetition in time is also achieved through the scenes in which Soraya is continually questioned about her ancestry and intentions, frustrated she retorts “How many times are you going to ask me the same question? (Jacir, 2008)”. At the end of the film, when being questioned again before being deported, she replies that she was born in Jaffa and she’s lived in Palestine all of her life. Because place, like identity, is a state of mind.
Aljafari, K., (2009), Port of Memory, [film]
Farhat, M., (2009), Finding a sense of home in “Salt of this Sea” [online], Electronic Intifada, Available from: http://electronicintifada.net/content/finding-sense-home-salt-sea/8184 [Accessed on 31 October 2016]
Jacir, A., (2008), Salt of this Sea, Augustus Film
Khleifi, M., (1988), Wedding in Galilee, Marisa Films
Mir, S., (2008), Love and Tragedy in Conflict: “Salt of This Sea” [online], Al Jadid, Available from: http://www.aljadid.com/content/love-and-tragedy-conflict-salt-sea [Accessed on 31 October 2016]