An uplifting drama set in a war-torn refugee camp sounds like an oxymoron, but that's exactly what When I Saw You is aiming for. Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa) is an eleven year old boy, living with his mother Ghaydaa (Ruba Blal) in a temporary home in Jordan, having been forced from their homes in Palestine. Initially believing that his father is going to be joining them in the camp, but soon believing that the only way his family is going to be reunited is to return to their former home, Tarek sets off to find his father, and happens across a training base for a group of guerrilla soldiers. Between being taken seriously as a man – or at least perceiving that to be the case – and potentially receiving the training required to get back home to his father, Tarek soon becomes thinks of himself as one of the soldiers, without fully realising the ramifications of what that means.
The problem with When I Saw You is that the role of Tarek needs to rambunctious and understandably precocious, but instead he just comes across as plain unlikeable. It sounds a bit harsh for an assessment of a young boy, and it is through no fault of Asfa who is sterling throughout, but Tarek is annoyingly insolent when he should be just amusingly bratty, and as a character is too difficult to warm to, which in turn makes the entire film too difficult to warm to.
In contrast, Ghaydaa is a fantastically written, fantastically performed character who is all too easy to like, and had the film focused more on her, and her burgeoning relationship with one of the guerrilla soldiers, things might have been different.
This is not the story being told however, and while writer/director Annemarie Jacir never gets bogged down with the politics of the situation, she also never livens up proceedings with any kind of visual flourishes. The slate grey landscape doesn't make for very exciting scenery and Jacir's documentarian approach to storytelling doesn't add much colour, either.