A plea from Palestine's first female director

Judge me by my films not my gender, Annemarie Jacir tells Geoffrey Macnab

One recent trend in world cinema that has become hard to ignore is the rapid emergence of Arab women film-makers. Directors such as Saudi Arabian Haifaa Al-Mansour, Palestine-American Cherien Dabis and Lebanese Nadine Labaki have been feted at festivals all round the world. Acknowledging this new wave, the Birds Eye View Film Festival is this year celebrating female Arab film-makers.

Not that all the directors involved relish their work being judged in terms of their gender or Arabic background. Annemarie Jacir is often called Palestine's "first woman feature film director" but the label is clearly beginning to grate a little. Jacir (whose new feature, When I Saw You, opens the festival next week) would prefer to be acknowledged as a film-maker in her own right rather than as a standard bearer for Arab womanhood.

"I don't think women make different kinds of films to men," Jacir states. "You just want to be a film-maker. Yes, I am Palestinian, yes, I am a woman – but I am so many other things too... it does box you in at times."

Her film, a Palestine/Jordan co-production, deals with one of the key events in recent Middle Eastern history – the 1967 exodus of Palestinian refugees to Jordan. This was a seismic moment for her own family.

"My parents come from Bethlehem. 1967 was the year that Bethlehem was occupied (by Israel). I was very interested in that particular period because I've kept hearing about it throughout my life," the 37-year-old director reflects. "It was the year that marked everything."

The main character is Tarek, a doe-eyed 11-year-old boy who has fled across the border to Jordan to live in a refugee camp with his mother Ghaydaa. In the maelstrom of war, they've lost touch with Tarek's father. This description might suggest a grim and downbeat film but the tone of When I Saw You is so playful and lyrical that, at times, the film seems like an Arab version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

In the late 1960s, Jacir argues, there was idealism and optimism among the Palestinian "fedayeen" (freedom fighters.) "We all know what happened, about everything that went wrong and the black period that followed that but I wanted to stay in this period before."

The film offers the perspective of Tarek (very engagingly played by Mahmoud Asfa, a young non-professional who lives with his family in Irbid refugee camp in Jordan). He is not politicised and he doesn't really understand what the fedayeen are doing. Everyone simply wants to go back home. At this stage, it looks as though it may be a possibility. Kids love wrestling with the fedayeen commanders and playing with guns. They don't conceive that they may actually have to use those guns.

"There is something romantic about that period. They [the fedayeen] were just regular people, they weren't a trained army. In the film, you don't really see the violence of what has happened and the violence that the refugee families have escaped from," the director explains. We hear distant sounds of gunfire but no scenes of war are actually depicted.

The film cost around $1m to make. Chinese director Zhang Yimou's Flowers of Shanghai, on which she was an assistant, cost 99 times that much. Zhang was her mentor as part of a Rolex global philanthropy programme that brings together "artistic masters with promising young artists for a year of creative collaboration".

Flowers of Shanghai, starring Christian Bale, re-created 1937 Nanjing as it was overrun by the Japanese army, in exhaustive detail. Yes, Jacir acknowledges, she was nervous about her partnership with Zhang but then she realised he had exactly the same insecurities about directing as she did. He was also equally open-minded.

The Birds Eye View Film Festival runs from tomorrow to 10 April at various London cinemas (birds-eye-view.co.uk)