Kamal Aljafari: Inhabiting Gestures
Kamal Aljafari, The Roof, 2006, still image from video, colour, 61 min. Courtesy the artist
‘Israel is a country so small that there is hardly room in it for a difference of opinion. But they manage’. The camera captures this sentence from the book How to Make a Jewish Movie by Melville Shavelson, which director Kamal Aljafari holds in a scene from his film The Roof (2006).1 It then follows him through Tel Aviv’s airport where he seems to be about to take off. Against the background of an aerial view of the city, Aljafari listens to the account of Jaffa’s turbulent history throughout centuries of occupation, destruction and reconstruction. This is told in the dispassionate voice of a tourist audio guide, which spells out the numerous populations and cultures that have, one after the other, conquered the place. First, there were the Egyptians, Philistines, Syrians, Babylonians and Persians; followed by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs. Finally, the Turks, British and Israelis. While immersed in the act of listening, Aljafari’s gaze fades into distance, his profile juxtaposed with the outlines of the far-off buildings. The camera slowly zooms onto the Shalom Tower before focusing again on him, his back silhouette framed by the window.
This sequence distils a number of motifs underpinning Aljafari’s work, usually intricately entangled within the complex texture of his films, such as the paradox of a perpetual occupation and the confinement of Palestinians into an in-between space of isolation. Aljafari reminds us of the difficulty of separating people’s histories from the history of their territory, city, and ultimately, their home. The film-maker himself is the entry point into a personal narrative, whose affective register is rendered by multiple and simultaneous layers of image and sound. The slow movements of the camera visually interconnect the fragments of a narrative. The editing resists a linear structure, introducing the repetition of certain shots and sounds to mark a circular rhythm within the films. The scene also anticipates the director’s growing preoccupation with Jaffa’s disappearance from both geographical and imaginary landscapes, which is further explored in his latest film, Port of Memory (2009). Located in the south of Tel Aviv, Jaffa used to be the most important Arab city in Palestine during the British Mandate. Following the 1948 war with Israel most of its houses were either evacuated or destroyed and the ancient city was incorporated within the municipality of Tel Aviv. Today, a violent process of gentrification is taking place, carrying out a systematic demolition of the remaining Palestinian houses to make room for new developments and blocks of flats.
The Roof is loosely structured around the inner atmosphere and outer condition of two houses of Aljafari’s extended family, in Ramla and Jaffa, where he grew up. Both cities are amongst the oldest in Israel, historically serving as an important crossroads and harbour, respectively, for many routes and destinations. The film’s long shots penetrate into the deep cracks of the cities’ walls, revealing their worn-out grain. From time to time, the camera captures the skeleton of an uncompleted house, whose wall just crumbled down or whose roof was never finished. The film’s ironic title refers to the missing roof of the family house, its absence also evoking the more general lack of protection that describes the dwelling conditions of Palestinian residents in both Ramla and Jaffa. Dialogues remain suspended in time, as the film shifts between the account of historical facts, the staging of events and the recollection of personal memories. The weight of such a charged past obscures the perspective of a future, allowing the characters to only dwell in the present moment. In the interior of the houses, simple gestures punctuate the daily routine of the family – eating, watching television, hanging the laundry, talking, resting.
These same acts resurface in Port of Memory. Performed with similar meticulous attention, their familiarity encourages viewers to empathise with the characters portrayed. Port of Memory focuses solely on the city of Jaffa, where Aljafari’s uncle Salim and his family live under the imminent threat of loosing their home. The opening sequence shows a close-up view of a derelict building at night; the camera frames its façade and pans gently onto its side, following the outline of the edifice. Its blue-coloured walls echo the electric blue twilight, while the sound of the wind resonates with the cry of the seagulls from the nearby sea. The camera then follows Salim through his drive in the city, walking up the stairs of a building and standing in a waiting room. The ambient sound registers the impatience that fills the room in this brief interval of time. Once Salim is received in what we learn to be the lawyers’ office, the camera turns towards him, capturing the sense of discomfort towards the legal and psychological obstacles he is about to face. During a succinct but excruciating dialogue, we find out about the summons that was sent to Salim, claiming that he is not the legal owner of his own house. On this account, the family receives an order of evacuation from the Israeli authority, together with a fine for illegitimately squatting in the house. The lawyer’s face is never shown, his presence in the room solely rendered by the sound of his detached voice. Bad news – he says – the property’s records that could have helped the case have probably gone missing. When the conversation with the lawyer is reported to Aljafari’s aunt Fatmeh later in the film, she insistently asks ‘So what do we do?’, until Salim responds: ‘We won’t give up’.
The whole film can be understood as embodying such an exhausted, and yet assertive, answer. Each action is shot as a moment of pure presentness, as if it was the only act of resistance left. In following the characters’ daily routine, Aljafari evokes Robert Bresson’s view by which most of our movements are subordinated to automatism rather than obey to the laws of will or thought, and that authentic performance comes from habit.2 In the film, certain automatisms gain particular cinematic recognition, such as the elegant way Fatmeh washes her hands, carefully cuts red roses and composes a striking bouquet, rearranges the living room. The camera is the discrete witness to such intimate moments, subtly relating to each gesture and striving to leave a record of every expression that it is able to grasp. This is Aljfari’s ultimate urge as a film-maker: to let the characters be, the streets resound, the walls stand; to reclaim ownership over a territory that has experienced the trauma of war, both in reality and in fiction.
Besides its well-known history of political occupation, Jaffa has also been repetitively occupied within cinema, holding a special place amongst the most popular war film locations. A number of Israeli and American action movies from the 1960s, 70s and 80s were using the city as a live stage for combats and explosions, meanwhile destroying actual Arab houses. Some of these films reemerge in Port of Memory as brief interjections into the work’s non-linear structure. A sequence from The Delta Force (1986) starring Chuck Norris casually appears on the television screen of a café and is later inserted in the film by means of editing, as if following the silhouette of Salim as he walks down the streets of Jaffa where the action was shot. The Hollywood movie’s soundtrack is juxtaposed with the subtle yet persistent noise of buildings’ construction and demolition that pervade the soundscape of the entire film.3
In an interview with Nasrin Himada, Aljafari openly questions the reasons why these films were actually shot in Jaffa, addressing the complex relationship between cinematic and political history, actual and fictional place.4 While appropriating the narratives of conflict and exile embedded within the territory, these action movies were also erasing Palestinian residents from the images and thus depriving them of any form of representation. To counter this narrative of exclusion, Aljafari projects these films and systematically photographs the buildings, sites and people that he finds accidentally caught at the margin of the frame, thus turning them into the central focus of his work. The result is an ongoing visual archive that has recently taken the shape of the photographic installation In Praise of Bystanders (2011–). The work recuperates the representation of Jaffa from within cinematic history, bringing back into light those characters and elements that are nowadays vanishing. Palestinian cemeteries, houses and streets that once formed the topography of the place are today being destroyed as a result of the so-called architecture of occupation. An enlarged photograph depicting a young schoolboy with backpack in hand is displayed alongside thousands of postcards scattered on the floor reproducing images from this archive. The young boy stands out from this collective resurgence; his once peripheral role gains renewed attention, his personal story is left open to the viewer’s imagination – might he stand for the artist himself, who as a child remembers watching a film shoot in his neighbourhood?5
The Roof and Port of Memory are screened at the Hackney Picture House, London as part of the 2012 London Palestine Film Festival.6 Although Aljafari’s work has occasionally been presented in similar contexts, the film-maker rejects the paradoxical notion of a Palestinian cinema, pointing to the lack of infrastructure and industry within the region. Emerging from the foundations of such contested territory, Aljafari’s work not only complicates the mediated representation of occupation, but also proposes the re-articulation of the history of Jaffa through the unveiling of its cinematic imaginary. As in a dreamlike state, the boundaries between fiction and reality overlap, enabling a diversity of subject’s positions to emerge. The viewer is taken on a journey where images and sounds embark on parallel paths, capturing on their ways the subtle gestures that inhabit space and resist its disappearance.
Melville Shavelson, How to Make a Jewish Movie, London and New York: Prentice-Hall, 1971↑
Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, London: Quartet Encounters, 1986↑
See Sadia Shirazi, ‘Construction/Destruction in Cinematic Spaces’, in Foreclosed: Between Crisis and Possibility, New York: Yale University Press, 2011, p.114 - 118↑
Nasrin Himada, ‘This Place They Dried From The Sea: An Interview with Kamal Aljafari’, 28 September 2010, Montreal Serai [online journal], available at http://www.montrealserai.com (last accessed on 26 March 2012).↑
See Sadia Shirazi, ‘Kamal Aljafari’ in Foreclosed: Between Crisis and Possibility, New York: Yale University Press, 2011, p.25↑
The screening takes place at the Hackney Picture House, London on 29 March 2012 at 8 pm and includes a Q&A with the film-maker Kamal Aljafari and curator Omar Kholeif. For more details, please see http://www.picturehouses.co.uk/cinema/Hackney_Picturehouse/film/Palestinian_Film_Festival_Port_Of_Memory_The_Roof/↑
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