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Moments of humor amid a quiet accumulation of sadness

Palestinian filmmaker Kamal Aljafari foregoes easy sentiment for clarity of image

By Jim Quilty

Daily Star staff

Thursday, May 24, 2007


BEIRUT: "It's for the applications," Kamal Aljafari chuckled. "It makes a difference, having your name near the top of a pile of grant applications." The Cologne-based Palestinian filmmaker is explaining why it is that - whenever he's mentioned in the credits of one his films - he is "Aljafari" in Latin characters, but "Jafari" in Arabic.

He's made a joke of this business of naming, and it might be more amusing if it weren't so informative about the gymnastics Palestinian directors generally have to go through to fund their work.

Aljafari came to the attention of film and video art festivals and their denizens in 2003 with his 27-minute short "Visit Iraq." The artistic cachet of the piece belies its straightforward documentary approach.

Sometime just after the Ame-rican conquest of Iraq, Aljafari brought his camera to the locked Iraqi Airways office in a quiet Swiss neighborhood. The employees left the place after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, for what reason we're uncertain. 

From various locations in the square outside, the camera peers through the plate glass windows at the Spartan, once-stylish furnishings and the once state-of-theart computer on the travel agent's desk. Not a word disturbs the office's aspect of recent dereliction.

Aljafari then quizzes neighbors about what went on in the place. Though the office's glass exterior walls make it a model of transparency, the neighbors' paranoia - particularly toward Arabs, peaked, no doubt, by news coverage in the lead-up to America's Iraq invasion - has been elevated to a slow boil.

One resident, an Arab, says the office served as a sort of informal social club for expatriate Arabs, exiles and otherwise. Most of the people Aljafari speaks to, though, see the office in more threatening terms. Arabs often used to come to the Iraq Airways office, one sneers, sitting, drinking coffee, talking about God knows what.

Keenly observed and elegantly rendered, "Visit Iraq" re-makes local perceptions of an abandoned office into a microcosm for bigoted attitudes toward Iraq and the Arab world generally.

Aljafari divides his time between Germany and Israeli-occupied Palestine, and it's there that he returned to make "The Roof" (2006), set in the hometowns of his father and mother - Jaffa and nearby Ramleh. Shot by Argentine cameraman-cumdirector Diego Martinez Vignatti, the second film is marked by the same contemplative mood as the first.

The "story" of the film is the institutionalized neglect suffered by Palestinian towns that happen to fall within Israel's international borders, and Palestinian Israelis' consequent state of exclusion.

As Aljafari stands in a rooftop lookout above Jaffa-Tel Aviv, a tourist-guide headset narrating the history of the urban fabric below him, the old city of Jaffa is depicted from the Canaanites and Phoenicians to the founding of Israel. The fact that for several hundred years Jaffa was a thriving Palestinian port town is left strangely, conspicuously, unsaid.

Aljafari remarks that he decided to keep a promise to himself and get a drivers' license and Vignatti's camera accompanies him on one of his lessons. It begins in Tel Aviv, where wide, well-paved roads make driving easy enough. As soon as the car approaches the neglected space of old Jaffa, though, his instructor warns him he's about to face increased difficulty.

While walking with a relative through Ramleh, Aljafari encounters an old stone house, inexplicably bereft of its rear wall. "You see how big and lovely my salon is?" a woman asks from her newly exposed room. They ask her what happened. This Israeli company has been doing some roadwork in the neighborhood, she  gestures. The bulldozer came too close. Images of this sort, and far worse, are filmed in Palestine every day.

What makes Aljafari's rendering so powerful is the reserved beauty of the framing and movement of the images. There are no paroxysms of anguish here - none of the weeping mothers and bullet-riddled bodies. There is, rather, a slow accumulation of sadness. One of the scenes to which Vignatti's camera returns, wordlessly, is the skeleton of a house. There is no evidence of any ongoing work on the structure. Late in the film, during a conversation with a relative, Aljafari is asked whether he plans to finish the family house. His response is diffident. "I find it strange," he says, "the idea of finishing something that doesn't belong to me."

There is no "roof" on the family house or in the film. "[For Palestinians inside Israel] there is no roof," Aljafari has remarked upon the film's ironic title. "All of us are longing for a home - that's just as true of the Palestinians who have Israeli passports as it is of those in the Occupied Territories." 

The film's poignancy is compounded by Aljafari's eye for the absurd. One sequence finds him sitting in an Israeli cafe, where the camera scrutinizes sugar packets emblazoned with images of Zionist heroes - rendered all the more comic by the inexplicably cheerful Israeli folk song, chirping "You! You! You! You!" in the background.

"It'd be very easy to make a depressing film about the Palestinians in Jaffa," Aljafari remarked. "I'd rather not. Film provides an opportunity to imagine [a scenario that's not] about victimhood." There are, in fact, two versions of Aljafari's second film in the public domain. "The Roof" was produced by ZDF, German Public television, which paid him most of the agreed sum of 90,000 euros ($121,000) to finish it. ZDF said the version of the film Aljafari had prepared was too poetic for its audience, though, and asked for voiceover to explain the historical relationship between Israel and Palestinians. Aljafari disagreed. In the end, ZDF televised a rough cut of the film under the title "Innenleben" ("Inner Life"). "They're free to do that, I guess," Jafari shrugged during an interview earlier this year. "They paid for it."

Since then, there has been some dispute between producer and director about which version of the film should be screened internationally. Aljafari said recently he was pleased the dispute has finally been resolved and that "The Roof" can now be seen - fortunate for audiences since the film has already won prizes at festivals in Marseilles, Montpellier and Brussels.

Jafari's next project, which he hopes to begin shooting in July, is called "Port of Memory." Beginning in 1948, the new documentary will follow what has become of the Port of Jaffa, which has recently become a set for films like "Delta Force." In the process, Hollywood has become complicit in the destruction of Palestinian identity.

"[The Hollywood filmmakers] had all kinds of real-time explosions there," he said.

"What they were destroying were Arab houses."