Catastrophe and Post-Catastrophe in the films of Kamal Aljafari

Nadia Yaqub

“Documentary Filmmaking in the Middle East and North Africa”, edited by Viola Shafik, the American University in Cairo Press


        In Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art, Jill Bennet writes of the danger of “colonizing” another’s traumatic experience—that is, claiming the right and ability to represent such experience and communicate it to others (Bennet 2005, 7). Works that avoid such appropriation succeed by creating an empathic affect without seeking to produce secondary trauma within the spectator. They do not aspire to show the spectator what trauma looks like, to uncover the “secret” that trauma sufferers possess as a result of their experiences. Instead, they recognize the unbridgeable gap between survivors of an event and those who can know it only through mediation. They create empathic unsettlement, that is, “the aesthetic experience of simultaneously feeling for another and becoming aware of a distinction between one’s own perceptions and the experience of the other” (Bennet 2005, 8). They avoid identification with the victim of trauma, while creating a point of encounter between the inside (the secret of the traumatic experience that can be referenced but not represented; what Bennet, following Charlotte Delbo, calls sense memory) of an experience and its outside (common memory—the narrated history of events). The affect sparked within spectators through this encounter elic its thought rather than the emotions of sympathy, shame, or guilt that mimetic images making claims about violence are likely to arouse. Bennet’s concept is useful for understanding a strand of filmmaking that addresses Palestinian experiences with violence and dispossession without employing a witnessing mode of address. In such works—essay and experimental films, art videos, non-narrative fiction—filmmakers do not seek to inform viewers about events and contexts, but rather to com municate affect or comment ironically on events and conditions. They do not supplant the extensive documentary work that continues to be made by and about Palestinians. In fact, their efficacy often depends on their viewers’ prior knowledge of the events and conditions they treat, knowledge obtained from either personal experience or watching or hearing the witnessing of others. Thus, these films work alongside, rather than in place of, informative documentaries. Films of this sort from the Arab world are not limited to the Palestinian context, but the long-standing nature of the Palestinian condition (stretching back at least to the 1948 war or Nakba) and the plethora of films that have been made about it render Palestinian cinema a particularly rich area for such works. In this chapter I analyze a trilogy of films by Palestinian artist and filmmaker Kamal Aljafari through the lens of empathic unsettlement as a way to both understand the efficacy of his work and extend Bennet’s concept. While the first two films in the trilogy—The Roof (al-Sath, 2006) and Port of Memory (Mina’ al-dhakira, 2009)—use empathic unsettlement as a strategy for attending to the Pales tinian condition of ongoing dispossession, the third—Recollection (Istidhkar/ isti‘ada, 2015) engages in a type of radical empathy whereby viewers are not just invited into empathic unsettlement but called to experience the possibilities inherent in a time of post-catastrophe—that is, the coming to-terms with existence that must be undertaken when one understands that one’s world has been irrevocably altered. In the temporal mode of post-catastrophe neither mourning nor human rights claims are productive. Empathy results from a sharing that is related to the present and the future rather than the past. In Recollection Aljafari offers Jaffa as a vanguard into the post-catastrophe that is in store for all of us.

        In The Roof and Port of Memory Aljafari arouses empathic unsettlement primarily through two strategies: refraction and opacity. I use the term “refraction” to designate a cluster of techniques that redirect viewers’ perspectives of events, people, places, and conditions. Generally, refraction avoids direct representations of violence because of the distance these cre ate between characters and viewers (they are suffering and I am not), and the false sense of identification (I now know what they have experienced) that they produce. Like a prism that bends a ray of light, films that refract offer viewers new, often unexpected perspectives on a subject. Refraction comes into play at a number of levels, including form, structure, and con tent. Significantly, filmmakers offer this new perspective not by providing new information or explanations, but rather by giving spectators a new experience such that they arrive at an affective understanding of a particular circumstance or event. Refraction can encompass different forms of counter-hegemonic practices. It can deconstruct or queer dominant discursive practices. Through refraction filmmakers can circumvent the discourse of claims-making that viewers have widely come to expect in the Palestinian context, instead creating a point of encounter through which characters and viewers can meet on the basis of equality (Yaqub 2014).

        The concept of opacity was developed by the Martiniquan writer Edouard Glissant to address the epistemic violence underlying relations between colonial metropoles and their peripheries. Opacity challenges the notion that any culture can be transparently translated and comprehended through the colonial gaze. However, by opacity Glissant does not mean that there is an essential, hidden core to colonized cultures that is inaccessible, difficult, or unfathomable. Rather, opacity refers to “an interplay of differences whereby no culture may claim to have incorporated any other within its own epistemological projects” (Figueroa 2009, 20). Opacity is, of course, a feature of all cultures, but Glissant also uses the term to refer to a stance or representational strategy assumed by a group in order to prevent or counteract epistemological appropriation related to postcoloniality. It is in this context that Glissant writes of demanding “the right to opacity” (Glissant 1997, 190). That is, opacity is not just something out there in the world; it is something to be practiced, cultivated, and protected. Works can be evaluated on how much they encourage or undertake such practices.

        Three aspects of opacity are relevant to Aljafari’s work. First, opacity addresses the problem of excess: no representation or communication can ever be complete or completely understood. Opaque works draw attention to that fact in some way. Works of film and photography are particularly useful in this regard because both their physical and temporal frames are visible, reminding spectators that what they are seeing has been selected. The indexicality of film and photography also necessarily introduces the notion of excess: one can never know everything about what appears within the image because it consists of a trace of an object, person, and/or place in the real world that will always exceed representation.

        Secondly, opacity is a form of protection from appropriation. If a text defies full explication, if its representational inadequacy is recoverable, then it can avoid the violence of transparency. Those depicted within the text retain their human complexity through the mystery and density that is communicated but not penetrated. This is not to say that such works always attempt to represent what cannot be represented, or that they always eschew familiar structures (e.g., narrative), but rather that such works resist leaving viewers with a feeling of full understanding or identification. They may illuminate situations, points of view, feelings, or affects at the same time that they raise questions (or a feeling of wonder) about them. They may, at times, be puzzling, but they are not puzzles; they are not necessarily even “difficult.” “Difficult” texts often invite explication, which can position the scholar in a hierarchical relationship to the text, its author, and her reader or viewer: only the scholar has the requisite knowledge and intelligence to complete the communicative act that the author and audience attempt to engage in Betsy Wing (1997) uses the metaphor “rock” to describe opacity. It is that sort of physical density, rather than the metaphorical notion of “dense or impenetrable prose” to be deciphered, that is applicable here. Just as one can only penetrate the density of a rock by disfiguring or destroying it (drilling through it or blowing it up), the act of attempting to fully grasp an opaque text is akin to violating it in some way. Instead, a viewer or reader cultivates a quality of openness and curiosity vis-à-vis the text that does not require complete comprehension.

        Finally, opacity thematizes the encounter created by the act of representation between those who appear within the text and those who interact with the text—in this case, between the Palestinians who appear in the films and their spectators. Glissant speaks of “the penetrable opacity of a world in which one exists, or agrees to exist with and among others” (Glissant 1997, 115). Artists and writers create texts that discourage readings for transparency, but readers and viewers, by also approaching texts without seeking to comprehend them transparently, by accepting ambiguity and resisting the types of close readings and explication that scholars are trained to produce, cultivate a respect for the protected depth of the other that is as precious and unknowable as one’s own. 

        In Recollection, the third film of the trilogy, Aljafari takes these strategies to their logical conclusion. Utterly devoid of characters and narration, he does not use refraction or opacity in creating relationships, but rather inserts the viewer herself into a world he has created in the film. The unsettlement that arises from the work is based not on empathy (arriving at an understanding of another’s condition) but on sharing (post-catastrophe envelops us all). In what follows I outline in detail how these techniques work in each of Aljafari’s films.

        The Roof

        The Roof contests the erasure of Palestinians in Israel from history. Aljafari’s subject is not the Nakba as an event from the past that is remembered. Rather, he remains rigorously focused on the present. Like the trauma art that Jill Bennet analyzes, The Roof treats the present experience with memory rather than the pastness of particular events. When Bennet distinguishes between common memory and sense memory, she defines the former as a discursive framework through which events are transmitted and understood. While that process is psychologically and socially valuable, through that transmission, traumatic events are consigned to history, as if they are over, even though for survivors their effects live on into the present. Thus, common memory is always partial (Bennet 2005, 25). The Roof acts as an intervention into common memory, inviting viewers to share in an affective understanding of the ongoing Nakba as it is experienced by Palestinians living in Israel today.

        Because the film’s characters are Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel, the affective understanding developed in the film queers the Israeli nationalist narrative (Limbrick 2012, 106). Significantly, the common memory in that narrative does not just consign the experiences of Palestinians in Israel to the past, it actively removes them from history. In The Roof, refraction occurs as viewers are given an affective experience allowing them to see the constructed nature of the Zionist discursive framework in which the film’s characters live their lives. At the same time, through an opacity created through stillness and inscrutability, Aljafari strips these characters of almost everything except their presence, intimating but not definitively identifying their discursive erasure as the foundation for their ongoing physical erasure from Israeli cityscapes.

        The Roof is structured largely as a poetics of the Aljafaris’ home. In a voice-over at the start of the film, the director states that in 1948 family members who failed to leave were forcibly resettled into the houses of residents who died. The Aljafari home consists of a ground door where his family resides, and the bare walls of a second door which the previous owners had been in the process of building. This second roof appears repeatedly throughout the film—as a backdrop to opening and closing credits, as a site where Aljafari’s mother sits contemplating the town around her, and as the object of the fifilmmaker's obsessive camera. The interior is also interrogated; there, viewers see family members engage in the activities of daily life. Static shots of the empty family room invite viewers to contemplate its narrowness, its high windows that admit diffuse daylight but offer no view to the outside, and its television whose flickering contrasts with the quiet of the rooms themselves. The life Aljafari portrays within the rooms is of a piece with this mood: three sisters nap in their bedroom, and various configurations of family members silently watch television. Even a dinner scene with eight family members gathered around the table is notable mainly for its quiet. Almost no conversation takes place. Instead the soundtrack, as with much of the film, is dominated by the ambient noise of clinking spoons, scraping chairs, and television music (Yaqub 2014, 164).

        Aljafari makes liberal use of haptic images (Marks 2000, 162). His repeated slow panning shots of the concrete block walls of the unfinished second door and long photographic shots of the family’s homes in al-Ramlah and Jaffa might be at first suggest an attempt to interrogate or penetrate, to reveal to viewers the significances and associations these spaces and objects have for their owners. However, Aljafari’s work teases the viewer by simultaneously suggesting the auras of the roof and the home beneath it but refusing to reveal their secrets. In a practice he repeats in other home spaces featured in The Roof, the close survey of the filmmaker's home includes a series of photo-like shots of details within each room: a pendulum wall clock, a dresser top full of cosmetics, photographic snapshots tucked into the frame of a needlepoint panel on the wall, a wedding photograph, curtains, and a canary in a birdcage. The effect is to suggest, but not actually convey, intimacy. Aljafari appears to offer up his Arab family’s most private spaces to the gaze of outsiders, but these images obscure as much as they reveal. People and objects are mute. Viewers can confidently infer that the nail polish and hairbrushes on the bedroom dresser are used by the young women napping on the room’s narrow beds, but know almost nothing about where, when, or why they might do so. The photos are clearly of family members, but one cannot be sure of who is who or why these particular photos were chosen for display. These private objects surely possess auras of experience and contact for the residents of the house, but Aljafari resists revealing them. The effect is one of inscrutability, of the impossibility of viewers ever sharing the experiences of those who appear in the film.

        Moreover, object-like characters in The Roof are marked by an almost alarming passivity. Over and over one sees shots of people in states of rest or inactivity. When they work (e.g., the sister chopping tomatoes, the brother mounting a car tire), they do so silently and without visible personal engagement. In scene after scene characters sit, either staring into space or watching television. However, as is the case with the mute objects that Aljafari patiently offers up to a viewer’s gaze, characters are protected by an avoidance of emotion or meaningful disclosure. Within the mundane chronicling of the family’s daily life, gestures reveal no more than their surface meanings. How characters may feel about their lives or each other, their strategies for coping with the alienation that permeates the film, their frustrations or failures, is not revealed.

        Passive people and mute objects add up to a depiction of characters and lives stripped of the justifications or claims that would otherwise clut ter and hence obscure a central point of the film: it is the mere existence of Palestinian Arabs within the state of Israel that gives the lie to the Zionist narrative and reveals the racism at its core. Viewers are made to pay attention not to characters’ actions, accomplishments, relationships, or injuries, but rather to their obdurate and impenetrable presence. In this regard Aljafari’s use of language is also of critical importance. Televisions screen Arabic-language shows from the surrounding Arab countries, not Israeli shows.6 The characters’ Arabic is also almost entirely free of the Hebrew that usually peppers the speech of Palestinians in Israel. Hebrew and English appear in the film, but circumscribed within contexts of nationalism (a magazine article about soldiers in the Israeli army, Aljafari’s driver’s license application, and the song “I Believe”) and of colonialism (an audio tour recounting a history of Jaffa). Finally, the extradiegetic music of the film, much of which appears over smooth, tracking shots of the walls of the family home, is made up of well-known Arabic songs from the 1940s to the 2000s. Arabic, then, is ostentatiously present in the film. This choice has ramifications that go beyond the experience of Palestinians to gesture toward another major erasure that grew out of the creation of the state of Israel and continues in the sense memory of many of its citizens, namely the violent erasure of the Arab-ness of Israel’s Arab Jewish citizens.

        While Aljafari protects characters from false intimacy, his pacing creates empathic unsettlement by offering viewers an affective experience akin to that created by the existential position of the film’s characters. The panning shots and lingering on static scenes place viewers in a position of suspended, ironic contemplation, which itself mimics the subject position of the characters within the film vis-à-vis the Israel mainstream. Like Aljafari and his family, viewers gaze at something of which they are not a part, sitting before a screen, their immobile bodies suggesting suspension rather than action. Stillness, slowness, and inscrutability, then, create refraction, carefully preparing viewers for a confrontation with the Israeli Zionist dis cursive framework that appears later in the film.

        A climax of sorts occurs when Aljafari visits the Azrieli Center Tower in Tel Aviv. There, he engages in encounters utterly alienating in their insistence on Jewish Israeli-ness. He picks up a book titled How to Make a Jewish Movie and sugar packets emblazoned with the images of Jewish Israeli leaders. He gazes out the windows of the tower at the city of Jaffa, dwarfed and hemmed in (another visual reference to imprisonment) by the high-rises of Tel Aviv. He listens to an audio tour in English that completely elides Jaffa’s Palestinian history. In a final shot Aljafari sits slumped and immobile in an armchair in a lobby, while the English lyrics “I exist, I exist, I’m the son of Israel” from the nationalist song “I Believe” fill the soundtrack. This last shot is heavily ironic, of course; the lyrics clearly are not intended to include Aljafari and other Palestinian citizens of the state, and yet there he is, incontrovertibly existing before the viewers’ eyes. Moreover, the contrast between the quiet practice of Arab Palestinian life that has permeated the film up to this point with the noisy assertion of nationalist and ethnic identity in this section of the film make manifest the constructed nature of the latter.

        The placement of this segment near the end of the film, after nearly forty-five minutes dominated by the contemplation of silent objects and mostly impassive figures, is the key to its power. Up until this point, view ers have been conditioned to inhabit a perspective of ironic distance and temporal suspension—as Bennet would put it, to come into contact with a sense memory, in this case one arising from the Aljafari family’s experience with the Nakba and its ongoing effects (Bennet 2005, 44). Israeli nationalist discourse is suddenly not just visible but experienced from a perspective of silencing and exclusion. There is an irony, then, to the opacity with which the Palestinian characters are treated in the film: it is through that opacity that the violence inherent to Israeli nationalist discourse is rendered transparent (Yaqub 2014, 166).

        Port of Memory

        Like The Roof, Port of Memory takes as its subject matter the ongoing Nakba as experienced by Palestinians living in Israel. It also picks up and focuses on a theme raised in that earlier film, namely the ongoing erasure of Palestinians from the Israeli landscape through the destruction/construction of housing. The film focuses on the eviction of two small Palestinian families from their homes in Jaffa. Salim, the main character, has received a notice contesting his ownership of the home where he lives with his sister and their aged mother. A second family, the Hamatis, consists of an elderly woman and her middle-aged daughter, who lead their quiet lives in the midst of the construction noise of rapid gentrification. Non-narrative in structure, the film consists largely of a series of uneventful vignettes in the lives of the two families. Thus, the film treats not the violence of war and occupation, but ethnocentric laws and capitalist development, key tools in the process of displacement/replacement that underpins Israel’s settler colonial project. Viewers learn of Salim’s predicament when he visits his lawyer, who has lost the documents that attest to his ownership of the house. The best option he can offer is a settlement with the real estate development company that seeks to expropriate the house. His second option is a court case which, without documents, he is likely to lose. As he did in The Roof, in Port of Memory Aljafari uses opacity and refraction to generate in viewers an affective experience such that difference between the lived experiences of characters and viewers is maintained. In this case, however, the distance between them is bridged mainly by a shared relationship with moving images.

        While The Roof addresses the marginalization of Palestinian life in Israel, Port of Memory is bleaker, taking as its subject not just its margin alization but its active, ongoing erasure from the landscape. The families profiled in the film are dying: each consists of an elderly parent who is cared for by unmarried, middle-aged children. There are no young people or children. References to social and biological reproduction appear in family photographs and the work of Salim’s sister (she creates "flower bouquets for wedding receptions and wedding procession cars), but such socially reproductive practices are engaged in by others, not by the members of these families. Moreover, characters carry out their daily routines and non-productive conversations with an impassivity that suggests the paradoxical aftereffects of trauma as described by Jill Bennet—a simultaneous “It hurts. I can’t feel anything” (Bennett 2005, 34). They wait, they carry out the small routines of a regulated life, and they engage in conversations that re"ect their fundamental lack of agency: Amidar Development Company claims they do not own the house. They claim that they do. The papers are lost and so, apparently is the cause. “What is to be done?” Fatima asks her brother. “What are we supposed to do?” he retorts, “Just give them the house?”

        Like The Roof, Port of Memory engages opacity to prevent the spectators from easily identifying with the characters. As in the earlier film, Aljafari makes ample use of slow panning shots of old walls and beach rubble, a suggestive soundscape, and repeated still shots of cherished and intimate household items and photographs that remain stubbornly enig matic to viewers. Mysteries are left unsolved; who, for instance, is Samir, the character who never appears in the film but whom Salim regularly feeds? Twice Salim fills a plate of food and leaves it on a doorstep for him, calling his name but never receiving a response. The film is replete with faintly strange and utterly unexplained images and vignettes. Salim’s lawyer uses a white shower curtain for an office door. Men sit nearly immobile in a café inexplicably rubbing thumb and index finger together. Another man in the café plays with the glowing coals of a charcoal fire, repeatedly lifting one with tongs and holding it against his throat in what appears to be a ritual of daring, healing, or exorcism. Salim dines alone at a small table facing a wall, rather than with his mother and sister. None of these scenes is explained or fully explicable.

        Some of the characters display a degree of eccentricity that tips over at times into madness. Fatima responds to each stressful encounter with the pending eviction from her home with an obsessive practice of hand washing. The reclusive Samir who eats Fatima’s cooking but never shows his face, the silent, still men rubbing fingers in a café, the café owner’s obsession with fire, even the excessive religiosity of the Hamati family, all suggest underlying stresses that have no outlet. Three times in the film, the characters’ emotional responses to moments of bitter absurdity (including the eventual eviction of the Hamati family from their home) are represented by a scene in which an unknown man rides a motorcycle into the camera’s still frame, throws his helmet to the ground, and raises his head in maniacal laughter.

        Port of Memory is also similar to The Roof in that Aljafari does not represent people and places as they ordinarily appear or behave. In the films Jaffa and al-Ramlah have been stripped of their usual bustle and depicted as almost ghost towns. Individuals or small groups of nearly immobile people inhabit empty streets lined with crumbling buildings. In Port of Memory the ordinary liveliness of Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood, where the film takes place, has been relegated to the soundtrack, where the sounds of traffic and, most significantly, of continual construction appear as a world that impinges on characters’ lives but in which they play no part.

        Where Port of Memory differs strategically from The Roof is in its refraction of the accumulated stresses of the characters’ lives through cinema. As in The Roof, the characters’ lives are saturated with still and moving photographic images. While still images consist mostly of family photographs that gesture to the love and sociality that is a significant part of the characters' lives, even though they are not represented in the film, moving images are sites of fantasy and desire. In The Roof, characters, counterfactually, watch Arabic-language television almost exclusively, a significant contribution to the Arabic soundscape Aljafari constructs in that film. Arabic television contributes to the dissonance of the main character’s alienating Israeli/Jewish/Hebrew encounter at the Azraeli tower near the end of The Roof. In Port of Memory, the women of one family watch dramatizations of the life of Jesus, while those of another watch sappy programs about love, marriage, and weddings. Refraction occurs through what Aljafari has termed the cinematic occupation of Jaffa. The Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa was, for some decades, used frequently as a set for both Israeli and American films. Aljafari plays with this film history first with a scene in which the Hamati family are seen confined to their bedroom, the mother with a coat over her shoulders as if she is about to depart the house, while a film crew shoots a scene in their living room. “All of these windows I built with my own hands,” an actor is made to repeat over and over again in Hebrew until he can put the appropriate emphasis on the word “my.” The irony is clear: within the constructed world of cinema, any claim is possible, but it must be practiced and inhabited to become convincing. In this scene, viewers are aware of the Palestinian family behind the closed door whose home is being claimed through this repeated practice.

        The cinematic occupation of Jaffa appears again at the café where silent men sit and watch Delta Force on a small television. Viewers are invited to consider the contrast between the empty and quiet Jaffa created by Aljafari, and the noisy and frenetic version on the screen, to note the frenetic movement of bodies and cars on screen as viewed through the eyes of still and silent men in the café. If subjectivities are created in part by what one sees, what relationships are created between these Palestinian viewers of the appropriation of their neighborhood to represent the violent Beirut of an American imagination?

        The cinematic occupation of Jaffa takes over most forcefully near the end of the film. Salim walks through town to the cemetery overlooking the city. As he gazes at the view before him, a Hebrew song appears on the soundtrack and clips of the popular 1974 Israeli film Kazablan come into view. In the song, the eponymous main character, a Moroccan Jewish immigrant to Israel, sings longingly of “a place beyond the sea where the sand is white and home is warm” (that is, Morocco) as he walks through the streets of Jaffa, the hometown of Salim. Aljafari manipulates the footage such that after a few seconds the character Kazablan is excised and Salim inserted in his place. In other words, Aljafari digitally reappropriates Jaffa for Salim, whose avatar is made to walk through the virtual (but indexical) streets of Jaffa of the early 1970s. The clip suggests a truth within the filmic image that can be retrieved through careful viewing and imagination.

        However, Aljafari does not overstate the power of this cinematic reappropriation. He cuts from the Kazablan footage to a panning shot of the rubble at Jaffa’s beach, where the remains of destroyed houses of Palestinians forced to leave in 1948 intermingle with trash. The concrete, material dispossession of Palestinians cannot be undone with green screens and digital technology. Salim next walks down from the cemetery back into Ajami, straight into a violent clip from Delta Force in which two blond, blue-eyed American film stars careen through the narrow streets of the town, shooting buildings and Arabs with wild abandon. Salim’s world continues to be shaped by the physical and representational violence of settler colonialism.

        When we next see Salim he is napping on a narrow bed, dreaming that his lawyer has found his house documents. The remainder of Port of Memory consists of images of continued dispossession: A wall of signs in Arabic stating “We miss you,” similar to others shown earlier in Hebrew asking about properties for sale in the neighborhood, the fading into black of a still shot of the Hamati family accompanied by the sound of frantic construction; the man on the motorcycle issuing one last maniacal laugh; a last shot of Salim’s living room, empty of people and with bedding the women used earlier for napping rumpled along the sofas; one more compulsive handwashing by Fatima; and finally, a shot at dusk with the Hamati family furniture strewn in the road.


        In The Roof and Port of Memory Aljafari is concerned with the ethics of the encounters between viewers and characters that his film sets up, but the goal is less to thematize an encounter than to convey an affect, to create a connection between viewer and viewed that is built on a bodily experience with a particular Palestinian structure of feeling that emerges from the experience of ongoing dispossession (Tawil-Souri 2014). In Recollection, Aljafari starts from a different temporal position, picking up where Port of Memory left off. Its temporality is post-catastrophe—not the ongoing Nakba that is the subject of most Palestinian films. Jaffa has already been lost, destroyed, appropriated, and redeveloped for others. What is left for Palestinians are images. In his intensive engagement with those images Aljafari has created a surprisingly optimistic film. There is life, work, and subjectivities to be formed even after the collapse of an aspiration.

        In the press kit for Recollection there appears in large-font italics the sentence, “I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in your dream.” The statement is an assertion of equality, humanity, and survival, an invitation, and a framing of the film as a work of the imaginary, the hoped-for, and the subconscious. It is in these qualities that the film’s optimism lies. Its dissidence arises not from any resistance or working in opposition to another, but rather in its use of aesthetic precarity—blurriness, glitches, a jerky camera, odd framing, and indistinct sound—as tools to reconfigure the attempted erasure of Palestinians into the material from which an agential intervention in representational practices surrounding Israel/Palestine can be undertaken.

        Built primarily out of footage from Israeli and American movies shot in Jaffa from the 1960s through the 1980s, Aljafari removes the actors from the foreground of these films to reveal the destruction of the city that these works could not help but document, and to find the Palestinian residents of Jaffa and traces of their lives that lurk as “mistakes” in the background of these films. Aljafari created postcards from the film footage that blurrily documents figures and architectural details of Jaffa and its environs. Much of the film consists of a refilming of these stills and the manipulated Hollywood/ Israeli footage. Through this refilming Aljafari trains the viewer to look at the images in a new way, to search along with his camera for the alternative characters (and perhaps their narratives) that are embedded within. Recollection’s assertion of agency lies in its thematization of image-mak ing itself, in its willful manipulation of the imbrication of history and fantasy that the Jaffa films with which Aljafari works inadvertently captured, and its audacious and virtuoso performance of a deliberate uncovering of history and its reconfiguring as fantasy to arrive at a truth. However, Aljafari’s purpose is not simply to uncover what has been erased. By playing with blurriness, close-ups, and framing, he reveals something of the complexity of the relationship between the foreground and the background, between the Palestinian and the Israeli, the marginalized and the centered, and their respective narratives. Proximity and enlargement are necessary to reveal the hidden Palestinian characters, but they disappear again into abstrac tion if the zoom is too radical. In other words, the precarious subject becomes visible after the excision of the foreground, but remains precarious, fleeting, blurry, and partial. At the same time, the training of the viewer’s eye that constitutes much of the first part of the film normalizes the blur, the jerk, and the un-centered frame. Viewers, whose perspective is that of a visitor walking through this post-catastrophic dreamscape, grow so accustomed to the precarious image that clarity and centering, when they appear, are rendered jarringly artificial. The move echoes the impact on viewers of the Azrieli Tower scene in The Roof.

        Recollection is not only a virtuoso performance of forensics, however. A forensics of old footage can assert a presence, but its claims will always be about the past. Having staked out the world of images and the imaginary as his area of intervention, Aljafari addresses the possibilities within the virtual in a post-catastrophe manipulation of the Palestinians, who, as he puts it, “smuggled themselves into the images.” Through animation he takes the dozens of Palestinians he has found in film backgrounds and places them in the foreground of his own film. En masse, they move eerily through one of the dilapidated streets. The movement of the characters imbues them with life, foreclosing the association with death that characterizes the still photograph. By moving these phantoms of an alternative narrative from the background to the foreground, he undoes the marginalization that arises in part from their fixity in the framing created for Hollywood and Israeli movies. As with the earlier passages, this animated sequence is reshot with a handheld camera that sometimes veers up to reveal the sky, roof-lines, and just the tops of peoples’ heads, and sometimes angled down at their walking feet. The camera asserts its presence—its capacity for framing and focusing—and thereby prevents viewers from forgetting the constructed nature of its images.

        The footage is accompanied by one of the rare passages of extradiegetic music in the film, a feature that helps to transform these figures from accidental documentary traces to characters in a cinematic and imag inative work. It ends with the marchers coming suddenly into sharp focus. In post-catastrophe Jaffa, there is no essential difference between these fig ures and the actors Aljafari has excised from the footage. Palestinians, like their Israeli and American counterparts, can also be the subjects of fiction, just as Israelis and Americans, like Palestinians, can be erased. “I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in your dream.”

        Aljafari continues to play with footage in an increasingly outrageous fashion during the last minutes of the film. An improbable car chase ends in a manic dash through a cornfield. Ominous music underlies an upside-down clip of the Israeli singer Ofra Haza as she walks apprehensively through an old building, picks up a white rabbit, pulls aside a red curtain, and then runs outside. Aljafari’s montage makes it appear as if she is startled to find herself entering the dream-world of grainy Palestinians that Aljafari has been constructing for his viewers over the course of the past hour.

        Through this blatant manipulation of found footage, Aljafari lays claim to fiction and the imaginative, transcending (without abandoning) the evidentiary mode that can always be answered with a counterclaim (the “greater” trauma of the Holocaust that justifies the violence and dispossession of Palestinians, the recent development of a human rights movement for Israeli settlers, and right-wing challenges to the evidentiary force of B’Tselem videos, to name a few salient instances) (Gordon 2014; Perugini and Gordon 2015). It makes manifest the constructed nature of cinema (a constructedness that is particularly apparent after spectators have been trained throughout the film to “watch” images in entirely new ways); most importantly, it interjects into a Palestinian film the pure joy of constructing a narrative through the manipulation of the indexical image.


        What can one do once one realizes the inevitability of one’s own dispossession? How can one remain truthfully engaged with one’s past, one’s environment, the fate of one’s family without giving in to despair? How can one create a cinema that goes beyond the melodramatic temporality of “too late,” or that avoids the false optimism of resistance after it has become evident that resistance, whether violent or otherwise, will not undo the ongoing processes of theft and erasure that underpin every settler colonial project? These are the questions that Palestinian filmmakers face today. Aljafari’s films are not a “solution” to conflict, occupation, or dispossession. They do not address the problems of refugees; of bombings and shootings by Israeli settlers, police, and military; of house demolitions, checkpoints, and walls. Rather, through their empathic unsettlement, they are expressions of a Palestinian agential subjectivity that simultaneously cedes no rights but make no claims. They do not ask for equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, for half of Jerusalem, or one, two, or more states, Jewish, secular, democratic or otherwise. Instead, they are enactments of an ability to create and manipulate images in a world that is increasingly dominated by the visual. “[H]istory has been made out of man’s need to detach and project fabulous images, to send them as delegates into the future to act in the very long term, after death,” says Jean Genet in Prisoner of Love (Genet [1986] 2003, 301). Gazans, Palestinian filmmaker Abdelrahman Shehadah warns us in his film To My Father (Illa abi, 2008), must attend to the nature of the images they create because of the powerful connection between archives and the subjectivities of the future. “A picture lasts longer than a human being,” Aljafari writes in the text that scrolls like idiosyncratic credits at the end of Recollection. It is in the realm of images that Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans can meet as equals. It is therefore in the realm of images that this dissident idea can be enacted and alternative subjectivities forged.

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