August 09th 2012
Film Review

Cinematic Occupation: Kamal Al Jafari’s Port of Memory

        ︎︎︎Port of Memory

        by Sadia Shirazi
        on Jadaliyya

In the state of siege, time becomes place
Fossilized in its eternity
In the state of siege, place becomes time
Lagging behind its yesterday and its tomorrow
––    Mahmoud Darwish, “State of Siege”

        Kamal Aljafari’s film Port of Memory (2009) opens with a long tracking shot of a grand, decaying house at twilight. The camera lingers on the skin of this structure that bears traces of other times and previous inhabitations. The footage feels like a memorial for a building that may not live much longer: we see a floorboard of what was once a balcony, recesses where there were stairs, and the remnants of plaster crenellations above cinder-blocked windows. Aljafari uses these buildings and streets of Jaffa as a frame against and within which his character’s actions are set. The film pivots around the narrative of a shrinking city and its spectral inhabitants whose lives are inextricably tied to these spaces. The film brings to mind Freud’s writing on The Uncanny in which he quotes Jetsch doubting “whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate.”1 Port of Memory distances itself from conventional filmic narratives of Palestinian subjects by meditating on the state of Palestinians within Israel; it also departs from dominant spectacular representations by focusing on the minutiae of everyday life. The filmmaker’s relationship to the subjects in the film is never made explicit—the characters are Aljafari’s extended family—underscoring his resistance to the documentary format in dealing with his subject matter. Port of Memory thus blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction, offering a collage of staging and restaging, pre-existing archival footage and new footage.

        While Henri Lefebvre writes that the city is a setting of struggle and the stake of that same struggle, Aljafari identifies cinematic space as a parallel site of conflict over power and memory and attempts to restitute Palestinian inhabitants’ rights to the city by reconstituting their identities through film.2 Port of Memory focuses on the lives of Palestinian residents in Jaffa who are living with the imminent threat of eviction from their homes. Jaffa, once a bustling port city in pre-1948 Palestine, has been steadily absorbed and encroached upon by Tel Aviv to its north—to the point that it is now problematically considered a suburb of Tel Aviv. New construction surrounds the neighborhood of Ajami where the families live; the ambient sounds of construction and demolition of buildings permeate the film`s score. The frenetic activity of construction and encroachment is met with the still obstinance of Ajami’s residents. The repetition of daily gestures structures the film and guides its intervallic narrative, imbuing these with elegiac and defiant tones. Long takes of the filmmaker’s aunt ritually and systematically washing her hands, Aljafari’s family seated on a couch watching television, and a man in a café drawing a hot piece of coal within centimeters of his neck rhythmically punctuate Port of Memory. As the film progresses, the motions of these inhabitants take on an excruciatingly pained beauty, as the characters’ movements clearly hold crisis at bay. Aljafari locates the home as a site of conflict and inhabitance that becomes a form of resistance. In the state of suspension lived by the characters, an insistence on domesticity and the habits of daily life, set against the backdrop of the city, becomes itself a kind of performative resistance against the threat of dispossession.

        The film both offers a psychological portrait of a community and engages with cinematic space as a parallel zone of conflict over claims to the city. The particularities of the characters’ identities and the contested nature of their city emerge slowly and elliptically from the film’s episodic structure. In the first scene of the film, Salim, who is Aljafari’s uncle, visits a lawyer to discuss an order of evacuation he has received from Amidar, a government-operated housing authority. It is the second time the family members have had to defend their ownership of the property, and in the ten years that have passed since the first case, the lawyer has misplaced the title of the house. This scene, in which the family’s attempt to challenge the legality of the government’s action is compromised by their own lawyer, establishes the precarity of habitation for Jaffa’s Palestinians.

        The film pairs the incremental expropriation of Palestinian property in Jaffa with the foreclosure of Palestinian residents from the city’s cinematic history.3 When I interviewed him, Aljafari referred to this as the “cinematic occupation of Jaffa.” In another interview, he explains: “the film is very much about place, being excluded from it, about being there and not being there at the same time. I know these buildings will vanish from reality, so at least I have them in my film. And [through] cinema...with framing and by shooting something for a long time, you can claim it.”4 Citing Hayden White, Edward Said suggests that “narrative in general, from the folk tale to the novel, from annals to the fully realized ‘history,’ has to do with the topics of law, legality, legitimacy, or, more generally, authority.” Similarly, through this film, Aljafari claims “permission to narrate,” following Said’s argument: “Facts do not at all speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain, and circulate them.”5 Port of Memory produces a subversive counter-narrative that challenges dominant histories and reinscribes the narratives of foreclosed subjects in built space as well as in Jaffa’s cinematic archive.

        Jaffa has a peculiarly rich presence in contemporary film history, where the city was effectively emptied of its Palestinian inhabitants and used as a live set for numerous American and Israeli films from the 1960s through the 1980s. Aljafari appropriates footage from two such films—The Delta Force (1986), in which Jaffa represents war-torn Beirut, and Kazablan (1974), in which Jaffa represents itself—and shows Mizrahi Jews struggling against Ashkenazi government representatives over house demolitions, which foreclose the city’s Palestinian narratives. The filmmaker responds to the exclusion of Palestinians from cinematic representation—indeed, in The Delta Force, even the opportunity to play Arab “terrorists” was only granted to Mizrahi Jews—by offering to reinscribe them with his film. A layered psychic narrative emerges from this juxtaposition of the everyday life of Palestinian residents with scenes from these Hollywood action and Israeli dramatic films, with the filmmaker carefully replicating the camera’s placement to capture the same scenes, albeit in a different time and populated by very different actors.

        The last sequence of images in Port of Memory is interspersed with footage from The Delta Force, in which we see a tank hurtling down a pedestrian street, hugged tightly by the old stone walls of residences. This is followed by a long take of Salim walking down the same street, worn from the passage of time but readily recognizable. The city’s streets are transfigured from a site of violent conflict in the first film, to a prosaic pedestrian landscape in the second, without any movement of the cinematic frame. The explosions and collisions in The Delta Force happened in real time and space, with ammunition ricocheting off walls and absorbed by streets and buildings. Roland Barthes wrote “the Photograph represents that very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis): I am truly becoming a specter.” Jaffa’s cinematic image, to paraphrase Barthes, was not just an intimation of death, but one whose production literally contributed to the city becoming a specter.6

        The second film sequence appropriated by Aljafari is from the Israeli film Kazablan. The scene opens with Salim gazing longingly at the sea, from which he is separated by a mesh wire fence. The camera then pans to a shot of the sea and another man’s voice is heard singing, “There is a place beyond the sea, where the sand is white and home is worn, where the sun shines, over the market, the street and the port....” The water is now accessible and the actor sings as he walks along the shoreline and then through the narrow pedestrian streets of Jaffa. In a spectral montage sequence, Aljafari transports Salim into the spaces of this parallel film universe—Salim walks in front of Kazablan’s main actor, looking back at him playfully as he ducks into a doorway. In the next scene, Salim alone traverses the eerily unpopulated spaces of the vacant port, which no longer exist but which he remembers from his youth. These scenes produce spaces of a past-future, in which the past replaces the present absence through a future presence and where reality is supplanted temporarily by projective desire.7 It is unclear whether the scenes are part of a dream sequence or a waking memory roused by gazing at the ever more distant sea. The film ends with a sequence of images that echo the film’s structure: night falls, the morning is greeted by construction along the coastline, Aljafari’s aunt commences washing her hands, his uncle gazes again at the sea from his rooftop at dusk, and the screen fades to black.

        Port of Memory illustrates how one city, through cinematic representations, functions as multiple sites of desire. The city and its narratives are mutually constructed terrains of conflict. Through a dual invocation of cinema, Aljafari is intent on reclaiming the city of Jaffa for its Palestinian residents. On the one hand, cinema offers the only access to these spaces that no longer exist, while at the same time, cinema is presented as a fiction, as something that does not exist. The land and the stories about the land are not easily aligned, and Aljafari’s footage further complicates this mix.8 Aljafari refrains from establishing a counter-normative system or a triumphalist ideology in his work and cultivates what Said referred to as a “scrupulous...subjectivity.”9 The film moves between subjective and objective registers in its hybrid form of fiction-documentary, taking up Jean-Luc Goddard’s challenge in his film Notre Musique (2004), which proposes that all that is left to the Palestinians is documentary, while the Israelis possess fiction. Port of Memory, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak remarked of subaltern historiography, “articulates the difficult task of rewriting its own conditions of impossibility as the conditions of its possibility.”10 Aljafari’s work can be said to create a space of reconstituted identity for the Palestinian subject in Israel who finds herself doubly erased—on the one hand by the imminent threat of dispossession, and on the other, by her erasure from cinematic archival records. Port of Memory thus represents a counter-narrative that attempts to hold back the teleological rush of history.

An earlier version of this essay was first published in Foreclosed. Between Crisis and Possibility (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 107-121.

1        Ernst Jetsch, “On the Psychology of the Uncanny” (1906), trans. Roy Sellars, Angelaki, vol. 2, no.1 (1995). Quoted by Freud in “The Uncanny,” 347.
2        Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1992), 386.
3        “Foreclosure” here refers to the use of the psychoanalytic term in postcolonial theory, which highlights the term’s ethical underpinnings: "I shall docket the encrypting of the name of the `native informant` as the name of Man...I think of the `native informant` as a name for that mark of expulsion from the name of Man—a mark crossing out the impossibility of the ethical relation.” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 5–6.
4       Kamal Aljafari, interview conducted by Nasrin Hamada, Montreal Serai, 2010. (accessed March 1, 2011).
5        Edward Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 141–47.
6        The cinematic image is considered akin to the photographic image. See Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 14.
7        I would like to thank Laura Mulvey, here, and the conversation we had that helped me develop my line of thought.
8        I would like to thank Sarah Lookofsky here, as her feedback contributed greatly to this argument.
9        Edward Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 141–147.
10        Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. "Can the Subaltern Speak?" in Marxism and The Interpretation of Culture. Ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (London: Macmillan, 1988), 271–313.

Kamal Aljafari
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