Construction and Destruction in Cinematic Spaces

Sadia Shirazi

Foreclosed. Between Crisis and Possibility, The Whitney Museum of American Art

February 28th 2011

Harun Farocki’s film In Comparison (2009) and Kamal Aljafari’s film Port of Memory (2009) explore opposite registers of two analogous conditions— construction and destruction— at the intersection of cinematic representation and the production of space. In Comparison studies brick production and construction in different societies and geographic sites around the world—this macro-narrative challenges the linear technological teleology that understands modernity as a movement from pre- to post-industrial societies (code: traditional to modern). Port of Memory explores destruction by reflecting on the historical and psychic representation of Palestinian subjectivity within Israel. This micro-narrative draws a connection between the expropriation of Palestinian property in Jaffa and exclusion of Palestinians from cinematic representations of the Israeli city. Construction and destruction are understood here dialectically, as two opposed but mutually informed positions. While In Comparison studies the social production of space through the “time of the brick,”1 its attention to building material and built environment presages the inevitable destruction that follows the cyclical geographic movement of flows of capital.2 Port of Memory explores the social construction of space, entangled in time and memory, resisting destruction by constructing new cinematic subjectivities. Cinematic space is a site of subversion for both filmmakers, who produce counter-narratives challenging dominant histories—Farocki reconstrues modernity as multilple,3 forcing a reconsideration of linear notions of progress tied to specific geographies, while Aljafari reinscribes the narratives of foreclosed subjects in built space as well as in Jaffa’s cinematic archive.


“A whole history remains to be written of spaces—which would at the same time be the history of powers... from the grand strategies of geopolitics to the little tactics of the habitat.”
––    Michele Foucault, 19674

        In Comparison extends Farocki’s methodical deconstruction of vision and representation in filmic and media images to modes of brick production in six geographic sites around the world. The film’s macro-narrative focuses on the way that brick, a basic building material in many societies, is defined by the time and scale of its production, simultaneously demonstrating the imbrication of building materials in changing societal conditions of labor and in the production of space. The film moves from Burkina Faso to sites in India, France, and Germany, then back to a different site in India, and another in Germany, then on to Austria and a second location in Burkina Faso, before finally ending in Switzerland. The linear movement from pre- to postindustrial society, paralleled by the film’s movement from the Southern to the Northern hemisphere (from Africa and India to France and Germany), is ruptured as the film progresses and begins to connect disparate geographies through images and ideas that complicate such essentialist narratives. Footage from each location is paired with a diagram emblematizing the brick technology of the respective site, sometimes also accompanied by text. Measuring Farocki’s project against Henri Lefebvre’s injunction, In Comparison engages in a “successful unmasking of things in order to reveal (social) [and spatial] relationships.”5

        In Comparison begins with a white orthographic diagram that depicts a single, solid, rectangular brick against a black background. Text overlaid onto the next frame tells the viewer that the location is Gando, Burkina Faso. A woman carries a plastic container filled with water on her head along with a child on her back. She passes the jug to a man who pours the water into a pit where it is mixed with soil, then shaped with a wooden mold into bricks, one by one, that are left to bake in the sun for hours. The community in Gando is building a clinic and, in two days, men, women, and children have helped erect the clinic’s tall, load-bearing adobe brick walls.

        The next location of brick production is Hinjewadi, India, where the same brick-mold technology is used but at a larger scale of production. A woman’s smooth, efficient gestures are framed, as she primes the metal mold with water, packs it with adobe, and skims the top to level it. A man transports the mold and releases the wet, quivering bricks, laying them side-by-side to dry in the sun. These motions are repeated. In the last frame of this sequence, the camera pulls back to reveal the production site—rows of women and men are molding bricks, which are carried and stacked high, making an open grid that extends in all directions. The scale of brick production has multiplied, but the manufacturing technique has remained the same. Unlike Gando, this location is now only a site of production, and the bricks are transported to Powai, a suburb of Mumbai, for assembly. There, poured concrete frames of multistory buildings populate the background of the site, skeletons waiting to be infilled with bricks and later filled with people. This focus on construction presages the inevitable destruction that follows the cyclical geographic movement of the flow of capital as it territorializes, re-territorializes, and de-territorializes.6 Both women and men are present at this construction site, and their labor is gendered—women carry building materials and sometimes care for children while men hoist materials and lay brick walls.

        As the film progresses, Farocki alters the logic of its organization, grouping footage according to shared patterns of brick production, rather than by location, thus collapsing distant geographies. In other words, the viewer is shown that the same organization of discrete production and assembly sites characteristic of some of the Indian construction practices is also found in Germany. What distinguishes the German sites from their Indian counterparts is the larger scale of production, the increased automation of labor, and the ungendered, further specialization of tasks. Earth is now transported, sifted, and mixed exclusively by machines in a factory; people sparsely populate this veritable maze of conveyer belts and assembly lines. A solitary worker in overalls and a brimmed cap, seated on a dais in front of a motherboard, operates the entire automated system by pushing buttons. He moves within this nucleus to better oversee the operations, and, at other times, sits on his chair with his arms folded, appearing listless, an iconic illustration of the alienation of workers and reification of labor in industrial societies.

        The last sequences of the film take place at two sites in Switzerland, again a site of production and then assembly. In Zürich, a machine’s robotic arm—twice the height of a human—swivels back and forth between a concrete dispenser and a wall of irregularly stacked bricks that the machine is assembling. The standardization of mass production in Germany is now replaced with mass customization in Switzerland. Except for their part in the programming of these systems, humans are even scarcer, as fabrication processes have become fully automated. An architect—inferred but invisible—has designed an architectural façade by projecting spheres onto a plane, in which one brick represents one pixel. CAD/CAM (Computer-Aided Design/Computer-Aided Manufacturing) technology allows the translation of this two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional material pattern. Here the film demonstrates “the gradual automation not only of labor . . . but of seeing and imaging, too.”7 The customized brick façade is first constructed by a robotic arm in the Zürich laboratory and then transported to Fläsch. The images of the concrete frame of the building in Fläsch bears an uncanny resemblance to the mass produced skeletal structures in India, except that the brick infill in Switzerland is solely decorative, so the bricks are not covered as they would be in India but left exposed. The stylized brick façade alters one’s visual perception, transforming the hard bricks into something soft. From afar, the façade looks like a textile frozen in time after having been blown in various directions by the wind.

        In Comparison illustrates how in industrialized societies the increased automation of labor reflects a kind of ossification of a system of production into a very precise but rigid, unalterable form. If such a system, manned by a limited number of human operators, were to partially or totally malfunction, it would produce failures proportionate to its scale of production. In German factories, bricks are produced as homogeneous objects— calculated parts of a highly precise system of construction. In India, by comparison, a group of laborers in Toutipakkam create an innovative new system where unbaked bricks, stacked inside an unbaked, brick building are fired together with the building. The sale of these bricks can help to finance the continued construction of the building, according to the film’s captions. Failure within this system also has results proportionate to its scale of production, but the system of production is flexible and workers’ roles are more dynamic. What distinguishes this site most significantly from the industrial one is that workers can feed information back into their system to alter and improve it, as necessary. Efficiency is suddenly rendered relative: it can refer to the precision with which German factories manufacture identical bricks or to the innovation of workers in India who combine two operations into one. These juxtapositions imply that a malfunction in the German system would result in catastrophic failures because of the inflexibility of its particular mode of production, whereas the Indian example illustrates a supple, alterable system of production.

        As scale of production increases and labor becomes more automated, regulation and identity seem to cohere more strongly within the workplace. Construction boots and hard hats replace sandals and sun hats, although the physicality of labor is decreasing. Industrial societies require a highly specialized and routinized labor force; for example, a worker in a German factory strikes bricks that run past him on a conveyer belt, listening to the sounds they emit in order to locate any flaws in the bricks.8 At a construction site in another part of Germany, workers use hand signals to communicate with their colleagues, who are operating machinery as they assemble prefabricated components on-site; the sound of machinery creates a backdrop for their motions. In comparison, men, women and children all participate in the construction of a clinic in Gando, Burkina Faso, each fulfilling particular roles. Men are shown laying the building’s brick walls, which women then plaster over. The sound of the workers’ conversations peppers the footage, culminating in the women singing in unison as they pack the earthen floor of the clinic. Women are minimally present in factories in France and Germany, and children are wholly removed from construction sites. What is striking is the differentiation of labor, gender, temporality, and social relations across these societies. Through the non-hierarchical film sequences that begin to link disparate sites, concepts, and images as the film progresses, Farocki disrupts a linear narrative movement from “traditional” to “modern” societies, both reconstruing modernity as multiple9 and challenging technological teleology.


“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, 200210

        Kamal Aljafari’s film Port of Memory focuses on the lives of Palestinian residents in the Israeli city of Jaffa, who live with the imminent threat of eviction from their homes.11 The particularities of the characters and the contested nature of their city emerge slowly and elliptically from the film’s episodic structure. 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. Port of Memory distances itself from conventional filmic narratives of Palestinian subjects by meditating on the state of Palestinians within Israel and also departs from dominant spectacular representations by focusing on the minutiae of daily life. The filmmaker’s relationship to the subjects in the film is never made explicit, underscoring his resistance to the documentary format in dealing with his subject matter. Port of Memory blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction, offering a collage of staging and restaging, pre-existing and new footage.

        The film opens with a scene in which Selim, 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 has 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, which challenges the legality of the government’s action, establishes the tenuousness and precarity of everyday life for Jaffa’s Palestinian inhabitants. The film hinges upon this legal notice and an extra-legal method of expulsion—the accidental tearing down of an entire wall of another family’s house by a construction crew. After this demolition, the woman who lives in the house with her mother, one of Selim’s neighbors, yells, almost to herself, that she expects the wall to be rebuilt exactly as it was. It is a very old house, built out of stone and the wall cannot, of course, be built as it originally was. The surreal image of the woman standing alone under the highly vaulted ceiling of her dining room, furniture intact, rubble littering the foreground, looks almost as if it were a recreated film set with one wall removed. The micro-narrative of destruction in Aljafari’s film is inextricably tied to its construction of new subjectivity. Through his film, Aljafari claims “permission to narrate,” following Edward Said’s argument that “Facts do not at all speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain, and circulate them.” Citing Hayden White, 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.”12

        In the state of suspension lived by the characters in Port of Memory, an insistence on the habits of daily life, set against the backdrop of the city, becomes itself a kind of performative resistance. Aljafari presents the historic city of Jaffa as an enclave that is being steadily absorbed by Tel Aviv to its north, further emphasizing the threat that pervades the existence of the people and place. New construction surrounds the neighborhood where the families live, and their old, historic buildings seem like traces of another time, haunted by specters. The repetition of daily gestures structures the film and guides its intervallic narrative, imbuing these will elegiac and defiant tones. Rhythmically punctuating Port of Memory are long takes of the filmmaker’s aunt systematically and ritually 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. As the film progresses, the motions of these inhabitants take on an excruciatingly pained beauty, where the characters’ movements clearly hold crisis at bay. Aljafari locates the home as a site of conflict, and inhabitance becomes a form of resisting dispossession. Port of Memory also pairs the incremental disappearance of the city of Jaffa with the foreclosure of Palestinian residents from the city’s cinematic history, which Aljafari refers to as the “cinematic occupation of Jaffa.”13 The filmmaker 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.”14 Henri Lefebvre writes that the city is a setting of struggle and the stake of that same struggle, a place where power resides.15 Aljafari locates both physical and cinematic space as sites of conflict over power and memory.

        Jaffa has a peculiarly rich presence in contemporary film history, in which the city was effectively emptied of its Palestinian inhabitants. Jaffa was used as a set for a number of 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—foreclosing the city’s Palestinian narratives. The filmmaker responds to the exclusion of Palestinians16 from cinematic representation by offering to reinscribe them with his film. A layered psychic narrative emerges from his juxtaposition of the everyday life of Palestinian residents with scenes from these Hollywood action and Israeli dramatic films.

        The last sequence of images in Port of Memory are 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 Selim walking down the same street, worn from the passage of time but still recognizable. Jaffa’s streets are transfigured from a site of violent conflict in the first film, to a prosaic pedestrian landscape in the second. The explosions and collisions occurring in The Delta Force happened in real time and space, using the city as a live set with ammunition ricocheting off walls and absorbed by streets and buildings. Jaffa’s cinematic image, to paraphrase Roland Barthes, was not just an intimation of death but one whose production contributed to the city becoming a specter.17

        The second sequence appropriated by Aljafari is footage from the Israeli film Kazablan. The scene opens with Selim gazing longingly at the sea, from which he is separated by a mesh wire fence. The camera then pans to a grainy 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 actor continues to sing as he walks along the shoreline and then through the narrow pedestrian streets of Jaffa. In a spectral montage sequence, Aljafari transports Selim into the spaces of this parallel film universe—Selim walks in front of Kazablan’s main actor, looking back at him playfully as he ducks into a doorway. In the next scene, Selim traverses the eerily unpopulated spaces of the emptied port, which today no longer exist but which he knew from his youth.18 These scenes produce spaces of a past-future, in which reality is supplanted temporarily by desire. It is unclear whether the previous scenes were 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 repeat the rest of the film’s structure: night descends, images of construction along the coastline greet the morning, Aljafari’s aunt commences washing her hands, night falls as his uncle gazes again at the sea from his rooftop and the screen fades to black.

        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, something that does not exist. The land and stories about the land are not easily aligned, and Aljafari’s footage further complicates this mix.19 Aljafari refrains from establishing a counter-normative system or a triumphalist ideology in his work and cultivates what Saïd referred to as a “scrupulous . . . subjectivity”.20 The film moves between subjective and objective registers in the film’s hybrid form of fiction-documentary taking up Jean-Luc Godard’s challenge in his film Notre Musique (2004) that all that is left to the Palestinians is documentary and to the Israelis fiction. Port of Memory, as Gayatri C. Spivak remarked of the task facing subaltern historiography, “ . . . articulates the difficult task of rewriting its own conditions of impossibility as the conditions of its possibility.”21 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.

        While Port of Memory illustrates how one city, through cinematic representations, functions as multiple sites of desire, In Comparison’s multiple geographies are joined instead by a single narrative. The city and its narratives in Port of Memory are mutually constructed terrains of battle over power, with Aljafari’s film reinscribing Palestinian subjects into Jaffa’s cinematic archive.22 In Comparison challenges linear accounts of technological progress through the film’s analysis of brick production and social relations, creating unexpected proximities across distant geographies. Set against the contemporary moment of crisis in which the future seems to belong to uncontrolled capitalism and development, these two films register anxiety about the future in distinct ways.23 Harun Farocki’s In Comparison and Kamal Aljafari’s Port of Memory are both filmic counter-narratives that attempt to hold back the teleological rush of history.
1        Harun Farocki website: ︎︎︎
2        David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 106.
3        Charles Taylor explores the idea of multiple modernities, asking, “Is there a single phenomenon here [in modernity], or do we need to speak of ‘multiple modernities,’ the plural reflecting the fact that other non-Western cultures have modernized in their own way and cannot be properly understood if we try to grasp them in a general theory that was designed originally with the Western case in mind?” Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 1.
4        Michel Foucault, “The Eye of Power,” preface to Jeremy Bentham, La Panoptique (1977), reprinted in Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Writings, 1972–1977, ed. C. Gordon (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 149.
5        Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 81.
6        Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus (London: Continuum, 2004), 281.
7        Hal Foster, “Vision Quest: The Cinema of Harun Farocki,” Artforum, November 2004, 156.
8        This task illustrates a form of labor that cannot exist outside of its mode of production. Marx writes: “Capital employs labour. . . the workers as subsumed under capital become elements of these social constructions, but these social constructions do not belong to them…And this assumes a form which is the more real the more, on the one hand, their labour capacity is itself modified by these forms, so that it becomes powerless when it stands alone, i.e. outside this context of capitalism, and its capacity for independent production is destroyed.”
9        The idea of multiple modernities is explored by Charles Taylor who asks the question: “Is there a single phenomenon here [in modernity], or do we need to speak of ‘multiple modernities,’ the plural reflecting the fact that other non-Western cultures have modernized in their own way and cannot be properly understood if we try to grasp them in a general theory that was designed originally with the Western case in mind?” Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 1.
10        Mahmoud Darwish, "State of Siege," Al Ahram Weekly, Issue no. 581, April 11–17, 2002. ︎︎︎
11        Amidar is a government-operated public housing authority that pursues an eviction lawsuit against Aljafari’s family in the film, alleging that the family is squatting illegally. See also: Yigal Hai, “Protestors rally in Jaffa against move to evict local Arab families,” Haaretz, April 7, 2007.
12        Edward Said, “Permission to Narrate,” London Review of Books, vol. 6, no. 3 (February 16, 1984), 13–17.
13        Kamal Aljafari, conversation with author, January 20, 2011.
14        Kamal Aljafari, interview conducted by Nasrin Hamada, Montreal Serai, 2010. ︎︎︎
15        Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 386.
16        In The Delta Force (1986), even the opportunity to play Arab “terrorists” was only granted to Mizrahi Jews. See interview with Kamal Aljafari conducted by Nasrin Hamada, Montreal Serai, 2010. ︎︎︎
17        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. “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.”
18        Kamal Aljafari, conversation with author, January 20, 2011.
19        I would like to thank Sarah Lookofsky here, as her feedback contributed greatly to this argument.
20        Edward Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 141–147.
21        Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. "Can the Subaltern Speak?" In Marxism and The Interpretation of Culture. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds. (London: Macmillan, 1988), 271–313.
22        "Foreclosed" here refers to the use of the psychoanalytic term foreclosure in postcolonial theory, which highlights the term's ethical underpinnings. "I shall docet 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.
23        I would like to thank Laura Mulvey here, as my conversation with her benefitted my thinking regarding the relationship between these two films.
Kamal Aljafari
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