Documentary Cinema from Around the World︎︎︎Port of Memory, The Roof
Documentary filmmaking according to Leonard Retel Helmrich, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Kamal Aljafari in a review by Gerald Peary on the occasion of Radcliffe Harvard Fellowship Program in 2010.
It's been a banner year, 2009-2010, for the fellow ship program, with three world-class documentar ians-Leonard Retel Helmrich RI ’10, from Holland and Indonesia; Kamal Aljafari RI ’10, a Palestinian citizen of Israel; and Castaing-Taylor, a professor in the Department of Visual and Environmental Stud ies at Harvard-in residence and using their time for inventive new projects.
“I've been given a computer, editing equipment, two office spaces, and the financial freedom to work,“ says Retel Helmrich, the David and Roberta Logie Fellow and a Radcliffe-Harvard Film Study Center Fellow. For Aljafari, the Benjamin White Whitney Scholar and also a Radcliffe-Harvard Film Study Center Fellow, the Radcliffe opportunity has included a solo photo installation mounted in Byerly Hall. “I'm free to produce, to create whatever I want,” says Aljafari, “and to go to the Harvard Film Archive for 35mm screenings.”
Far, far from home, Retel Helmrich and Aljafari journey together to the archive as part of their Harvard routine. Aljafari says, “I watch whatever they screen, from John Ford to cinematographer Gordon Willis, who was there for a live appearance.” Indeed, cinematography is a special obsession for all three of the fellows, who take intense pride in how their non-narrated projects are shot the masterly camera movement, the precise framing, the long takes, the interplay between image and sound-which puts them far afield from the routinely filmed voice-over documentary dominant around the world.
Exploring Arab Identity
Kamal Aljafari also produces intimate family-drama documentaries, but the Palestinian clan is his own. The Roof (2006) and Port of Memory (2009) feature his parents and siblings living in Ramle, Israel, and his grandmother, uncle, and aunt in the Jaffa neighborhood of Tel Aviv. It's their story of being Arabs in a Jewish-dominated society, of daily frustrations and indignities, and of a nostalgic yearning for life pre-1948, before many of their relatives fled to exile in Beirut, prior to the Israeli state. “This is our country,” one person says, “and we became its tail.” But what can they do now? Most often, his relatives sit comatose before blaring TVs. They wash their hands; they eat.
Aljafari says, “My films are about these daily rituals, these automatic movements, this escaping of reality, more than they are about the conflict of Israelis and Palestinians.” His documentaries are contemplative and open-ended rather than polemical, and with their elegant tracking shots, emphasis on architecture, water, and formal space-in line with European art-house cinema. “I'm not trying to reach the masses,” Aljafari concedes. “I see cinema as a personal expression. My films are part of a wider project on the ‘cinematic occupation. We are all doing that as filmmakers, every time we shoot. When I film my family, I invade their lives."
Aljafari's current project, complementing his documentaries, is a theoretical photographic book about “claiming space.” As a Palestinian, he reclaims images from Jaffa, which he feels were appropriated by the Jewish Israelis. Once a potent Arab city, Jaffa devolved into a downtown suburb of Tel Aviv after the 1948 war, a place where, he says, “Tourists come on weekends to eat some good hummus.” In the '60s and '70s, Jaffa became a backdrop for Israeli comedies and a Chuck Norris action flick, narratives that erased any knowledge that this was ever a flourishing Arab neighborhood. Or that Arabs even lived here.
“I'm very much interested in these absences,” says Aljafari. For his installation and a book, he has re produced frames from these movies in which-look closely!– Palestinian people appear in the corners of shots. As do Arabic signs and buildings.
GERALD PEARY is a professor of communications and journalism at Suffolk University and filmmaker of the feature documentary For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism (2009). In 1998–1999, he was acting curator of the Harvard Film Archive.