Freeing the Image and Cinematic Justice: Non-Partitioned Aesthetics in Kamal Aljafari’s Recollection

Heidi Grunebaum

Humanities, Provocateur, Towards a Contemporary Political Aesthetics, Brinda Bose (ed), Bloomsbury India


For many years, I have been collecting Israeli fiction films shot in Jaffu as early as 1960. These are films in which Palestinians are disappeared yet also exist at the edge of frames, visible in traces. Preserved also is a city; alive again in moving images, its gradual destruction over the decades chronicled film by film. From the footage of dozens of films I have excavated a whole community and recreated the city. Though out-of-focus, half-glimpsed, I have recognized childhood friends, old people I used to say good evening to as a boy; my uncle. I erased the actors, I photographed the backgrounds and the edges; and made the passers-by the main characters of this film. In my film, I find my way from the sea, like in a dream. I walk everywhere, sometimes hesitant and sometimes lost. I wander through the city; I wander through the memories. I film everything I encounter because I know it no longer exists. I return to a lost time.
––    Kamal Aljafari, 2016

The poor image is a rag or a rip; an AVI or a JPEG, a lumpen proletariat in the class society of appearances, ranked and valued according to its resolution. The poor image has been uploaded, downloaded, shared, reformatted, and reedited. It transforms quality into accessibility, exhibition value into cult valué, films into clips, contemplation into distraction. The image is liberated from the vaults of cinemas and archives and thrust into digital uncertainty, at the expense of its own substance. The poor image tends toward abstraction: it is a visual idea in its very becoming. 
––    Hito Steyerl, 2012 

        In his film Recollection, Kamal Aljafari's aesthetic of cinematic justice' claims and reconstellates the historical particularities of Israel/Palestine. Released in 2015, Recollection is a cinematic intervention that explores, amongst other things, what it may mean to free the image to imagine non-partitioned futures. In it, Aljafari deterritorialises the image and sets it to work on different grounds: creating space, quite literally, for a heterogeneous many, to imagine a plurality of people and predicaments within the same cinematic space, the same filmic territory. Cinematic justice, Aljafari's concept, is a move and a movement by which the image is freed from its mooring in a weaponised aesthetic field recalibrating the relationship between aesthetics and politics.

        One of the trilogy of films entitled The Jaffa trilogy, Recollection is set in the Mediterranean port city of Jaffa in Israel which is the artist, filmmaker, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and resident of Berlin, Kamal Aljafari's hometown. Created from hundreds of hours of archived film footage, Recollection is repurposed from some 60 Israeli feature films. The Israeli feature films are mostly from the bourekas genre, a popular B grade film genre featuring Mizrachi-Arab and North African Jewish-actors, all shot in Jaffa between the 1960s and 1970s. In the opening sequence, Aljafari discloses his aesthetic approach to the film. One views an assemblage of scenes from different bourekas films in which the actors vanish before our eyes, digitally removed from the original film footage. In an outdoor scene from the 1973 hit Israeli musical comedy, Kazablan, the actors fade away before our eyes leaving nothing but rubble and roads. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding prime minister, is seen walking in an orchard and then-with no small irony, wishful thinking or nod to one possible meaning of cinematic justice-disappears from the screen. The sequence alerts the viewer that what will remain in the frame after the opening title will be the backdrop of the sequences from which the actors are erased.

        What had been in the background of the images in the fiction films becomes the gritty foreground in this documentary: roads, alleys, houses, buildings, rubble, ruins, abandoned portside warehouses, non actors who had been watching the film shoot from a window or balcony or walking past near the edge of the frame or peering around a corner, all these come to be discerned in the blurry images on the screen. In the case of a man caught on camera walking across the frame and out again, it is the only visual record that exists of Aljafari's uncle which he stumbled upon whilst he studied frame after frame of hundreds of hours of film rushes. That fleeting scene of the blurred figure of the man who is his uncle is brought back into the film again and again, for its duration.

        Reworking the archival and visual footage to create a cinematic poem that 'frees the image from 'cinematic occupation' (Hochberg 2017), Aljafari describes his aesthetic practice of 'cinematic justice'as 'something quite magical only possible in cinema... By erasing the actors I could move freely in the image sto] liberate this place, liberate the image... (Aljafari 2016). The contemporary weaponisation of regime-aligned aesthetic fields relies on the power of visual identification to constitute their subjects.1 For aesthetic fields to be weaponised, they must draw from the conceptual categories that underpin them, including the deployment of discursive formations in which populations, communities and groups are imagined. In this, the disciplinary field of demography works crucially to produce, identify and call up a concept of majorities and minorities which align with the same categories of and categorical distinctions between nationality, citizenship and non-citizen subjects. Not ironically, for Palestinians, as well as for Sudanese, Eritrean and other African asylum-seekers in Israel, there is no clearly demarcated category for non-Jewish refugees 'as such' in Israeľs demographic discourse or legal apparatus.2 Indeed, the Israeli state is continuously haunted by its anxieties about 'demographic threats' and the need to maintain a Jewish majority, whatever that might be, for its ethno-nationalist project to be sustained.

        In a weaponised sensorial field that seems to privilege visuality, then, what does it mean to free the image? How might this be different from ‘moving freely in the image? Aljafari removes the actors but he also removes the Hebrew film credits. In this, he loosens the image from its filmic implication in the double erasure of Palestinians, 'firstly in reality and then in cinema' (Aljafari 2016). Whilst this recollects the historical and ongoing predicament of Palestinians, it does much more; and this is where the film performs some of its most crucial operations: It opens a cinematic space in which multiple predicaments and subjects implicated in the impossible conjuncture that is Palestinel Israel are recalled in ways that point to the possibilities to reimagine a different kind of political subject opened by a reconstellated or perhaps, differently weaponised, aesthetic field. If the double condition of Palestinian erasure (in reality and in the fiction films) is evoked in Aljafari's digital removal of the actors, so are the predicaments of Israel's other 'others, Arab and African Jews. The actors erased from the bourekas films arrived as immigrants to Israel from Arab and African lands in the 1950s and 1960s; as are the contemporary predicaments of the many who undertake the perilous, increasingly deadly crossing over the Mediterranean Sea from Libya, Turkey, Morocco and other coastal areas of North Africa in the hope of remaking life in conditions that sustain life.

        Set in Jaffa, Recollection is Aljafari's search for his hometown as it was before his birth. Pre-war Jaffa, like many of the 500 Palestinian towns and villages depopulated and destroyed in the war for Palestine, ceased to exist as it had been before the war. As Daniel Monterescu (2015) and Gil Hochberg (2017) point out, Jaffa's story is also different from those of other Palestinian urban centres in Israel/Palestine as it had been through a major process of growth and modernisation in the two decades prior. Before Jaffa became a war zone and was annexed to the municipality of Tel Aviv, the Mediterranean port had grown into a modern urban centre with a working port and a population that had tripled in 25 years to 71,000 people. Jaffa had become, as Hochberg reminds, 'the urban commercial and cultural centre of Palestine-and the home of most local Arab newspapers prior to 1948' (2017, 537). In November 1947, Jaffa found itself within the UN partitioned territory allocated to the future Jewish state. From partition until the end of the war, it became a town in which Jewish and Palestinian soldiers and militia waged a devastating urban war. From 71,000 fewer than 3,000 Palestinians remained in the conquered city whilst the Manshiyeh quarter of Jaffa next to Tel Aviv had been bombed out of existence. A ‘mixed city' as many describe it, a port town open to the Mediterranean and its worlds and experiencing an accelerating process of gentrification, Jaffa is also known as Umm al-Gharib or ‘Mother of the Stranger' (Monterescu 2015, xi). At a time in which Arabic has officially been relegated to a second-class language in Israel, Jaffa's other Arabic name evokes the historical irony in which exile and return; banishment and welcome are entangled: concepts once so central to a Jewish ethical imagination-deformed by Jewish ethno-nationalism and its state aligned religion-are far closer to, and truer of, a Palestinian ethical imagination and, in the long shadow of the Atlantic slave trade, closer to an African diasporic one also.

        In many of the digitally-retouched sequences that become indiscernible as having been unrelated sequences in Aljafari's film, foregrounding the extent to which the post-1948 urban ruins of Jaffa were a preferred feature film location in Israel. In the early 1950s, the Palestinian ruins that were Jaffa soon became the preferred film location for Israeli cinema as it was in the process of establishing itself and as it created new national narratives for the new Israeli national imaginary (Aljafari 2016; Shohat 2010, 119). With the new state's mission to produce a spatial, aesthetic and discursive territory congruous with the corresponding and increasingly hegemonic strand of political Zionism concerned with all things demographic, Palestinians of historic Palestine were made absent presences.3 Whilst this is an enduring existential and political condition it also indexes an irrepressible anxiety that has never ceased to haunt the Israeli state. For the denial of Palestinian collectivity was a founding principle of Israeli statehood asymmetrically harnessed to its corollary denying 'the historicity of the Jewish diaspora' (Raz-Krakotskin 2011; Zraik 2003) which brings me to think about the bourekas films more pointedly.

        A genre of Israeli cinema panned by film critics and loved by Israeli film-going audiences (Shohat 2010), bourekas films were mainly comic melodramas and musicals produced in Israel, primarily between the 1960s and 1980s. The films characters tended to portray ethnic tropes and ethnic 'types' based on stereotypes of Mizrachim, Arab and North African Jews who had recently arrived in Israel (Shohat 2010). These stereotypes were shaped by Zionism's hierarchised and racialised conceptions of civilisation, ideas of the European Enlightenment which had been unattainable fictions for Jews in Europe before they come to settle in historic Palestine from across Europe, Russia and the Hapsburg Empire both to colonise Palestine, as well as to escape murderous anti Semitic persecution.4 The bourekas films portrayed Mizrachim not as complex and rounded individual characters but as social stereotypes that drew from the Orientalism of the state and Western discourses on Africa and the Middle East. Mizrachim were depicted variously as good-natured, stupid, lazy, simple characters or as conniving, thieving, violent and criminal ones. The political rhetoric of Israeli colonial racism was ubiquitous, as Ella Shohat demonstrates citing Ben-Gurion calling Moroccan Jews 'savages' and Golda Meir declaring that Arab Jews were coming from another, less developed time prompting her to ponder whether it was possible 'to elevate these immigrants to a suitable level of civilization?' (2010, 106). In Shohats discussion of bourekas films, she cites a journalist from Israel's still extant newspaper, Haaretz writing about the newly-arrived Arab and North African Jewish immigrants in full throttle civilizational clash' mode in the face of:

'Immigration of a race we have not yet known in the country whose 'primitivism is at a peak' and 'whose level of knowledge is one of virtually absolute ignorance, and, worse, who have little talent for understanding anything intellectual. These immigrants are, (the journalist] continues, 'only slightly better than the general level of the Arabs, Negroes, and Berbers in the same regions. In any case, they are at an even lower level than what we knew with regard to the former Arabs of Eretz Israel? “These Jews, he goes on, 'also lack roots in Judaism, as they are totally subordinated to the play of savage and primitive instincts. They also display 'chronic laziness and hatred for work, and there is nothing safe about this asocial element.
––    Shohat 2010, 206 

        Kazablan, the film of which footage is digitally recut and introduced in the opening sequence of Recollections is a classical film musical in the bourekas genre, remains the highest grossing smash hit Israeli film of all times. Directed by Menachem Golan (1973) the film is set in Jaffa and tells of a Mizrachi man from Morocco, Kazablan (named after the Moroccan city, Casablanca) who falls in love with an Ashkenazi Jewish woman, Rachel whose parents come from Poland. Her family rejects Kazablan (on racial grounds). A conflict ensues after Kazablan is suspected of theft of money from Rachel's house, and is arrested, although later he is cleared. In the end, Kazablan re unites with his (Ashkenazi) woman and redeems himself from his 'condition of Arabness, previously synonymous with criminality and violence, to become a ‘proper citizen-a word etymologically linked to the French term, propre with its implication in moral discourses of hygiene, cleanliness and self-possession. As a cinematic lesson in Israeli civics, there is an important analogy made between becoming an Israeli by becoming whiter, Ashkenazi. The staging of identification demographically comes full circle in this cinematic genre that produced a national imaginary as a closed field in which its internal others are incorporated and assimilated.

        In the bourekas films, the action takes place inside ruins, yet the films have no avowed relationship to the historicity of the ruins. Indeed, the sub-plot about the threat of evictions for the Mizrachim of Jaffa in Kazablan, is as silent on the history of forced displacement of the Palestinians of Jaffa as the genre is in entirety. At the same time, however, the genre documents the paradox at the heart of Israeli cinema filmed in Jaffa which, as Aljafari has commented, 'wanted to exclude and erase the Palestinian history of Jaffa, the Palestinians of Jaffa, whilst also documenting them' (Aljafari 2016).

        The actors in the bourekas films, however, raise those 'other' Jewish figures who were still diasporic in many respects, or, in other words, not yet national. The actors were mainly Arab and African Jewish actors from Morocco, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt and Libya whose Arabness or Africanness were erased in a process of coercive acculturation into national citizenship-a tragically ironic experiment mimicking European nationalisms. These are the figures who are digitally made to vanish as Aljafari brings the visual archive of his hometown to the foreground. If the image is freed from being a 'location as a setting for bourekas films, denuded of its props and actors, Aljafari's hometown is recreated cinematically as a place where the traces of these asymmetrically connected regimes of erasure may be revisited in considering the possibilities of cinematic justice for imagining a postcolonial future.

        Scholars and activists interested in Arab and African Jewish cultural and resistance politics in Israel have investigated the racial fantasies and formations which underlie the systemic practices across multiple sites of political and social legitimation of anti-Arab and anti-Black racism, excavating the ideological grounds of political thought and cultural production that have constituted the racial and ethnic others internal to the Jewish polity.5 Nonetheless, the primary fault lines along which the contradictions inherent to Zionism as segregationist ethnic nationalism are understood as primarily those between Palestinians and Israelis. In this, the field of demography as a regime-aligned discipline is deeply implicated in producing Jewishness as a national category that underlies the majoritarian aspirations and anxieties of the state. In counter-hegemonic politics, there are important political ethical considerations and valid historical reasons for reproducing these demographic categories, not least the extent of disavowal with which the ethnic cleansing of Palestine has been met and the narratives with which it has been countered. These fault lines provide a divided and racially hierarchised Jewish Israeli polity with a common 'enemy, a shared 'other' which shores up a civic sense of common Jewishness. At the same time, the Israeli/Palestinian fault line mitigates the extent to which anti-Arabness and anti-Blackness constitute the limits of Zionism as an ideology of Jewish nationalism as well as its internal contradictions. To surface this is to make visible the 'infrastructures of hierarchical citizenship (in Israel] that rely on white supremacy' (Yerday 2019). The repurposed footage from the bourekas films, then, re-collect the historically and politically connected links between the dispossession of Palestinians and the dislocation of Arab-Jews' (Shohat 2010, 252) and Ethiopian Jews, complicating and expanding the stakes of partition, segregation and erasure in the making of Israeli national narratives and national identity whilst imagining how these might be reconstellated.

        In freeing the image with his dual method of repurposing and digital retouching, Aljafari's 'filmmaking not only lays claim to a lost space and people but also stands as a model for transnational solidarity and resistance against violent dispossession and displacement (Atoui 2016). As I have suggested earlier, however, it goes further still. Aljafari frees the image to discern precisely these criss-crossing fault lines offering an aesthetic that holds complex and interconnected meanings dispersed across different temporal and spatial conditions. To 'free the image, then, is to undo the fixities and fictions of demographic logics, of nationalism and its desires so as to move freely in the image, in the horizons of imagination it opens. These are available, of course, but the viewer has to produce them, has to desire to produce them. In this, the viewer is implicated in Aljafari's commitment to free the image. The film foregoes narrative and speech (except for one brief and strange dialogue recorded) one of the aesthetic decisions that free the image, enabling the moving image to become a personal and poetic homage to Jaffa as a disappeared place and to its ghosts that linger--including Aljafari's own family members who show up as so many phantoms after the props and actors have been removed. Foregoing narrative enables the imagination to be estranged from hegemonic and counter hegemonic repertoires, familiar if epistemologically asymmetrical fields of meanings. In this, the politics of signification that stabilise meaning and produce those things that go without saying are complicated and opened. By unmooring the image from narrative, Recollection enables a kind of inverted forensic investigation in which fiction cinema provides the documentary record of disappeared places and people that are both specific to Palestine/Israel and to more contemporary universal experiences. 'It's not a film from there, writes Kamal Aljafari of Recollection. 'It is a post-catastrophe film, a Sebaldian film, what this image requires [is] to be freed from its mooring in Palestine, he continues (Aljafari 2016) suggesting that freeing the image and moving freely in the image are distinct if related gestures.

        The footage in Recollection's opening sequence approaches Jaffa port from the sea, with the image bobbing as if the hand held camera is on a small boat. It seems to be cut from the opening sequence of Kazablan in which the camera approaches Jaffa from the sea. To arrive back to Jaffa from the sea is to return on a route made by those who were made refugees, Palestinians who were forced to flee from home and homeland. It is this same sea that carried Palestinians during the 1947– 1948 war who travelled south and approached land at Gaza where most remain still today. It is the same sea that carried, a few years later, Arab and Africa Jews from Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere in the early 1950s as the Jewish Agency drove projects of mass migration to Israel. The bobbing image of the approach to Jaffa's port viewed from the sea would have been theirs too, as the first speaking character claims in the opening sequence of Kazablan which begins with the sea, camera bobbing on its impossible horizon, a prefatory narration framed within the colonial 'telos' of Zionism that compresses and conflates biblical and political time:
The sea of Jaffa; some call it the Mediterranean. This is the sea that brought the whale that opened its belly for Jonah. This is the sea that brought the Christians, the Moslems, the Turks, David Ben Gurion and me, Moshiko Babayu, fisherman of the sea of Jaffa.
––    Kazblan, 1973

        By setting the approach to Jaffa in the sea Recollection dissipates the territorial stability of the Israeli bourekas films as the grounds on which ‘Israeli cinematic collective memory... affirms the founding premise of Zionism' (Atoui 2016). This deterritorialising gesture also opens the moving image of the Mediterranean, this ‘Mare Nostrum, to also recall the contemporary sea routes of those escaping military and economic wars to seek refuge and asylum, to remake home in an elsewhere that might sustain the conditions for life.

        If film is a mode of thought, Recollection offers a way of reimagining postcolonial life in Israel/Palestine as both a shared condition and critical political discourse that might open a response to possibilities for political representation, the abrogation of which is the condition of being made refugee, of statelessness. For the aesthetic procedures by which the image is freed destabilise the visual fields and weaponised aesthetic repertoires that criminalise homelessness, flight and precarity. In this, Recollection offers a way of reimagining 'postcolonial life' that deterritorialises the image from its particular setting and history in a gesture of profound and abiding hospitality. Cinematic justice, then, is the opening of a singular image as a universal idea for the not-yet community of a non-partitioned paradigm that the film makes possible.

1        I am thinking here of Ariella Azoulay's The Civil Contract of Photography (2008) and her Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography (2011), Gil Hochberg's Visual Occupations: Violence and Visibility in a Conflict Zone (2015); T.J. Demos' The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis (2014), Gregoire Chamayou's Drone Theory (2015) and Eyal Weitzman's Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability (2017) as most immediately relevant examples.
2        In this regard, Hadas Yaron, Nurit Hashimshony-Yaffe and John Campbell's “Infiltrators" or Refugees? An Analysis of Israel's Policy Towards African Asylum-Seekers in International Migration (2013) is instructive.
3        Absent presence alludes to the Absentee Property Law of 1952 in which Palestinians who were not in their homes but remained inside the boundaries of the new state at the signing of the armistice in 1949 were defined as Present Absentees. The law allowed the state to seize the properties of Present Absentees and place them under the curatorship of a specially designated office, the office of the Guardian of Absentee Property.
4        See, for example, Amos Elon's The Israelis: Founders and Sons (1971).
5        A very brief selection, for example, would include Sammy Smooha, Israel: Pluralism and Conflict (1978), Ella Shohat, 'Sephardim in Israel:

The sea of Jaffa; some call it the Mediterranean. This is the sea that brought the whale that opened its belly for Jonah. This is the sea that brought the Christians, the Moslems, the Turks, David Ben Gurion and me, Moshiko Babayu, fisherman of the sea of Jaffa. (Kazablan 1973).

Atoui, Farah. Appropriate, Re-mix, Erase, Zoom-in: The Transformatie Power of Film-Making in Kamal Aljafari's Recollection, Offscreen 20 n.10 (October 2016). Available at (accessed June 2019).

Azoulay, Ariella. The Civil Contract of Photography. New York: Zone Books 2008.
Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography. London: Verse 2011.

Chamayou, Gregoire. Drone Theory. London: Penguin, 2015.

Chetrit, Sami. Intra-Jewish Conflict in Israel: White Jews, Black Jews. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Demos, T.J. The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014.

Elon, Amos. The Israelis: Founders and Sons. New York: Bantam, 1971.

Hamid, Dabashi. ‘Kamal Aljafari interviewed by Hamid Dabashi, New York, February 2016. Available at (accessed June 2019).

Hochberg, Gil. Visual Occupations: Violence and Visibility in a Conflict Zone, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2015. 
From Cinematic Occupation to Cinematic Justice, Third Text, no. 31/1 (2017): 533-547. 

Lavie, Smadar. 'Mizrahi Feminism and the Question of Palestine. Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 7 (2011): 56-58.

Libby Lenkinski Avi Yalou in conversation with Libby Lenkinski, Know Your “Enemy”, 19 August 2019. Available at (accessed 13 December 2019).

Monterescu, Daniel. Jaffa Shared and Shattered: Contrived Coexistence in Israel/Palestine. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2015,

Raz-Krakotzkin, Amnon. Exile and Binationalism: From Gershom Scholém and Hannah Arendt to Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish. Berlin: Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, 2011.

Shohat, Ella. Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation. London: I.B. Taurus, (1989) 2010.
------- ‘Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Jewish Victims’, Social Text, no. 19/20 (Autumn 1988): 1-5.

Smooh, Sammy, Israel: Pluralism and Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Steyerl, Hito, The Wretched of the Screen. Berlin: Stenberg Press/e-flux journal, 2012. E-book available at: (accessed 7November 2020).

Weitzmann, Eyal. Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Treshold of Detectability. NYC: MIT/Zone Books, 2017.

Yaron, Hadas, Nurit Hashimshony-Yaffe and John Campbell. ‘“Infiltrators” or Refugees? An Analysis of Israel’s Policy Towards African Asylum-Seekers’. International Migration 51, no.4 (2013): 144-156. Available at: (accessed 13 December 2019).

Yearday, Efrat. ‘Precarious Priviledge: An Interview with Efrat Yerday’, Graylit: Liberatory Art and Thought at the Intersection of Palestinian and Jewish Histories, 1 November 2019. Available at (accessed 13 December 2019).

Zraik Raef Faris. ‘Palestine as Exile’, Global Jurist Advances 3, no. 2 (2003): 1533-1661.

Kamal Aljafari
All Rights Reserved © 2024
Designed by Chiara Alexandra Young