January 06th 2021
Film Review

I Thought I Was Seeing Palestinians:
On Kamal Aljafari

        ︎︎︎An Unusual Summer

by Kaleem Hawa
on Cinema scope

        At the end of Kamal Aljafari’s latest film, An Unusual Summer, the Palestinian filmmaker recalls a memory from his childhood, centred on the communal garden outside of his home in the city of Ramlah, a 30-minute drive southeast of Tel Aviv:

As a child I spent summer
climbing the fig tree
filling straw baskets with green figs
big as apples
My sister was more courageous
than me
Our bodies itching from the fig leaves
My uncle Issa came back one day
I overheard that the Red Cross
allowed him to visit his mother
It was a hot summer
perhaps August
he spent every day in the garden
cleaning and digging
around the fig tree
Before he left he engraved my name
on the fig tree
Years later the bulldozers came
uprooted the garden and tree.

        Aljafari’s father Abedeljalil, who turned six during the Palestinian Nakba of 1948, was eventually forced to resettle in Ramlah, where Aljafari was born in 1972. The city is a site of urban decay, home to five prisons—including the maximum-security Ayalon Prison—and derisively referred to as “the ghetto” by Israelis due to its Arab population. Beginning in the early 2000s, Israel has attempted to “beautify” Ramlah, supporting developers in their efforts to spatially segregate Palestinian neighbourhoods and push them out of sight. Palestinian sociologist Elia Zureik has described how this process is essential to the Israeli project: Israel’s systematic theft of Palestinian homes and lands hinges not only on the racialization of the Palestinian, but also on the dismantling of those spaces of Palestinian sociality that reinforce their connections to their homeland.

        In An Unusual Summer (which I saw “at” this year’s Toronto Palestine Film Festival), Aljafari pursues his longstanding interest in architectures of congregation—the rooms, squares, and lots that make up cities—via a chance discovery from his family’s past. After his car window was broken in 2006, Aljafari’s father installed a surveillance camera outside their home in Ramlah, hoping to catch the perpetrator. Years later, after his father’s death, Aljafari discovered a cache of the old recordings, which became the raw material for the film—material that, now shorn of its original, inculpatory purpose, constitutes a visual record of his father’s hara (neighborhood) over the course of a summer.

        Aljafari unfolds his low-definition images in a deliberate, almost mechanistic fashion, slowly familiarizing us with the characters that inhabit the block. The Imses sisters live in the building across the street, as does Aljafari’s brother; residents of the Arab district go to work, children go to school; a man jogs at night; Abu Rizeq walks around, Bayouk touches Aljafari’s father’s car as he turns the corner; men and women park their vehicles, get out, get back in; friends embrace. While the frame does not shift, Aljafari occasionally zooms in and out, freezing on certain faces and figures, depicting parts of the scene in greater detail. The soundtrack is almost entirely silent, save for the sounds of shoes on gravel, cars driving past, and the odd song from Aljafari’s youth. (I made out the Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez and the Algerian singer Warda.)

        Aljafari’s other inflection of the footage is textual, by way of intertitles that appear after the images of certain residents. Some of these mimic the kind of hara gossip that animates an Arab quarter where everyone knows everyone else (of one man, “He was in prison many times”; of another, “He always eats at funerals”). At other times, the text strikes a more haunting note. After a lingering shot of one particular woman, frozen in time as Aljafari arrests the image, a title card appears which reads:

I dreamt of her once
standing on her doorstep
a crowd appears
they move their lips
but there is no sound.

        Aljafari’s collage produces an air of the uncanny that hovers over these reclaimed images, rendering the film’s eventual revelation of the vandal—who is seen throwing a stone at Aljafari’s father’s car near the two-thirds mark of the film—largely anticlimactic. As we watch these scenes unfold, we come to understand that everything we are seeing from these few months in 2006—the people, the square, the lot with the fig tree—will be irreversibly altered by the passage of time, and the “assistance” of the Israeli state.

        There is an easy interpretation of An Unusual Summer that centres on the securitization of Palestinian life, with the film’s formal construction itself suggesting that to be Palestinian is to be watched. (I myself thought of Harun Farocki’s 2000 short I Thought I was seeing Convicts, which was constructed from security footage derived from a maximum-security prison in Corcoran, California—the cold ubiquity of surveillance connecting the carceral system of post-9/11 America to that of Israel-Palestine.) It is also a reminder that years of recording have captured with some frequency the atrocities committed by the Israeli state against Palestinians and Palestinian citizens of Israel, from the video of 12-year-old Muhammad al-Durrah dying in his father’s arms after being shot by IDF forces during the Second Intifada in 2000 to, more recently, the 2018 killing of medic Razan al-Najjar on the Gaza frontlines, and the 2020 murders of Eyad al-Hallaq—a disabled Palestinian gunned down by Israeli police as he hid behind a dumpster in Jerusalem—and Ahmad Erakat, an unarmed man who was fatally shot at an Israeli checkpoint. (None of these latter killings, incidentally, have been condemned by Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government in Canada.)

        No matter their allegorical implications, however, the resolutely quotidian images in An Unusual Summer suggest something more along the lines of what the writer Adam Scovell, invoking the author of The Rings of Saturn, theorized as a “Sebaldian cinema”: a mode of filmmaking premised on “echoes and imprints,” focusing on ruined places to produce a post-catastrophe negative appended to retinal memory. (This should in no way be taken to mean that Aljafari is not politically engaged: he refuses to take Israeli money to finance his films, and is a supporter of the BDS movement.) Aljafari’s debut short, Visit Iraq (2003)—made the year he graduated from the film studies program at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne and shortly before his relocation to Berlin, where he still lives and works—depicts the abandoned offices of Iraqi Airlines in Geneva, interviewing members of the neighborhood and recording their stories of the odd happenings that occurred in the fated locale. Some of the voices are agitated, conspiratorial (“The country was in ruins, but this office wasn’t. A strange place. It’s always empty. But the light’s always on. That’s right. There are many stories about it. Many rumors circulate. Mystery prevails”); others nostalgic, reflecting that, “this was a place where Arabs were welcome anytime.”

        Ruminations on places that have had their meaning and history stripped bare is a core theme of Aljafari’s. Many of his films focus on the historic Palestinian port city of Jaffa (his family’s old home, as well as my grandmother’s), which is marked by incessant construction, gentrification, and the dispossession of Palestinian life. Israeli films have often favoured Jaffa as an urban backdrop over Tel Aviv, because to film in the White City, with its modern Bauhaus lines, would be to admit that the Israelis were newhere. While Jaffa has now been made part of a greater “Tel Aviv–Yaffo” municipality, Israel’s relation to it has always been more parasitic than symbiotic: a cosmetic appropriation of the city’s architectural history in order to counteract the visual evidence of the Israeli state’s recency, coupled with a systematic destruction of the city’s Arab heritage. Much of Jaffa’s Manshiyya neighborhood, where Aljafari’s maternal grandparents lived, has been bulldozed and replaced with a grassy park by the sea. Aljafari returns to this place many times in his films: in his first feature, Port of Memory (2010), one of the characters rides a motorbike to the site, sees the bulldozers, and breaks out in uncontrollable laughter, his face contorted in pain. (When I visited Jaffa myself, I couldn’t help but feel the melancholy of this spot, the cold breeze that lingers over this symbol of impermanence.)

        In addition to being Aljafari’s most well-known film, Port of Memory is also the closest thing to a conventional dramatic feature in the filmmaker’s oeuvre. Its narrative centres on the lawsuit brought against his mother’s family by Israeli authorities, who claim ownership of their house in Jaffa—a longstanding Israeli practice that dates back to the 1948 Nakba, when Israel passed “present-absentee” laws that declared many of the new Palestinian refugees (some internally displaced within the borders of their historic state) “absent,” and thereby having relinquished claims to their land. The latest form of this process of dispossession is perhaps best seen in Jerusalem, where Palestinians who marry outside the walls of the city can be deemed to have moved their “centre of life” to the West Bank and therefore have their residency status stripped, which can then be used to call into question their legal claims to their properties. Aljafari sardonically addresses Israel’s paper-thin justification for its thefts through a scene of an Israeli actor being coached on his lines by his director:

DIRECTOR       All these windows, I made with my bare hands.
ACTOR             All these windows, I made with my bare hands.
DIRECTOR       I made.
ACTOR             I made! All these windows, I made with my bare hands.
DIRECTOR       The most important part is “I made.” Stress the “I made.”
ACTOR             All these windows, I made with my bare hands.
DIRECTOR       One more time.

        An ironic capper to Aljafari’s chronicle of disappearance came with a New York Times review of the film by Rachel Saltz, which somehow managed to avoid mentioning any of this context or to even use the word “Palestinian.” While this is an all too typical, and all too disturbing, example of the invisibility of the Palestinian people within the Western media, it is also intriguing, given the relative absence of an entirely different set of people in Aljafari’s films—Israelis. The spectre of the Israeli citizen—the “true” Israeli citizen, i.e., Jewish, Zionist—haunts Port of Memory, but its presence is gestural, disembodied: a letter slipped under the door telling the family that someone is coming for their house, a construction crane menacingly hovering over the port.

        Aljafari effects a considerably more radical act of effacement in Recollection (2015), which was inspired by a late-night TV encounter in a London hotel room. While flipping channels, Aljafari stumbled upon Israeli producer-director Menahem Golan’s The Delta Force (1986), about an elite counter-terrorism team rescuing hostages from kaffiyeh-clad terrorists in a Beirut played onscreen by Jaffa. As Chuck Norris sped through the streets, Aljafari noticed, in the background, someone he recognized from his youth. In Recollection, Aljafari collates images from films shot in Jaffa from the ’60s to the ’90s—both American features like The Delta Force, and the Israeli bourekas films that often reinforced Zionist origin narratives and hero mythologies in their scenes of slapstick action, car chases, shootouts, and Arab-coded Mizrahi “thugs” threatening Ashkenazi maidens. He then enacts what he describes as “cinematic justice,” using digital software to erase the leading actors, and leaving only those figures (both Palestinian and Jewish) who appear in the background.

        While many of the film’s images are recycled, the soundscape is not: in an interview with Guernica, Aljafari describes how he embedded microphones inside walls and buildings to capture the noises of Jaffa, and even recorded underwater, layering the sounds of the Mediterranean—where much of Jaffa’s history now lies submerged, after destroyed Palestinian buildings were dumped into the sea—atop the images of what remains. Time passes strangely in the film: a boy with a backpack, staring out at the viewer, fiddling with his fingers; the sea, dust blowing across the streets; a downpour, images of lightning succeeded by images of exploding buildings and, then, a beautiful cityscape. The Arab city and the port, captured in black and white. Arabs building, Arabs tilling the soil. The church. The bells. The experience of watching this film as a Palestinian resembles a kind of fugue: the long, quiet shots allow the mind to wander, the images layering over my own experiences, blurring the line between personal memories and those of the collective. As the Iranian academic and critic Hamid Dabashi writes of what is revealed in Aljafari’s work, “We have seen it before. We know it for a fact, but had forgotten it.”

        But if Recollection is an act of reclamation for the Palestinian people, then it is a sad one, more a heartbreaking remembrance. (In Faye Harvey’s zine Recollective Resistance, Aljafari recalls the day he showed the film to his father: “As we watched the film, my father said something like, ‘67 years. The longer you live: the more you count.’ A month later, he was gone.”) Even as the colonizer heroes and their American counterparts are expunged, the Palestinians in the background never become true protagonists in their own right; rather, shorn of their roles as “local colour,” they become viewers themselves, staring at us, silently accusing. Aljafari’s grainy, stochastic imagery is unsettled by time as a result: while those that remain are relics, Aljafari also contends—via a quick shot of a living room full of people and a man smiling and laughing—that they could just as well be the future, looking back at us from a de-Zionized Palestine.

        Aljafari is here enacting a sort of repositioning of the viewer, which is transgressive precisely for what it reveals about Israel.As a system of administration and domination, the Israeli project is composed of physical and social infrastructures, its prisons, its surveillances, the legal discourses used to reinforce its inequities, the administrative statements and philanthropic veils that conceal its fundamental violence. These architectures then are not separate from the Israeli story, or from the Palestinian one. Aljafari is hinting at a relationship that defines the Palestinian not on the basis of some deep cultural identity, but as a locus within a system of control. As the subject of these architectures, the Palestinian is also the foundation of their continued existence; the Palestinian cannot be removed from the Israeli state precisely because she or he is that which the entire state is directed towards. And so the Palestinian remains suspended, timeless and patient, the ineradicable embodiment of Israel’s greatest fear: that we will never leave.

        This is no more apparent than in an astonishing moment in An Unusual Summer. A voiceover suggests that Aljafari is simultaneously showing the surveillance footage that we are watching to his son, who, after exclaiming, “That’s sido [grandfather] Abed!” goes on to narrate the images on screen. (“He is looking at the car. Drinking water. God bless him.”) The subject-object reversal is clear: it feels like we are eavesdropping on a living-room conversation between father and son, both watching sido’s old films. It’s present, past, and future all in one, and we’re in on it now too, that whispered Palestinian secret: that time is not passing so much as returning.

Kamal Aljafari
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