Lost and Found in Israeli Footage. Kamal Aljafari’s “Jaffa trilogy” and the productive violation of the colonial visual archive

Gil Z. Hochberg

Becoming Palestine. Towards an Archival Imagination of the Future, Gil Z. Hochberg, Duke University Press


“The city of Jaffa is a media reality whose traces are embedded in media, in the grains and pixels of photographs. It is a city mediated by the lenses of travellers, administrators, amateurs, and filmmakers.”
––    Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (DAAR), “A Demolition”

        In 1976, three Israeli architectswere assigned to find a suitable location to build the Etzel Museum—a museum honoring the paramilitary group that led the 1948 conquer of Jaffa. On the shores just south of Tel Aviv, in the area then known as the Manshiyya neighborhood of Jaffa, the architects came across three Palestinian ruin sites. Describing these ruins as striking for their “‘power of survival”2 and seemingly oblivious to the violence (once again) imposed on the people who used to inhabit them, the architects erected the Zionist memorial museum on top of these sites, keeping them visible as ruins. Enforcing a distorted memory of Zionist survival over the geopolitical space of Jaffa, the museum’s construction involved the violent appropriation of the ruins, as well as of their attending narratives and memories. This is not an exceptional case, as similar acts of appropriation can be witnessed throughout Israel/Palestine and, for that matter, in many other geopolitical locations where native lands and properties are stolen along with native cultural symbols and memories. Yet, in the case of this museum, this process was particularly visible: the design for the new structure involved relocating and deliberately exposing the old ruins to make the museum look like a reconstructed building, despite the fact that no such building previously existed.

        I open with this anecdote because it is telling of the background against which one should view and appreciate Kamal Aljafari’s three mesmerizing essay-films: The Roof (2006, 61 min.), Port of Memory (2009, 62 min.), and Recollection (2015, 70 min.). I refer to the three films together as the “Jaffa Trilogy,” although Aljafari has never grouped them together in this or another manner.3 Viewing them as an expanded work enhances our ability to read Aljafari’s cinematic preoccupation with questions of erasure, destruction, elimination, and gentrification—practices that mark colonial violence in its urban, architectonic, spatial manifestations. What is perhaps most noticeable and unique about the trilogy, however, is its ability to convey loss, damage, and violence while further exploring the role of imagination and fantasy in facilitating possible subversive reorganization of a massively violated urban space and a communal memory. While the previous chapte traced the activization and reworking of a musical Orientalist German Jewish archive from the early twentieth century, this chapter explores the potentiality involved in manipulating the colonial Israeli cinematic archive.

        Aljafari’s Jaffa Trilogy, while seemingly adhering to documentary practices by cinematically capturing the destruction of the social and spatialurban condition of Palestinian life in Jaffa, is more accurately a cinematic investigation of the image archive of Jaffa. This archive includes Israeliprojected images of mastery and control that visually eliminate Palestinians and impose a fictional reality on the city (what Aljafari has called “cinematic occupation”). It also includes images Aljafari creates from footage taken from Israeli films, citing them as Israeli cinematic fantasies while manipulating them to include “Palestinian ghosts.” Aljafari reinserts the Palestinians who were edited out of the frame within the Israeli vision field. In recycling and manipulating the Israeli footage, Aljafari proposes a model of political and aesthetic intervention that exposes the failure of the settler-colonial fantasy to do away with the natives. In Aljafari’s films, the Palestinian natives “return” from the place of elimination, from the past, to invade the cinematic frame in the present (what Aljafari calls “cinematic justice”).4

        As noted by David Pendleton, Aljafari’s films are not realistic, historical, or documentary depictions of Jaffa; rather, they are poetic expressions of “the fragile rhythms of lives lived in a kind of permanent displacement and the strange limbo of neighborhoods subtly yet inexorably transforming.”5 The “strange limbo” and “fragile rhythms of life” captured by Aljafari’s bricolage cinematic style cultivates a patient viewer. Long shots of walls and empty lots are replaced with close-ups of rubble, ruins, and debris. The trilogy is meditative and slow-paced. This slowness marks Aljafari’s signature filming style, which visualizes the gradual but ongoing destruction of Jaffa to which the walls and the ruins or, rather, the images of the walls and ruins bear witness. The story of Jaffa is not unlike the story of many other Palestinian towns: the native Palestinian population was expelled by prestatehood Jewish paramilitary groups (Haganah, Lehi, Etzel), a great portion of the city was destroyed, and parts of the city were constructed and renovated by and for new Israeli Jewish inhabitants. Yet, Jaffa’s story is also unique. Jaffa experienced a great process of modernization and urbanization just before it became a war zone in 1947. The city’s population soared from 27,000 in 1922 to 71,000 in 1947 as Jaffa became a central urban center— indeed, the urban commercial and cultural center of Palestine—and the home of most local Arabic newspapers prior to 1948.

        When the un Partition Plan (unga 181, November 29, 1947) announced that the country would be divided into a Jewish state and a Palestinian state after the end of the British Mandate, Jaffa, located south of Tel Aviv (a city that was central to the Jewish establishment in Palestine from early on),6 was assigned the status of a Palestinian city. However, the resolution map located it at the heart of the territory designated for the Jewish state. And so, from the moment of the un declaration, and up to two days before the end of the war and the establishment of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948, “Jaffa [turned into] a combat zone of paramilitary Jewish and Palestinian forces whose fighting [left] its mark on the urban fabric.”7 There are various theories and speculations as to why Jaffa was conquered with greater ease than other Palestinian cities, particularly Jerusalem. Whatever the reasons, the outcome was undeniably devastating for the Palestinian population of the city: the great majority of local Palestinian inhabitants fled, among them almost the entire middle class and intellectual sectors. By the end of the war, fewer than three thousand Palestinians remained in the seized city.

        Jaffa was the most important Palestinian city and the economic, social, and cultural center from the late nineteenth century until 1948; yet, after 1948, the city lost its gravity, becoming poor, destroyed, marginalized, and depleted of resources.8 Jaffa underwent such massive urban destruction and population evacuation, followed by more recent gentrification and repopulation, that what is left of pre-1948 Jaffa, according to Salim Tamari, is nothing but “a figment of the imagination,” found nowhere in what is now a “bleached ghost town.”9 From 1948 to the present, Jaffa transformed from a Palestinian urban center into a site of poverty and destruction, and, more recently, a booming Jewish Israeli housing sector with lively tourist centers.10

        None of these phases are chronologically traced or depicted in Aljafari’s Jaffa Trilogy, despite the fact that all three films capture the urban reality of Jaffa as comprising ongoing destruction, reconstruction, gentrification, and loss. The trilogy as a whole maintains a certain poetic distance from the chronological narrative of Jaffa’s transformation and, for that matter, from narrative as such. Aljafari, much like Jumana Manna in the previous chapter, tells the story of the past but refuses “history” as an organizing structure. Instead of historical narrative, the trilogy highlights the singularity of images and the aesthetic quality of the filmed devastated urban sites: debris, broken buildings, missing walls, collapsing roof, and ruins.11 In this sense, there is also a noticeable progression across the three films from narratology to recycling, with the practice of filming being replaced with that of citing and recapturing preexisting footage and images from Israeli sources. Thus, in The Roof, a voiceover narrative introduces the political and historical background against which the images (filmed by Aljafari) unfold, and the characters make ironic comments throughout. No such direct verbal or visual intervention is offered in Port of Memory, in which dialogue is limited to a bare minimum, and the political commentary— located between the ironic and the melancholic—takes the anachronistic form of a direct incorporation, almost unnoticeable citation, of Israeli cinematic images. Finally, in Recollection, both voiceover and narrative structure are completely absent and replaced with a sequence of images, all of which are borrowed from Israeli films, as well as an original soundtrack (recorded by Aljafari) that invites an affect-based viewing experience with little, if any, overt historical reference or analysis.

        Rubble, Walls, and a Missing Roof

        Kamal Aljafari was born, raised, and educated in Ramle (Al Ramla) and the neighboring, larger, and better-known city of Jaffa. The Roof is his most explicitly personal film, centering on the story of his family house:

It all began in 1948. In May. My grandparents were on a boat on their way to Beirut after their city of Jaffa had been bombed. Over those few days the waves got too big. So they were forced to return. But when they came back, Palestine was already gone. Their homes were gone as well. The people who remained were forced to live in one neighborhood and they were given the houses of other Palestinians. This was the case of my mother’s family in Jaffa, and the same happened to my father’s family in Ramle. In 1948, the owners of this house were still building the second floor. Today the house is still the same: my parents live on the first floor and above them lives the past.12

        The melancholia of the first message—“Palestine was already gone. Their homes were gone as well”—is cut through by the irony of the second: “They were given the houses of other Palestinians.” Aljafari not only informs us that his parents live in a house where the second floor still lacks a roof; he further complicates the ethos of home by telling us that, while his family lost its house, they took the house of another family who never got any house in return. This Palestinian family that lost a home is nevertheless present, as the ghosts with whom he and his family lived on the second floor. Of course, later in the film we learn that as far as the Israeli officials are concerned, Aljafari’s family doesn’t actually own the house. They are not allowed to build the missing roof and are told that the house (in which they have lived for decades) is not registered under their name. By state law, they are considered squatters.

        Following this personal narrative with irony, the words of the acclaimed Palestinian poet, novelist, and translator Anton Shammas13 appear on the screen: “And you know perfectly well that we don’t ever leave home we simply drag it behind us wherever we go, walls, roof, and all.” Shammas’s dark irony captures the spirit of the film: while The Roof is about the loss of one’s home and hometown, Shammas’s comment can be taken very literally. “Walls, roof, and all” are never left behind. Indeed, they appear in almost every shot throughout the film: walls, half-built structures, halfbuilt homes, partially constructed rooftops, half-paved roads, and a wall removed (perhaps) by mistake by an Israeli bulldozer make up the visual landscape of the film.

        The surface of the unfinished second floor is carefully studied: dust, curves, peeling paint. Nadia Yaqub suggests that, in using “haptic images [The Roof] teases the viewer by simultaneously suggesting the auras of the roof and the home beneath it, but refusing to reveal their secrets.”14 I would add that, in all three films, walls and their materiality (rather than people) are at the heart of the cinematic investigation of the past, of memory, of loss, survival, and potential renewal.

        Asked in relation to his latest film Recollection (2015) why his films include so many close-ups of walls, Aljafari replied: “The walls witnessed everything. They were left behind, half destroyed. But even if everyone was gone and the city was empty, the [disappeared] people would still be engraved on the walls.”15 Walls then witness the past, but not historically. They bring us in touch with the past, most explicitly. Their ruination unfolds not a historical narrative but a sensual memory experienced in the present. This haptic dimension of the image is explored to an even greater extent in Aljafari’s second film, Port of Memory, which relies on walls to tell the story of destruction and reconstruction, but also to investigate the poetic and political space found in between and across the intersection of reality and fantasy.

        Jaffa on Screen

        If the investigation of interior spaces, and more specifically of home and family in the context of living without a roof, is at the heart of The Roof, Jaffa’s urban outdoors is at the center of Port of Memory. The film captures the spatial reality of a city that is continuously transformed, destroyed, rebuilt, and altered, making the condition of dwelling in it resemble a life caught between reality and fantasy, and more specifically between everyday life and a cinematic set. Aljafari highlights this fantastic element by incorporating two other films into his film: the Israeli-American coproduced action movie Delta Force (1986) by Israeli director Menahem Golan and starring Chuck Norris, and the classical Israeli musical Kazablan (1974), belonging to a genre of Israeli films about Arab Jewish (Mizrahi) youth attempting (yet facing difficulty) to acclimate into Israel’s modern Western mentality. This earlier film was also directed by Golan and starred the (then) celebrated Israeli actor and singer, Yehoram Ga’on. Both films, like many other Israeli films, especially from the 1970s, were shot in Jaffa. The first depicts an American commando unit fighting “Palestinian terrorists” in Lebanon during the civil war; in the second, a Mizrahi (Moroccan) young man from a poor neighborhood (staged in Jaffa) falls in love with an Ashkenazi woman, whose family opposes the relationship. Against the lyrical images of architectural structures and urban landscape of ruins captured by Aljafari’s camera, the images incorporated from these two IsraeliAmerican films seem particularly artificial if not altogether grotesque. Jaffa thus emerges in Port of Memory not just, or even mainly, as an urban reality of destruction and ruination, but also as a cinematic stage upon which colonial fantasies are imagined and reenacted. Between these two poles— the reality of destruction and the colonial fantasy of ruins-as-a-film-set to house all cinematic images of war, poverty, crime, marginality—the film unfolds a stunning cinematic meditation on destruction and construction: the destruction of “old” (Palestinian) Jaffa and the construction of “new” (Israeli-Jewish) gentrified Jaffa, two parallel realities that are nevertheless codependent and coinhabited. The film simultaneously explores the role of the archive by collecting and curating many cinematic and photographic images of Jaffa, a city that has long served as a movie set: a cinematic canvas upon which Orientalist and colonial fantasies and desires are repeatedly projected.

        Opening with a close-up of ruins, the first shot soon exposes a wider image of a structure, probably a house: a structure in a state of becoming ruins. The walls are peeling, electric wires poke out from all directions, and several stones are broken.

        As in The Roof, cinematic intimacy is reserved for the walls. The camera studies them closely, revealing their texture, colors, and shapes: torndown walls, falling walls, missing walls, damaged walls. If Aljafari’s poetic rendition of destruction references the spatial reality of the city, it is further informed by the colonial fantasy of destruction the Israeli-American cinematic productions elaborate. Delta Force, like similar war movies that were filmed in Jaffa, used the city as a set because it already looked like a destroyed Mediterranean city under fire. In Delta Force, Jaffa was chosen as a stand-in for Beirut after the civil war, despite the fact that the two cities look nothing alike. It was of course a much easier choice for the studio than to film in Lebanon. Furthermore, the film was shot in Jaffa not just because the city was thought to resemble Beirut (under destruction), but because it was only in Jaffa that the director and the studio could obtain a permit to literally bomb an entire building for the purpose of filming it, and to shoot at many others. In other words, Jaffa wasn’t only a film set that was supposed to resemble Beirut; it was also a city that was easily turned into a simulated quasi-war zone for the purpose of filming. To cinematically capture the destruction of war using real bombs and live ammunition seems costly, insanely dangerous, and altogether completely fantasmatic, and yet this is precisely how Delta Force was made. Buildings and neighborhoods in Jaffa were bombed, shot at, and destroyed, as the camera rolled: “Action!”

        Given that many crime and war movies and television shows have been shot in Jaffa since the 1960s, our image of Jaffa is inevitably also impacted by these images of destruction, violence, and crime.16 Port of Memory does not try to do away with these images or recover an authentic and untainted Jaffa. On the contrary, many of the characters in the film are watching and appear to even enjoy some of these violent films and images, which Aljafari himself confesses to have enjoyed as a child. The visual archive of Jaffa is the only account one has, Aljafari seems to insist. Beyond the borders of these colonial, Orientalist, and capitalist archives lies no “authentic” image, only variations of visual manipulations. Aljafari begins in this film a practice of decolonializing the image, which he further develops and elaborates in his most recent film yet, Recollection. This practice comprises working through the colonial image and the colonial archive, not unlike Jumana Manna’s critical engagement with Lachmann’s Orientalist musical archive discussed in the previous chapter. But Aljafari’s engagement with the Israeli cinematic archive is even more direct and explicit: borrowing and digitally manipulating the images, Aljafari creates a new cinematic language with and through them, resulting not in corrective authenticity or a rehabilitated native space, but a subversive imitation and mimicry that expands the archive beyond its initial set borders.17 Thus, for example, in one of the most powerful scenes in the film, we follow Salim, Aljafari’s uncle, as he walks through narrow alleys of his neighborhood toward the beach. Suddenly, and for the first time in the film, a song erupts and breaks the silence. We are introduced to a new figure whom we have not previously seen. To most Israeli viewers of an older generation, he is immediately recognizable as Kazablan, the iconic character of a Moroccan young man who belongs to a street group of other poor Mizrahi men and falls in love with a middleclass Ashkenazi woman. The Israeli musical film by the same name, Kazablan (released in 1974) offers a localized version of Romeo and Juliet—an impossible love that prevails. The film was shot in Ajami, the same neighborhood at the center of Aljafari’s film. In Golan’s film, Ajami is home to Mizrahi Jews who protest the intention of the predominantly Ashkenazi authorities to tear down their old homes. The bitter irony is that the staging of this inter-Jewish ethnic and class drama in Jaffa involved the complete erasure of the actual inhabitants of Jaffa at the time—the majority of whom were Palestinian facing the very real threat of their homes being torn down. In other words, one narrative of oppression (Mizrahi oppression) is narrated, staged, and filmed over another (Palestinian oppression). Indeed, the conditions for articulating the first are based on the elimination of the second, with Jaffa transforming once again from an actual city into a fantastic film set. But what Aljafari does with this cinematic violence is more than simply denounce it. Port of Memory incorporates the most famous scene from Kazablan, in which the main character (played by famous Israeli actor and singer Yehoram Ga’on) walks down the very same narrow streets as the director’s uncle did in the previous scene. In the Israeli film he sings a song about longing for the home of his childhood in Morocco:

There is a place, far away, beyond the sea
Where the sand is white and the house warm
Where the sun lights over the market, the street and the port
Home is there, beyond the sea.

        The melody is moving and catchy. Aljafari retained the original Hebrew soundtrack, thus allowing the pain of Kazablan (the character) to be heard (in his own language), while also reminding us that for Kazablan, Jaffa is a film set: a mere fictitious frame onto which the character projects narratives from other places and times. It is then to the sound of Hebrew and the original score of Kazablan that Aljafari reintroduces his uncle Salim. When Salim reemerges on the screen and begins to walk, seemingly in Kazablan’s space just a few steps behind him, the two films overlap two temporalities and two narratives that otherwise appear mutually exclusive: Aljafari’s footage is projected over Golan’s film. Salim and Kazablan now walk side by side: inhabitant and actor, Palestinian and Israeli. One speaks in Arabic; the other sings his pain and longing (for Morocco) in Hebrew. Who is shadowing whom? Who leads in whose footsteps? Who is the ghost? This double walk, one footage over the other, I suggest, unfolds the current story of Jaffa as a narrative about colonial annexation of both geographical space and the space of imagination. It also, not unlike Manna’s film, projects a cinematic poetic of aporia, calling not for clear resolutions as much as pointing to their impossibilities and the need to think and imagine Palestine differently by revisiting, not denying or rejecting, the colonial archive.

        With the figure of Salim appearing and disappearing in and out of narrow alleys, and in and out of the Israeli film frame, the question of the spatial politics of Jaffa becomes also, if not more so, a question of visibility, invisibility, and haunting in the archive. In Golan’s film, Palestinians remain invisible, while emptied Jaffa serves as a canvas, a film set, and a stage; Aljafari’s reuse of Golan’s film, and his uncle’s invasion into it, highlights this emptied-out reality as a myth. Aljafari’s filmed images, reinserted into Golan’s film (the latter from the early 1970s, and the former from three decades later), are marked by the slightly different color and quality of the footage. This visible difference, immediately noted by most viewers, highlights the temporal gap of this hybrid image. The Palestinian who is eliminated in the Israeli film returns into the frame as a belated ghost. He has by now (already) become part of the very frame that tried yet failed to keep him out of sight.

        When Kazablan walks around the streets of Jaffa singing about his lost hometown in Morocco, he is in fact already—at least for contemporary Israeli viewers—a walking cliché. The film was a big hit when it came out in 1974, and among the first of its kind (a Bourekas film fashioned on the style of American musicals, as Ella Shohat notes),18 but today it seems anachronistic, if not altogether absurd. If anything, the film today functions as a quasi-cult film enjoyed by a few Israeli film buffs. Incorporating the iconic nostalgic singing scene in Port of Memory is therefore also an ironic nod, at least toward Israeli viewers. It is in a paradoxical manner an act of intimacy for the viewers familiar with the scene, the film, the lyrics, and the actor. It is through the audience that misses the irony that the power of this incorporation is perhaps best brought to light. Thus, Aljafari reports that before screening his film to an Arab audience (in Lebanon, Qatar, and Palestine) he was nervous about the reaction to his inclusion of a Hebrew song and an Israeli actor/singer in the film. To his surprise and great relief, the audience didn’t seem to mind the Hebrew song at all. On the contrary, “They found the song beautiful and moving and identified with its lyrics about exile and longing for home.”19 It is precisely here, between the ironic quotation and the melancholic translation, that Aljafari’s citational cinematic practice finds its greatest political potential. For, on the one hand, the film refuses to give in to the seductive powers of melancholia (Aljafari was surprised that his Arab audience found refuge in the melancholic song), but it also rejects the modus operandi of the ironic mimetic gesture associated with most practices of (mis)quoting.20 The incorporation of Kazablan in Port of Memory is thus both sincere and ironic. It is a critical nod that does not evacuate sincere identification. In this case the identification takes place between the unthinkable: colonizer and colonized, Israeli and Palestinian, Israeli actor and Arab audience, Hebrew and Arabic, Golan’s macho popular cinema and Aljafari’s poetics of marginality. It is also in this ambiguous and contentious space that Aljafari inserts the figure of the ghost: the screened image of his uncle Salim, who joins Kazablan but whose presence on the screen supplants the latter. While the shared walk begins with the original Kazablan movie soundtrack, it is slowly replaced with the sound of Salim’s footsteps alone; and as the ghost materializes and becomes more visible on the screen, Kazablan drifts away until he is no longer visible.

        What, then, are the politics of cultural memory advanced here? Clearly, this is no simple replacement of one narrative (of Kazablan, the Israeli film, the pain of the Mizrahi) with another (of Salim, the Palestinian projection, Palestinian loss). Rather, in projecting the latter onto and into the first, Aljafari creates a cinematic poetics of shadowing, layering, and cross-temporality that is far removed from the simple economy of replacement (one instead of the other). Relying on the evocative song of  Kazablan (in Hebrew), Aljafari generates an unexpected mode of intimacy that “allows the Hebrew language to serve as the narration for a Palestinian experience.”21 The image of his uncle walking through the ruins of Jaffa overlies that of Kazablan, but the voice of the latter, his lament song, remains to accompany Salim’s steps. If this intimate possibility is momentary and fleeting (once Kazablan is gone, Salim walks down the narrow alleys alone), the slightly lingering sound of lament nevertheless connects the two figures, the two images, the two narratives of loss—a potentiality lost, and found, in the Israeli footage. This poetic moment at the center of the film is soon replaced by images of destruction. The camera lingers on a construction site: stones, metal, plastic containers, a mixture of trash and debris. As we continue to watch Salim, a sudden unexpected sight of a white jeep bursts onto the screen. From the minor key of lament we make a full 180-degree turn from the slow pace of Aljafari’s camera to the manic images of American Hollywood production at its best. Yells in English are followed by sounds of explosion as the driver propels the jeep onto the sidewalk. Gunshots come from all directions, windows, and doors. It takes a minute or so for us to realize that we are, once again, in the space of yet another movie, and another cinematic fantasy—this time the popular IsraeliAmerican production of Delta Force (the first, as sequels two and three followed). As the jeep drives off the screen, we are faced with the quiet images of the present: a construction site by the ocean, pamphlets calling upon the local Palestinian population to evacuate their houses, and in the background a bulldozer arm moving up and down as it rhythmically digs into the ground, reminding us that the slow business of destruction continues. Is it part of yet another film set? Another shooting? An ever-growing visual archive? Perhaps. But, even if so, this setting is prone to manipulation and change as Aljafari’s third film installment demonstrates beyond doubt.

Re-collecting Images

        Recollection, Aljafari’s third film, completes the Jaffa Trilogy. Unlike the two earlier films, Recollection is entirely composed of footage taken from other films, that is, Israeli films that Aljafari collected, edited, and manipulated to create a visual portrayal of Jaffa without recording a single shot of the city himself. In other words, Recollection gathers images that the director found in over sixty Israeli films shot in Jaffa between the late 1960s and the mid1990s. It is a film made in its entirety out of the Israeli cinematic archive and its images of Jaffa.

        Although he worked with digital renditions, Aljafari’s film has the visual quality of an 8 mm home movie. This seems fitting, since Aljafari made Recollection on his laptop at his desk in his apartment in Berlin. This intimate and solitary process of editing—citing, cutting, erasing, duplicating, framing, photographing, and arresting the original (Israeli) cinematic images— resulted in a layered imagery that is both homey and eerie, both close and remote. This uncanny bricolage22 of images is made even more uncanny by the fact that the great majority of the Israeli films Aljafari builds upon are popular 1970s B-movies, known in Hebrew as Bourekas, and 1980s IsraeliAmerican Hollywood war films.23 The personal and sincere home movie Aljafari created at his desk comprises re-collected images and cinematic citations of tacky pop culture originals—a popular archive indeed.

        By cutting, photographing, and digitally manipulating the Israeli cinematic images (some black and white, and others in color), Aljafari was able to bring back to life images of a city that no longer exists, and perhaps never existed: a city that was first destroyed, and then renovated and gentrified to a degree that it no longer resembled the Jaffa where he grew up. Recollection, then, is first and foremost about collecting images of a city that has become a memory. As such, the film is also about memory as collection. The re-collection of city images functions as a sort of resurrection practice, by which the archive is treated like a patient in the hospital: the wounds cleaned and bandages applied. Aljafari achieves a form of cinematic justice through the act of cutting and pasting.

        In the many Israeli films from the 1960s to the 1990s that he watched, Aljafari found visual testimony of an architectural and spatial reality that is long gone: walls, cars, building, stores, towers, paths, and alleys; some of which he remembered from his childhood, and others that his older relatives, neighbors, and friends recognized. The cinematic colonial archive, like the musical Orientalist archive of the German ethnomusicologist Robert Lachmann discussed in the previous chapter, provides the otherwise missing traces of a past long altered. Looking closely at the images, to try to reconstruct the image of the city and rebuild its past on the screen, Aljafari began to identify some hidden figures behind the structures—a kid peeking from behind a side wall, likely curious about the film crew shooting in his neighborhood; another boy watching from behind a car; a woman looking out of the window; two men standing on the balcony; and even his own uncle, emerging from behind a wall and quickly crossing the street. Barely visible at first, these characters, shot from a distance and out of focus, are all located at the margins of the frame. They were likely unintentionally filmed. They appear despite what we may safely guess was the Israeli film crew’s intention to do away with the Palestinian residents and make room for filming their Israeli actors. As Aljafari began to spot these barely visible characters on the margins, recognizing some of them as his own relatives and friends, he decided to digitally remove the Israeli actors who blocked the view. Gradually, more hidden images of residents of Jaffa, mostly Palestinian, but also some Iraqi Jews, began to emerge on the screen—ghostly figures that have always already been there and have never left—on the sides, behind walls, looking through curtains, gathering in the corners.

        Recollection also brings together a marvel of architectural shots— the background and setting for the Israeli films—along with an original soundtrack recorded in part in Jaffa (sounds of the ocean, sounds of footsteps), and in part in the director’s apartment in Berlin (Aljafari recorded the sounds of his apartment at night so that he would be able to hear all the sounds he normally misses when he is asleep). Placing special microphones inside the interior walls, Aljafari sought to “listen to the sound of the walls.” He repeated the act with the sea, placing microphones under water.24 At times, the filmed images are arrested, and a photographic image, a still photograph taken from one of the films, is projected onto the screen: “I wanted to dig into the films by emphasizing the materiality of the photographs.”25 Digging into the films, as it were, Aljafari lingers on tiles, blocks, walls, creating in turn a unique slowed-down temporality of the urban space: “The image and sound of a place after a catastrophe.”26 Filmed to resemble a dream, with sudden cuts and multiple image repetitions (certain images repeat throughout the film: a blue car, a man crossing the street, bulldozers by the ocean), Recollection unfolds like flashbacks of stubborn images that refuse to let go: Is this a fantasy of a time yet to come? Or a recurring nightmare?

        This dream-like reality opens with the familiar stocky figure of David Ben Gurion, who is walking through an orchard before he suddenly disappears. We are then introduced to a colorful group of Israeli actors from the musical Kazablan before they disappear as well. The rest of the film no longer documents this seemingly magical disappearance of Israeli figures. Rather, it simply renders visible the Palestinian characters found in the margins of the frame after their removal—figures Aljafari found, cut from, and pasted into the reworked Israeli cinematic archive. Relying on digital technology, but imitating the mechanics of photography, Aljafari mined the entire collage of images collected from Israeli films, eliminating all the Israeli actors, and then cut and pasted some of the Palestinian characters to create, toward the end of the film, a new and redeeming image of gathering: “These phantoms are [now] walking together, hand in hand singing. It is a song where they are declaring themselves. They decide to walk and sing and talk to the world. It’s a final march where these ghosts are no longer ghosts.”27

        In some ways, then, Aljafari developed, expanded, and enriched his practice of cinematic montage from Port of Memory to create Recollection. But, the difference between the two films is also profound. To begin with, Port of Memory only includes two short scenes from Israeli films, into which the director inserts Palestinian characters he himself filmed, creating a double-layered cinematic image. In Recollection, the Israeli cinematic archive provides the only source for all the images. Furthermore, as I have mentioned above, instead of inserting Palestinian characters into the Israeli frame (Port of Memory), Recollection finds and exposes Palestinian characters who are already present in the original Israeli films. He renders them visible by removing the Israeli characters that otherwise block them from view. The violation of the archive then (the erasure of the film characters) is one that exposes the violence inscribed in the creation of the original archive: the conditions of documentation that enabled the creation of the body of these Israeli films to begin with. If the Israeli films erased or hid the Palestinian presence behind Israeli actors, Aljafari simply removes these actors to reveal the hidden layers of the image.

        Recollection highlights the bitter irony in the colonial fantasy that seeks to master the visual field. While desiring to do away with the colonized inhabitants, to render them invisible and eliminate their history, colonial modes of representation nevertheless often unwittingly document the colonized, thus including them—even if only as the “excluded”—within the colonial archive. In the case of Israel, this is particularly poignant. As noted by Saree Makdisi, despite Israel’s ongoing and persistent attempts to cover up, remove, hide, and eliminate “anything Palestinian,” the “stubbornly persistent Palestinian presence” nevertheless manages to invade almost every aspect of everyday Israeli life.28 In Recollection, the persistent presence of the native stands at the heart of the investigation of the conditions of visibility and invisibility in Jaffa. The film reconstructs a visual documentation of a long-gone reality through, and in reliance on, Israeli films. According to the director, over 80 percent of the images capture a city that is today eliminated or exists only in ruins—as destroyed buildings, structures, parks, homes, and walls. Un-ghosting the ghosts by making their presence in the colonial cinematic archive visible, Recollection is the most optimistic of the trilogy films. Its narrative of redemption is certainly more victorious than that of The Roof or Port of Memory, both of which conclude on a much more melancholic note. The director’s use of citations progresses across the three films: from The Roof, which is primarily filmed by the director and included only a few scenes that introduce other images (primarily tv images viewed by Aljafari’s family), to Port of Memory, in which the director edits a few scenes from Israeli films into his own, to Recollection, which is entirely a work of editing and manipulating Israeli footage. In other words, the redemption staged by Aljafari is one not of creating a new reality or new images, but of putting back together what was always already there in the colonial archive: finding the Palestinians, the memories, the walls, the buildings, and the city that may have appeared lost, but can be found in the Israeli footage.

        The ominous and powerful gathering of Palestinians toward the end of the film—this mass of figures, characters, and bodies lost, unseen, and invisible under the colonizers’ gaze—is re-collected into a new image. It exposes the failure of the colonial fantasy to do away with the colonized, who not only continue to invade the cinematic frame but also move further from its margins to its center. The move from documenting and filming (The Roof) to hybridizing and mixing (Port of Memory), and then to collaging, editing, cutting, erasing, and reframing (Recollection), is not a simple methodological or technical change, but one that has great political and poetic implication. In advancing a vision of Palestinian redemption as a process of un-erasing and re-inserting, Aljafari adopts a practice of recycling (Israeli) film footage from within the colonial archive, that very apparatus of erasure, to re-generate the re-appearance of his Palestinian character through and on top of the recycled film material. This act of cutting, pasting, and editing should not be confused with a simple replacement of the archive, given that the characters are in fact already found in the original footage. It is therefore more of an act of remembering and re-centering the margins than an act of archival imagination. The image of redemption and gathering does not take place in a nostalgic past, clean of the violation of colonialism, occupation, erasure. Nor does it take place in a mystical future projected into a temporal and spatial frame that is pure and clean of signs of the colonizers. On the contrary, the Palestinian crowd gathers within the Israeli film frame. Through this footage, against its background, and in relation to its spatial configuration, this image of regathering takes place not as a simple return or a forgetful departure, but as a creation of a new collective emerging out of conditions of colonial erasure and violence. Inserted back into the Israeli footage—the very archive that sought to ensure the erasure of Palestinians—the final image of this collective gathering functions as a reminder that every archive has its secrets and its ghosts. And while every archive exposes and hides, aiming to convince us that what we see/find/ read is “all there is,” the archive is always haunted, and the day may always come when its ghosts decide to gather and make their appearance no longer possible to deny or hide.
Kamal Aljafari
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