Film Review

No place like home: the cinema of Kamal Aljafari

        by Deirdre Boyle and Marit Kathryn Corneil
        on Wuxia Magazine. Tidsskrift for filmkultur Vol.3 No.2

“For a man who no longer has a country, to write becomes a place to live. For a Palestinian, the cinema is a country.” 
––    Theodor Adorno as quoted by Kamal Aljafari on his Facebook pages

        Kamal Aljafari is a rising international star whose films search for home amid the rubble of Palestine today and within a cinematic practice that blurs boundaries between “documentary” and “fiction.” His feature films thus far have explored memory and trauma by closely observing his own family, who allow him to explore what is “real” in the past and in the present. Blending personal history, transnational influences, and high definition aesthetics, Aljafari reinvents the long take, the slow tracking shot through space, and widescreen mise-en-scene—once keynotes of European art cinema—in films where time and place sublimely interact with story and character. Aljafari is a member of the youngest generation of Palestinian filmmakers and as such he is just beginning to be studied.1 His work to date includes two feature films—Port of Memory (2009), and The Roof (2006), a short, Visit Iraq (2003) and a video installation, My Father’s Video (2009). He is currently working on a narrative fiction film and has recently completed research for a photo book on Cinematic Occupation.

        In the history of Palestinian Cinema, “home” has come to stand in for “homeland” and accordingly family members have played key roles in films from masters like Michel Khleifi down to Elia Suleiman. Aljafari is working within a tradition in Palestinian film, but we propose that there is more than tradition at play in his use of his family in his films. His characters are “real people” and not just symbolic figures in a national narrative: those who wait, survivors of a decimated nation, forever looking for what has vanished, confined to a disturbed and ever eroding domestic orbit because their society is in ruins and engaged in a war with no end in sight.2 Full of expectations, writers and programmers have characterized Aljafari like Palestinian filmmakers before him as a political filmmaker who embeds ideology into his cinematic poetry3, but Aljafari prefers to identify himself as a filmmakertout court who “can’t change political or social reality,” but can express his feelings and share them with others.5

        Aljafari’s films lie in that fluid zone between the local and the global, they might in some circles be described as transnational or accented. They also demonstrate that there is something fundamentally human about our condition of being ‘other,’ of being ‘foreign’. As Aljafari puts it himself: “society is strange and people are strange and people do the same things.”And the moving image is especially tuned to reveal this strangeness: “every film is a foreign film,” as written by Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour.7

        There is a political dimension to Aljafari’s project of de- and re-territorializing physical and cinematic space. At the same time, there is a parallel phenomenological exploration of immersive and affective aspects of the medium, and the cinematic interpretation of domestic life that is also autobiographical, placing him within contemporary trends in ethnographic filmmaking. What we find interesting in his work is that this ethnography is accompanied by an untiringly rigorous examination into the possibilities and limits of both representation and narrative. And while Aljafari is working within a long tradition of Palestinian film, we propose that there is more than a Palestinian tradition at play in his work.

        Commenting on the work of early generations of Palestinian filmmakers, Edward Said has said, “Palestinian cinema provides a visual alternative, a visual articulation, a visible incarnation of Palestinian existence in the years since 1948, the year of the destruction of Palestine, and the dispersal and dispossession of Palestinians; and a way of resisting an imposed identity on Palestinians as terrorists, as violent people, by trying to articulate a counter –narrative and a counter-identity, these films represent a collective identity.”

        Aljafari does not pretend to be part of such a Palestinian national movement or narrative but indicates that he is a truly transnational filmmaker. In his words, “I’m a combination of many things probably. I spent many years of my life in Europe and I love the work of Antonioni… I wouldn’t be shy to say that I am a combination of someone who came from that place and I moved on to Europe. Probably we are influenced by things we see and places we live in.” The way Aljafari describes it: ”I never thought of myself as somebody coming from the margins, in that sense, I am making films about people who are usually forgotten, who are not part of any narrative.”Aljafari shares much in common with other third world filmmakers who have been trained abroad, live an exile’s life in search of funding and support for their work, and often live at a distance because their work is too controversial at home. Aljafari has been inspired by filmmakers outside the region. So impressed was he with Mali’s Abderrahmane Sissako that he chose Sissako’s cinematographer, Jacques Besse, to shoot Port of Memory. He is also inspired by Asian directors, particularly the work of Tsai Ming-liang, the Taiwanese director who works with the same non-actors in all his feature films, having discovered his alter ego (Kang-sheng Lee) in a video game arcade.In Port of Memory he introduces his own alter ego, the man on the Vespa.

        Like so many third world filmmakers, Aljafari learned his craft far from home. After studying theater at Hebrew University in Jerusalem he left Israel in 1998 and went for a master’s in film at the Academy for Media Arts in Cologne, Germany. His cinematic vocabulary is drawn from Ozu and Bresson. Like many filmmakers on the periphery, fixed notions of drama and documentary do not apply. What Frederick Jameson calls the “hybrid film” has long been taken for granted by filmmakers like Mohsen and Samira Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami from Iran, Jia Zhangke from China, or Apichatpong Weerasethakul from Thailand, who have actors mingle with non-actors and mix real life with staging to effect a reality different than either form alone delivers. The fluidity with which films shift between documentary and fictional conventions can be understood, in part, when one considers the contributions of cinematographers like Jacques Besse—who works globally and shoots films that defy categorization.

        And so when one looks at Aljafari’s work, which includes re-enactments, dream-like sequences, and semi-scripted episodes along with the unfolding stories of real people performing their lives for the camera, it clearly upsets conventional categories. Adania Shibli, writing in Sight and Sound about Port of Memory, says that “this is a work that can only be seen, not talked about; all that can be said is that it brings cinema to a place beyond the questions of fiction, documentary and video art. Not only that; it does so as if no camera were there, or there were a camera without a man—the invisibility here is of film itself.”10

        Aljafari sometimes credits his approach to the influence of Bresson’s use of nonprofessional actors as models whose performance emanates from their presence, not from acting.1I am tempted to see his approach arising out of the documentary tradition established by Robert Flaherty, who invited real people to perform their lives for the camera and incorporated staging and scripting to recreate a vision of the past as present. The more politically adroit interpretation would be to link what Aljafari is doing to Palestinian filmmakers like Michel Khleifi who believed films “could communicate real and personal things, that it was possible to see people you know from life in the cinema, and truly share their experience."12 

        The net effect of producing films with one’s own family, people who become recurring characters in a body of work, leads audiences to identify with these individuals and find them and their situations familiar and understandable despite the apparent divides of nation, language and political beliefs. I believe the “domestic ethnography” of Aljafari’s films functions as a kind of gentle “Trojan horse” inviting audiences to see themselves or their sisters or their aunts reflected in Aljafari’s Palestine. This is not Aljafari’s goal but it is a byproduct and yields a subtle yet powerful method for opening up perceptions of and conclusions about Palestinians.

        The Trojan horse of domestic ethnography allows us to get closer to the characters in the films and inside the filmmaker’s own experience. In The Roof, we see the filmmaker with his family, sitting in front of the television, eating, going about their daily rituals. Time passes. His mother turns away from the television, to look out at the street, sighing. The sense of dignity that we see in the face of this woman comes from the way in which her character has been fleshed out for us through the family relations, we have been inside her house, met her husband and children. We have seen how much talent they have, seen what ‘good citizens’ she has raised. We feel the frustration they feel when meeting the barriers that the state has put up for them, including that of finishing the roof. Markers of care and responsibility, love and respect come through in the familial relationships that Aljafari portrays, whether it is his sister for himself, or in Port of Memory, his aunt for his grandmother. These markers enable the viewer to identify with these characters, and understand the absurdity of the real situation they are in.

        Aljafari’s films dwell on the familiar. The camera pans slowly over photographs that are pinned on a dresser mirror, we see sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, activating a sense of a past, historical depth, memory. Elements of voice over commentary, testimony of social actors, as well as the visible evidence of letters, photos and ruins are used to build together the story of the extended family of the filmmaker, and the history of the neighborhoods of Jaffa and Ramle where they have lived out their lives, neighborhoods that are now suburbs swallowed up by the Israeli municipalities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

        This is the story of the ‘remnant’ or the people who remained inside Israel- as the corner boys of Ramle put it in one of the few interviews in the film The Roof: “This is our country and we became its tail. We became useless.” (The Roof) But Aljafari does not only rely on commentary, testimony, performativity or epistolarity (although he adeptly uses all of these) to communicate his experience especially in his latest work. The long take and the tracking shot through space, accompanied by the resonating incantations of thematic sound, music, waves or storm- help to create what Irina Leimbacher calls: a “narrative by accretion.”13 This is a work of contemporary ethnography that explores the depths of experience and the phenomenal (or corporeal) image, of memory and immersive experience.14

        This seems to be a new form of domestic ethnography. It is one that does not only place emphasis on these processes of identification, on authorization and authentication, through autobiography and the background of the family (although that too) but also allows an uncanny reversal: the acknowledgement that ordinary people and the places they inhabit are at times the best actors, that they can, in fact, be more ‘cinematic’ than their fictional counterparts.

        Aljafari’s two feature films, The Roof (2006) and Port of Memory (2009), were made several years apart and register changes in Aljafari’s cinematic language and creative collaborators. The Roof is rather playful and reveals his sardonic wit. By comparison, Port of Memory is sparer, quieter and emotionally darker; it moves deliberately through days and nights of what John Berger calls “undefeated despair.”15 There is less happening in Port of Memory, less dialogue, less personal interaction, less hope, which is itself a telling indictment, and what does happen is largely a result of Aljafari’s wish fulfilling dreamscapes and technical ingenuity at restoring the past as present if only in cinematic space.

        As we saw in the clip, The Roof opens with the filmmaker talking with his sister about the first Intifada. This introduces the theme of trauma and memory and trauma. Aljafari then introduces his family home as a protagonist. When Palestinians were expelled from their homes in 1948, his grandparents failed to leave due to rough weather that kept ferries from transporting them. When the family returned ten days later, their home and village had already disappeared. They settled in a house in Ramle that had been under construction and the unfinished roof remains to this day. As Aljafari states twice in the film, “my parents live on the first floor and the past lives above them.” The very architecture testifies to the insults and injuries of a past that remains oppressively present. When a bulldozer “accidentally” rips off the exterior wall of a neighbor’s house, it is just one more instance of life for Palestinians living in internal exile. As Peter Limbrick writes, the house takes on the look of an oversized doll’s house16, and the neighbor’s home is exposed, literally and figuratively, to a toy in the hands of the powerful.

        What is a tactic to dislodge Arabs from an area being rapidly gentrified in The Roof takes on greater force in Port of Memory. Uncle Salim and Aunt Fatmeh are being threatened with eviction from the home the family bought forty years ago. Their lawyer has lost or mislaid documents that prove their claim. Salim takes the news as he does everything in life with a remarkable calm that masks his feelings. Only Fatmeh registers alarm, expressing anxiety and fear for the family. In The Roof she was a devoted daughter caring for her sick and aged mother. Five years later in Port of Memory, Aljafari reveals the psychic toll of life on her. Aljafari says no matter where he screens the film someone comes up afterwards to tell him, “you know, my sister does that too.” It is details like this that are the most important part of the film for him, and arguably, most significant for viewers.

        Fatmeh’s obsessive-compulsive handwashing is an escalating response to Palestinian life and one of several instances of trauma’s impact in Port of Memory. Aljafari presents a man in a café who spears an ember and waves it in front of his neck. We don’t know what he is doing ,only that there is something off about it. Later we see him throwing a fiery paper out the door of the café. When I asked about him, Aljafari admitted his bizarre fire ritual is the behavior of a drug addict trying to exorcise the devil who he believes has possessed him; he is one of many Palestinians who have escaped internal exile with the aid of drugs. Salim’s curious behavior taking food at night and leaving it on a doorstep, viewed repeatedly in the film, is also not explained nor is his ghostly, nocturnal presence standing before buildings. Aljafari confides in an interview that his beloved oldest uncle died of an overdose, and he thinks Salim’s efforts to feed a neighbor who is now a hopeless addict is in some way connected to the memory of his lost brother.17 Whether they are feeding the old and the sick, stray cats or other casualties of “life under siege,” Aljafari’s family performs actions expressive of the trauma in their lives.

        In response to this, Aljafari restores the past with a technological feat. Borrowing sequences from two films by Israeli director Menachem Golam—Kazabian (1974) and Delta Force (1986)—Aljafari recovers images of the Port of Jaffa when it was still thriving. First we see an Israeli actor strolling along the sea, singing a Hebrew song of longing for one’s home. As he turns a corner, Aljafari “inserts” Salim into this 1974 landscape. The wish fulfillment of this scene is hard for viewers outside the story to fully appreciate. It is perhaps more apparent later in the film when Salim is walking down a staircase near home and is overtaken by a speeding car.

        Aljafari has been obsessed with cinematic images of Jaffa, particularly the 50+ Hollywood and Israeli films made there during the Seventies and Eighties when Jaffa was used as an all-purpose location for third world murder and mayhem. By reclaiming these images to restore a now vanished world, Aljafari creates a dream-like return. For Salim, who also dreams that the missing documents for the house have been found, the dream state of walking through the Port of his youth once more offers the possibility that—at least cinematically—one’s dreams may come true. Aljafari believes his mission as a filmmaker is to create dreamlike films. Port of Memory is a step in this direction and even The Roof, which is more tied to documentary conventions, has its dreamlike moments.

        Re-appropriating these images functions as a kind of ‘cinematic re-occupation’ of the geographical territory. In several places, in both The Roof and Port of Memory, Aljafari performs what he calls alternatively ‘cinematic occupation’ or ‘cinematic revenge’- which brings us back to the opening quote (for Palestinians cinema is a country) and this is where the political content of the work comes into play. Not only are there few visual representations of the daily life of ordinary Palestinians, the majority of visual material saturating the now globalised televisual media shows an image of the Palestinians as a violent people, living in a state of exception. By including the presence of the television set as a character in his domestic scenes, Aljafari makes a comment on the space between the world on TV and the people who sit in front of it.18

        It is not only a literal commentary however, but functions often as an element of scenography, and as a soundtrack. In this sense it remains in the background, but sometimes it also functions as another character in the room, and a domineering one at that. In a scene in Port of Memory, Jesus is being banished to the desert in Hollywood style while a cat languishes on top of the set, its tail gently batting down the arms of the Saviour as he reaches up to touch God. “TV ironically plays an important part for my cinematic creation,” Aljafari notes. “I mean I hate it. I never watch TV… but I’m fascinated by the emotional setting that the TV is creating. And it is so surprising every time I do it…how deep emotions are when people are watching these dramas and trying somehow to relate to a world that they don’t have.”19 In this way, different, often oppositional narratives meet or cross paths in his films.

        Aljafari says that he was inspired by Jean Luc Godard’s last film where he describes the opposing narrative of the Jews and the Palestinians, saying that in 1948: the Israelis walked into the water towards the Promised Land, the Palestinians walked into the water towards the drowning, struggle against struggle. “The Jewish people heading towards fiction at the same time that the Palestinian people heading towards documentary” Aljafari admits that this is a dogmatic idea, but he was looking to produce a meeting between two narratives that rarely if ever meet, an encounter between the dreams of the Israelis and the reality of the Palestinians, between pale (subtle) and fragmentary documentary and the relentless (implacable) fiction.20

        In one scene in Port of Memory where a woman comes to the door asking to come in and view the house asking if it is for sale, Fatmeh gets her to finally leave with some difficulty. With reference to this scene, Aljafari says: “…on the one side you have the narrative of this family living in the house, trapped in the situation where they might have to leave the house- it’s a serious situation- and then there’s this woman knocking on the door and she has a completely different narrative in her head and she can’t even see them.”21

        In this way, Aljafari uses the cinema and his cast of real people to de- and reterritorialize the territories of space and subject on screen, At the same time he is aware of his own implication in this practice. As he puts it, “People want to claim ownership of things, why? We are here on this earth for so short time! At the same time it is human to want to own things.“ Of course, when we take images of someone or someplace we are also claiming it for ourselves. Aljafari is creating a counter-narrative not only to the dominant media or Hollywood representations, but also to the one being lived out by his family in real life.

        At the end of Port of Memory, we see a long shot of another building site and once again the man on the motorbike who earlier we have seen riding around the neighborhood, stopping occasionally only to let out an absurd scream, Now he is riding out into the middle of what we thought was the desert, the building site of an absurd park on the beach, as the bulldozers continue their march through the Port of Jaffa, he drives in an inward spiral that leads only back to the middle- This is the rule of property. The man stops, and in a close-up, throws back his head in hysterical laughter. In the face of the destruction of the city – the state or municipality- comes and builds something so artificial and unnecessary as a desert-like park in front of the sea, Aljafari notes: “You don’t actually know what to do when you see all what’s happening in this place- to laugh or to cry…“

        Aljafari’s films speak to viewers who may know little about Palestinian history but can relate to a family struggling to live under impossible circumstances. The intimate view of the day-to-day lives of Palestinians forms a critical bridge for audiences who are otherwise situated outside their “story” yet can resonate with its meanings, disarmed by Aljafari’s secret weapon, the “gift” of his feelings for home and family. For those more knowledgable about the history and politics of Palestinian nationhood and survival, Aljafari effects a cinematic re-occupation of his home-land, building on the achievements of earlier generations of Palestinian filmmakers and adding his transnational creative stamp to this project.

1        For example, Peter Limbrick’s rich and provocative essay, “ From the Interior: Space, Time, and Queer Discursivity in Kamal Aljafari’s The Roof “ will appear soon in The Cinema of Me: The Self and Subjectivity in First Person Documentary Film, edited by Alisa Lebow for Wallflower Press.
2        Aljafari studied theater at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and earned a master’s degree in film and television at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, Germany. He recently was a Film Center Fellow and Benjamin White Whitney Scholar at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute where he researched an interdisciplinary media project titled “A Cinematic Occupation.” Aljafari’s awards include Best International Video at The Images Festival in Toronto, Jury Prize at the Artimage Biennial Graz in Austria, and the Friedrich-Vordemberge Visual Art Prize of the City of Cologne. He has received grants from the Sundance Documentary Fund and the German Filmstiftung. His film Port of Memory was awarded the Prix Louis Marcorelles by the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
3        Harvard Film archive program notes for April 19 2010 screening of Aljafari’s work.
4        Kamal Aljafari in an interview with Deirdre Boyle, July 27, 2010.
5        Colleen Walsh, “Palestinians on the screen,” Harvard , May 28, 2010.
6        In speaking about his aunt in Port of Memory, the way she makes the bed, the way she washes her hands is cinematic: “…is something that would capture your eye immediately, you’d see it, right? But at the same time, it’s not just something strange. Yes it is strange, we are all strange, she’s not an outsider, society is strange and people are strange and people do the same things. You know Bresson said that nine tenths of our movements are automatic.” In skype interview with Corneil, 28 July, 2010.
7        Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour, Subtitles: on the foreignness of film, MIT & Alphabet City, p.21
8        Skype interview with Marit Corneil, July 28, 2010
9        Abderrahmane Sissako of Mauritania-Mali (born in 1961, Bamako, 2006, Waiting for Happiness, 2002, Life on Earth, 1998, Rostov-Luanda, 1998) and Tsai Ming-liang of Taiwan (born in 1957, Kuching, Malaysia, What Time is it Over There?, 2001, The Wayward Cloud, 2005) are filmmakers who have influenced Aljafari (born in 1972 in Ramleh, Israel). One can imagine other likely influences such as Rithy Panh (Cambodia) and Jia Zhangke, for example. One need not be Palestinian to develop films based on real people and real life situations that emerge out of one’s own history and national past.
10       Adania Shibli, “Palestine: Invisible Land,” Sight and Sound, 27 May 2010.
11       Harvard Film Archive screenings notes, April 19, 2010.
12       “Michel Khleifi, Looking for Jewels” by Youssef Rakha, Al-Ahram Weekly, 30 Oct-6Nov 1999, No. 449. ︎︎︎http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/1999/449/profile.htm
13       From Irina Leimbacher’s presentation of the filmmakers at the Flaherty Seminar 2009
14       David McDougall: The Corporeal Image, Transcultural Cinema, Taylor, Lucien Visualizing Theory, Nichols, Bill: Blurring Boundaries.
15       Shibli.
16       Limbrick.
17       Interview with Deirdre Boyle, July 27, 2010.
18       In his opening speech to the Palestinian film festival Dreams of a Nation, Edward Said describes the difficulties involved in presenting visual material that would fall under the title of Palestinian film: “It became obvious to me that the relationship of Palestinians to the visible and the visual was deeply problematic. In fact, the whole history of the Palestinian struggle has to do with the desire to be visible. “(Said, p.2)
19       Skype interview with Corneil, 28 July 2010
20       Journal du reel #2: Entretien avec Kamal Aljafari
21       Skype interview with Marit Corneil, July 28, 2010
Robert Avila, “Palestine: Interior/Exterior,” ︎︎︎http://www.sf360.org/features/palestine-interiorexterior 15.11.2009 22:20:10.

Haim Bresheeth, “Segell Iktifa/Chronicle of a Disappearance” (p.169-178) in Gönül Dönmez-Colin, The Cinema of North Africa and the Middle East, Wallflower Press, 2007.

Hamid Dabashi and Edward Said, Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema, Verso, 2006

Guy Dixon, “Satisfying Food for thought at Toronto Images Festival,” Toronto Globe and Mail, Gönül Dönmez-Colin, The Cinema of North Africa and the Middle East, Wallflower Press, 2007.

Nurith Gertz and George Khleifi, Palestinian Cinema: Landscape, Trauma, and Memory, Indiana University Press, 2008.

Dina Iordanova, David Martin-Jones, and Belén Vida, eds., Cinema at the Periphery, Wayne State University Press, 2010.
Karen L. Ishizuka and Patricia R. Zimmerman, eds., Minding the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories, University of California Press, 2008

Martin Lefebvre, ed., Landscape and Film, Routledge, 2006.

Alisa Lebow, ed., The Cinema of Me: The Self and Subjectivity in First Person Documentary Film, Wallflower, 2010.

Peter Limbrick, “From the Interior: Space, Time, and Queer Discursivity in Kamal Aljafari’s The Roof,” in Alisa Lebow, ed., The Cinema of Me: The Self and Subjectivity in First Person Documentary Film, Wallflower, 2010.

Hamid Naficy, ed., Home, Exile, Homeland: Film, Media and the Politics of Place, AFI Film Reader, Routledge, 1999.

Cyril Neyrat, “An Interview with Kamal Aljafari about the film Alsateh/The Roof,” FIDMarseille International Film Festival Magazine, July 2006.
Laura U. Marks, “Experience—Information—Image: A Historiography of Unfolding in Arab Cinema (p. 232-253), in Dina Iordanova, David Martin-Jones, and Belén Vida, eds., Cinema at the Periphery, Wayne State University Press, 2010.

Laura U. Marks, “Asphalt Nomadism: the new desert in arab independent cinema,” (p. 125-147) in Martin Lefebvre, ed., Landscape and Film, Routledge, 2006.

Jason Rehel, “Images Festival: The Diodes, Chuck Norris and a whale walk into a theater…,” National Post, Thursday, April 1, 2010 ︎︎︎http://www.nationalpost.com/arts/cwof/story.html?id=2754335#lxzzOuizSapTk

Viola Shafik, Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity, American University of Cairo Press, 1998.

Adania Shibli, “Palestine: Invisible Land,” Sight and Sound, May 27 2010.

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