Refracted Filmmaking in Muhammad Malas’s The Dream and Kamal Aljafari’s The Roof

Nadia Yaqub

Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 7 (2014) 152–168



        This article analyzes two films, The Dream (Muhammad Malas, 1987) and The Roof (Kamal Aljafari, 2006) to define a particular mode of filmmaking. By avoiding direct representations of violence and employing what I call refraction, filmmakers create experiences for viewers that make agential understandings of particular Palestinian times, places and experiences possible. Through refraction, filmmakers refrain from providing new information or explanations, but rather create for spectators a new experience that leads to an affective understanding of a circumstance or event. Refrac tion can encompass different forms of counter-hegemonic practices.It can deconstruct or queer dominant discursive practices. Through refraction filmmakers can circum vent the discourse of claims-making that viewers have widely come to expect in the Palestinian context, instead creating a point of encounter through which characters and viewers can meet on the basis of equality.

        Muhammad Malas – Kamal Aljafari – Palestine – film – affect – refraction

        For nearly a century the dissemination of photographs has been accompanied by scholarly inquiry into the efficacy of images of violence (Berger 1980; Butler 2007; Linfield 2010; Sliwinski 2011; Sontag 1977, 2004a, 2004b).1 Photographic images, whether still or moving, can represent violence to distant spectators, but in doing so, what relationships do they create between viewers and photographed subjects, and what subjectivities do they construct for those who are represented in such images? They may play important roles in the psychologically necessary act of giving testimony, and in particularly modern versions of socially and politically productive acts of communal mourning (Feldman 2004). But they may also become tools of destructive interventions (Keenan 2012; Weizman 2011) and, in conjunction with testimony, play a role in constructing depoliticized (or problematically politicized) subjectivities of victimhood (Fassin 2008).2 Images of disasters can construct a hierarchical rela tionship between victims and distant spectators. Ariella Azoulay argues that spectators have a civic obligation to read claims made within such images as appeals to the rights and vulnerabilities shared by all participants in the pho tographic encounter—the photographed person, the photographer and the spectator (Azoulay 2008: 17). However, because communication between the photographed person and the spectator can flow in only one direction, the nature of the communicative act performed through the photograph is critical. The photographed victim of violence or dispossession remains fixed, eternally issuing a claim to present and future citizens of photography. The spectator, on the other hand, through watching, grows, develops and comes to understand and perhaps respond to the claim made in the photograph.3

        Given this problem in the photographic record, how do filmmakers address the violence that has been a very real part of the Palestinian experience? In the immediate contexts of an emergency, image makers often feel compelled to produce images that inform spectators of the violence taking place, turning spectators into secondary witnesses to disasters or atrocities; anything else appears trivial or insensitive. In films created by the plo from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, violence perpetrated against Palestinians was framed by an ideology of national liberation which offered an agential response to any claims made within them. The miring of the plo in the Lebanese civil war beginning with the siege of Tall al-Zaʾtar in 1976, however, affected the efficacy of this framework. Since the period of the Oslo process (begun in 1993), films addressing violence against Palestinians have tended to adopt a human rights framework, appealing to viewers for redress.

        Some filmmakers have recognized the need to supplement these sorts of emergency claims with works that create alternative communicative encounters between a film’s characters and its viewers. Such works are relatively rare, requiring as they do both an intimate understanding of the experiences they depict and a temporal or spatial distance from those experiences. However, they perform important cultural work and play a role in the development of cinemas of Palestine.4 In this paper I will engage with two such texts— Muhammad Malas’s film The Dream (1987) and Kamal Aljafari’s The Roof (2006). Together, these illustrate the applicability of a particular mode of film making across history, geography and experience. Claims can be read from these films, but their more significant contribution lies elsewhere: by avoiding direct representations of violence and employing what I call refraction, they create experiences for viewers that make more agential understandings of par ticular Palestinian times, places and experiences possible.

        I use the term refraction to designate a cluster of techniques that redirect viewers’ perspectives of events, people, places and conditions. Generally, refraction avoids direct representations of violence because of the distance these create between characters and viewers. Like a prism that bends a ray of light, films that refract offer viewers new, often unexpected perspectives on a subject. Refraction comes into play at a number of levels, including form, struc ture and content. Significantly, filmmakers offer this new perspective not by providing new information or explanations, but rather by giving spectators a new experience such that they arrive at an affective understanding of a par ticular circumstance or event. Refraction can encompass different forms of counter-hegemonic practices. It can deconstruct or queer dominant discur sive practices. Through refraction filmmakers can circumvent the discourse of claims-making that viewers have widely come to expect in the Palestinian context, instead creating a point of encounter through which characters and viewers can meet on the basis of equality.

        In Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art Jill Bennet writes of the danger of ‘colonizing’ another’s traumatic experience—that is, claiming the right and ability to represent such experience and communicate it to others (Bennet 2005: 7). Works that avoid such appropriation succeed by producing affect without seeking to produce secondary trauma within the spectator. They do not aspire to show the spectator what trauma looks like, to uncover the ‘secret’ that trauma sufferers hold as a result of their experiences (Bennet 2005). Instead, they recognize the unbridgeable gap between survivors of an event and those who can know it only through mediation. They create empathic unsettlement, that is ‘the aesthetic experience of simultaneously feeling for another and becoming aware of a distinction between one’s own perceptions and the experience of the other’ (Bennet 2005: 8).5 They avoid identification with the victim of trauma while creating a point of encounter between the inside (the secret of the traumatic experience that can be referenced but not represented; what Bennet, following Charlotte Delbo, calls sense memory) of an experience and its outside (common memory—the narrated history of events). The affect sparked within spectators through this encounter elicits thought rather than the emotions of sympathy, shame or guilt that mimetic images making claims about violence are likely to arouse.

        Both The Dream and The Roof are structured around unresolved experiences with violence.In each case the filmmaker createsfor viewers an experience that draws them closer to the characters of the film without presuming to replicate their trauma for viewers. In what follows I explain how Malas and Aljafari use refraction to create such experiences.

        The Dream

        In 1981 on his way to Beirut to talk with plo officials about creating a Palestinian documentary, Syrian filmmaker Muhammad Malas was overwhelmed by a memory of the 1976 siege of Tall al-Zaʾtar, a refugee camp in east Beirut. These bitter memories were still with him when he arrived at Watani Street, a hub of plo activity in West Beirut. There he was jarred by the bustle of life and nationalist politics he saw:

“I passed through it [the street], trying to feel the images, movement, balconies, peoples clothing, armed men, loudspeakers, offices, women … At that time, new posters of ancient Palestine were coming in from the printers, like fresh, hot bread, for preparations for the commemoration of Land Day had begun, while Israeli war planes hovered in the sky.”
––    Malas 1991: 10

        The incompatibility of these two visions—those of the brutal violence that had occurred five years earlier in what was now an erased community, and those of Watani Street, itself a mass of contradictions and impossible dreams, led Malas to the subject of his film. Under these surreal conditions of simultane ous destruction and activity, what could a documentary about Palestinian lived experience show? He decided to focus on the unconscious, to frame his docu mentary around the dreams of his Palestinian characters.

        Malas completed research and filming for The Dream in the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon in 1981, filming residents in their homes, neighbor hoods and places of work. Many were survivors of Tall al-Zaʾtar. Almost every one had lost a family member to the Lebanese civil war or conflict with Israel. Others had been disabled or imprisoned. He visited the beach resorts where crowds sought shelter from the Israeli occupation in the South. He experienced the July 1981 Israeli bombing of the Fakihani district, and feared for his own and his interviewees’ safety. In September 1982, following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, residents of Sabra and Shatilla were subjected to a brutal massacre.In 1985 the infamous War of the Camps broke out resulting in three years of fighting and siege in the camps where Malas had filmed. As Malas contemplated turning his footage into a coherent film, he was deeply affected by the news emerging from the camps, his inability to visit them, and his ignorance over the fate of his more than 130 interviewees. He felt, he wrote later, that this escalation in violence, and in particular what appeared to be an evisceration of the community he had documented, complicated his project. He decided he had no choice but to use his footage to recreate the pre-1982 life of the camps as a means of imbuing the desperate present of the mid- and late-1980s with hope. As a result, the project developed an additional layer, becoming in his words: ‘a dream about dreams that happened in the memory of a dream’ (Malas 1991: 195).

        Malas’s impulse is familiar within the context of Palestinian cultural pro duction. From the writings of Ghassan Kanafani in the early 1960s through the cinema of the 2000s, a central question has been how to inspire agency through creative works while representing all the forces that seek to destroy that agency. Malas’s particular challenge was to achieve this in a time of political despair. By the 1980s, any reading of the optimistic narratives of revolution from Kanafani’s era would have become tinged with elegy. Malas’s task, then, could not be accomplished through direct narration. He understood the Palestinian revo lution in Lebanon (‘the memory of a dream’) to exist in the past, but needed to express the truthful elegy that this pastness required, without undermining the agential spirit inherent in the survival and speech of the camps’ residents.

        By focusing on dreams, Malas offers a prismatic view of his subjects. Their experiences are not represented directly, but refracted, disaggregated, and realigned through their relationship with the unconscious. By framing the film as a dreamscape about Palestinian dreams, he circumvents both nostalgia and facile exhortation in the face of the difficult conditions under which Palestini ans in Lebanon live. In their strangeness, the dreams appeal not to viewers’ mercy, shame, or righteous indignation, but to the wonder and curiosity, and at times horror, with which spectators may contemplate their own dreams. Difference between character and spectator is maintained through the mediation of the dreams, but the distance between them is bridged by what they share of the experience of dreaming.

        The Dream opens with a shot Umm ‘Ala’ describing a dream in which she brings about a victory by learning how to pray. She appears healthy and confident, and speaks articulately to the camera. Like most of Malas’s interviewees, she faces the camera directly, standing on a balcony with her back to a hazy expanse of green fields and low buildings that stretch into the distance. Malas shot the scene with natural light and a shallow, soft focus such that the background is a blur that contextualizes Umm ‘Ala’ in a dream-like world connoting space and possibilities.

        The final image of the film is dream-like in a different way. A night shot of two fighters, barely visible in the gloom, is accompanied by a militant passage from Marcel Khalife’s song ‘Ra’iʾat al-dhikrayat’ [The most wonderful of memories]: ‘My anger takes up a position in a narrow alley / Between treachery and loyalty, so beware of me!’ The men stand, walk confidently away from the camera, and sit silently. One man carries a Kalashnikov. They are outdoors, perhaps on the beach, where lights are just visible in the distance before them. The scene appears to represent the dream of armed revolution. However, despite the defiance of the final line of the song (‘Resist, resist, resist!’), the scene is tinged with an elegy intensified by viewers’ knowledge of all that has happened to the Palestinians in Lebanon between 1981 when this scene was shot and 1986 when the film was completed.

        Between these clips, Malas lovingly documents the space of Palestinian camps as functioning communities. The poverty of the camps is not hidden, but images are not dystopian. After Umm ʿAla’s dream of victory, Malas offers two scenes that foreground the spatial and thematic foci of his film: the political dream of the Palestinian revolution and the social experience of Palestinian family and communal life; the wilderness site of armed resistance and the built environment of the refugee camp. The first scene depicts an empty bed in a forest clearing. A diaphanous mosquito net hangs from a nearby tree, blowing across the bed. The image evokes the idea of a dream with its surreal juxtaposition of the wilderness with the unprotected intimacy of the made bed. As the site of a Palestinian military camp, it also evokes the aspirations of armed resistance. The second scene consists of a series of shots moving through the lanes of a refugee camp. The walls on either side are built of concrete blocks, scraps of wood and found objects. At one point the camera angles down to focus on the open sewer lines and criss crossed bare pipes in the street. However, the alleys are clean and free of debris. Metal cans planted with herbs stand in a neat line on a ledge; there are trees and the hint of a garden beyond a wall. The camera appears to move constantly toward the interior of a modest but functioning community. An extra-diegetic lullaby enhances the sense of the camp as an intimate domestic space, a site of sleep and of dreams. The scene ends within a modest courtyard, where an elderly man and his family gesture welcomingly toward the camera.

        Significantly, this move toward the interior is not one of violent penetration or unveiling that characterizes Orientalist images of Arab and Muslim societies. The camera moving through these camp alleyways is handheld at eye-level, purposely establishing its point of view. The warm welcome ending the scene appears to extend through the camera to the film’s viewers, emphasizing the non-hierarchical relations suggested by the shot. The travel from the empty bed at the site of armed resistance into the embrace of a Palestinian family also suggests a move away from the nationalist frame structuring Palestinian representations of that era that Malas found so limiting, and toward the more compelling psychological interior that is the focus of The Dream.6 In his later writing about the film, Malas describes his determination to avoid the com municative acts fundamental to the films of the plo: the act of informing the world of the unjust violence and deprivation inflicted on Palestinians, and of explicitly outlining an ideological frame for interpreting those injustices. He is disappointed when someone tells him: ‘I envisioned the film as an attempt to study the effect of the revolution on the sociology of the Palestinian camps from the perspective of changing values and thinking’ (Malas 1991: 34). When a man offers to take him to San Simon, a beach resort crowded with refugees, Malas is dismayed: ‘They always confront you with “Come see!” “You have to film this”, and “Come see what happened there”. You ask yourself, why is cinema connected with the need to show tragedies and the most hellish things?’ (Malas 1991: 34). When the Israeli bombings begin in July 1981 he writes: ‘I did not want to elicit dreams that had any connection with current events’ (Malas 1991: 102).

        The dreams in the film are richly varied and by no means free of disaster. People dream of violence, prison and dead loved ones. They dream of destroyed houses and forced relocation; Tall al-Zaʾtar appears in many dreams. They are also often expressly political. People dream of Arab and Palestinian political leaders, and one woman dreams of carrying out a coup d’etat. At the same time, they are often, not surprisingly, expressions of desires; a woman dreams of taking a Lebanese friend on a tour of Palestine, a young man says that from his mountain post he can see the lights of Palestinian towns, but in his dreams he sees the towns themselves, ‘just like the camps’. The dreams, though illogical, are manifestations of a truth in the way that they combine the difficulties people face and their hopes and doubts. In one young woman’s dream, water and electricity return to her house whenever Muhammad, a martyred family member, enters it. In another, a woman is told that the roosters she sees in a cockfight are fighting to liberate Palestine. A third woman, worried about hurt feelings, dreams of tearing down a martyr’s posters when the man depicted in them returns to life. 

        By inviting his characters to speak through dreams, Malas accomplishes at least three things. Most fundamentally, refraction occurs whereby viewers are not confronted with a direct narration of events, but rather encounter those events through the prism of the unconscious. The experiences described are simultaneously fantastic and true, and hence encourage new ways of thinking about those experiences. Second, by changing the frame through which characters talk about themselves, Malas elicit from them different effects. Interviewees speak with wonder and bemusement, rather than with the anger, fear, indignation or sadness with which claims are often made. These two factors work together to create a non-hierarchical relationship between characters and viewers. Most viewers will not have experienced the violence that has shaped the lives of Malas’s characters, but they will have experienced dreams. Dreams, then, become a point of encounter between characters and viewers. Viewers are not rendered secondary witnesses to atrocities, nor made to feel as if they have shared characters’ experiences of violence, but they can experience empathic unsettlement, that is, a feeling for another person while maintaining an awareness of difference (Bennet 2005: 8).

        Malas also refracts violence through metaphor. Halfway through the film, viewers are confronted with a shot of a cow’s head lying on a slaughterhouse floor, followed by one of a butcher’s hands honing a knife on a sharpening steel, the rapid striking of his blade along the steel matched sonically with the click of metal on metal. For the next half minute the knife honing shot alternates rhythmically with shots of butchers hoisting and skinning the animal, and a close-up of the cow’s skinned head turning on a hook, its open eye and malformed mouth veering to and from the camera lens. The sequence is shockingly ominous within the context of what has until this point been a contemplative experience. Referencing—without naming—the violence that permeates the characters’ lives, this scene marks a turning point in the film. The anecdotes and dreams people recount turn darker. Later, the rhythm of this scene is reprised when shots of the decorated graves of young men are repeatedly intercut with those of a printing press producing martyrs’ posters. The pulsing of the press echoes and evokes the clicking of metal on metal from the earlier knife honing passage.

        Together these scenes exemplify the point of encounter between sense and common memory that Bennet describes (Bennet 2005: 25); the slaughterhouse scene references the traumatic violence that pervades the film’s characters’ lives; its echo in the poster / cemetery sequence imbues that depiction of the social and political rituals for processing violent death with its effect of ominous dread. That effect in turn invites thought; the posters coming off the printing press are both artifacts of the culturally and communally important ritual of mourning—every grave is marked with a poster or enlarged photograph—and products of the Lebanese civil war and the organizations, including the plo, that participated in it. As such, the scene documents aspects of Palestinian life in Lebanon at the time. However, through the rhythmic echoing, the visceral feelings of horror evoked by the slaughterhouse scene are brought to bear on the mass production of martyrs referenced by the posters and graves, suggesting connections and layers of metaphor for the viewer to contemplate.

        The Roof

        The Dream engages one of the most violent periods in Palestinian history as it is unfolding. Discursively it intervenes within the rhetoric of national liberation in use at that time. Kamal Aljafari’s The Roof (2006), on the other hand, was made at a 60-year remove from the cataclysmic event that shapes the lives of its characters. Like the works of Emile Habibi, Anton Shammas and Elia Suleiman, The Roof contests the erasure of Palestinians in Israel from history. Aljafari’s subject is not the Nakba as an event from the past that is remembered. Rather, the director remains rigorously focused on the present. Like the trauma art that Jill Bennet analyzes, The Roof treats the present experience with memory rather than the pastness of particular events. When Bennet distinguishes between common memory and sense memory, she defines the former as a discursive framework through which events are transmitted and understood. While that process is psychologically and socially valuable, through that transmission, traumatic events are consigned to history, as if they are over, even though for survivors their effects live on into the present. Thus, common memory is always partial (Bennet 2005: 25). The Roof acts as an intervention into common memory, inviting viewers to share in an effective understanding of the on-going Nakba.

        Because the film’s characters are Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel, the affective understanding developed in the film queers the Israeli national ist narrative (Limbrick 2012: 106). Significantly the common memory in that narrative does not just consign the experiences of Palestinians in Israel to the past. It actively removes them from history. In The Roof, refraction occurs as viewers are given an affective experience allowing them to see the constructed nature of the Zionist discursive framework in which the film’s characters live their lives. At the same time, through stillness and inscrutability, Aljafari strips these characters of almost everything except their presence, thereby intimating at their discursive erasure as the foundation for their ongoing physical erasure from Israeli cityscapes.

        The focus of the film is the filmmaker’s family home in Ramleh, its characters and his family members, who play largely silent, impassive versions of themselves. The Roof is rigorously non-narrative. Each scene is composed and still, almost like a photograph, presenting an opportunity for viewers to contemplate an image or tableau vivant. Edits connect scenes either through visual cues (e.g., a shot of lace curtains leads to a shot framing a photograph of a bride) or thematically (the sound of waves against the coast of Beirut leads to a shot of the sea viewed from Jaffa, which in turn leads to one depicting boats beached on its shores). Overall, the film is characterized by a remarkable quiet. Many scenes are silent save for the ambient sounds of the city or household. Characters are often still. While the film does convey salient facts about conditions for Palestinians living in Israel (their expulsion from their homes in 1948, their economic, cultural, and infrastructural marginalization and the ongoing nature of their dispossession) its main purpose is not to inform viewers, but rather to offer an affective experience that reorients (one might say decolonizes) view ers’ perspectives.

        The Roof opens with a scene that is simultaneously ambiguous and freighted with meaning. Aljafari and his sister sit at a restaurant table in Jerusalem as rain pours down outside their window (F1). The soundtrack includes an inces sant creaking that suggests the rocking of a wooden boat. Together, the rain and creaking evoke the story of the filmmaker's family experience with the Nakba— narrated later in the film. Aljafari’s grandparents tried to flee through the port of Jaffa, but a week of stormy weather prevented them from leaving. The indeterminacy of the physical location of this conversation (mimetically in Jerusalem, but perhaps metaphorically elsewhere) is enhanced by the faint strangeness of its content. They discuss Aljafari’s imprisonment during the first Intifada, but his sister does not ask questions that would lead to a typical prison testimony (e.g., why Aljafari was arrested, whether he was charged with a crime, what conditions were like, or how he came to be released). Instead, she exclaims at the size of the cell (‘It was big!’) and asks whether his experience there was positive. Aljafari says little about negative aspects of his imprisonment, discussing instead relationships he formed there, the difficulty of leaving his cellmates upon release and the guilt that has kept him from visiting certain former cellmates. It is tempting, as Peter Limbrick does, to read the reference to imprisonment metaphorically, as an allusion to the feeling of imprisonment that characterizes the lives of Palestinians in Israel, especially since the film contains repeated images of walls and bars (Limbrick 2012: 107–108). However, imprisonment is only one of many restrictive conditions raised gently but repeatedly in the film—dispossession, stagnation, invisibility and inaudibility being others. Moreover, barriers and imprisonment are represented as sociopo litically complex. When Aljafari returns to this scene later in the film it is the sister who talks about her future, rather than the filmmaker describing his past. She describes her good treatment by Israeli colleagues, and her aspiration to become a judge in the same Israeli court system that imprisoned her brother two decades earlier.In later scenes, Aljafari introduces additional socio political complexities related to this theme of imprisonment. A border guard he and his sister interact with at theIsraeli Wall is a Bedouin, not a Jew, and converses with them in Arabic rather than Hebrew. The music emerging from the construction worker’s radio in this scene contributes to the Arabic soundscape that dominates the film, hinting at the role Palestinians have played in constructing the wall. Later, Aljafari speaks by phone with Nabieh Awada, a friend from prison who now lives in Beirut. They speak, among other things, of Awada’s inability to attend a concert in Amman, Jordan because of his political writings, and Alja fari’s inability to travel to most Arab countries because of his Israeli citizenship. These restrictions on movement are the result of regional and global phenomena, not just Israeli policies. Imprisonment, then, is just one of many facets of these characters’ complex lives.

        The indeterminate location of the conversation between Aljafari and his sister (Jerusalem / a boat) adds to the open nature of Aljafari’s text. If he is invoking his family’s fraught history with boats and rough seas, how are viewers to read this reference?Is it to their metaphorical escape (through emigration on the part of Aljafari, the filmmaker, and through professional success in Israel on the part of his sister) from the Palestinian condition of waiting that much of the rest of the film so eloquently depicts?7 If so, it is a treacherous one indeed, given the liminal nature of travel. Moreover, allusion to the boat that the siblings’ grandparents failed to board must also evoke the fate of those Palestinians who succeeded in leaving Jaffa, i.e., refugeehood. The open nature of this scene sets the stage for the paradoxes that make up the effect of the film, a work which simultaneously invites viewers into the private spaces of a Palestinian family while maintaining an inscrutability that prevents them from bridging the distance between their own experiences and what they see on screen; one that uses stasis and silence to evoke presence and agency.

        The Roof is structured largely as a poetics of the Aljafaris’ home. In a voice over at the start of the film, the director states that in 1948 family members who failed to leave were forcibly resettled into the houses of residents who fled. The Aljafari home consists of a ground floor where his family resides and the bare walls of a second floor that the previous owners had been in the process of building. This second floor / roof appears repeatedly throughout the film— as backdrop to opening and closing credits, as a site where Aljafari’s mother sits contemplating the town around her and as the object of the filmmaker’s obsessive camera. The interior is also interrogated; there, viewers see family members engage in the activities of daily life. Static shots of the empty family room invite viewers to contemplate its narrowness, its high windows that admit diffuse daylight but offer no view to the outside, and its television whose flickering contrasts with the quiet of the rooms themselves. The life Aljafari portrays within the rooms is of a piece with this mood; three sisters nap in their bedroom; various configurations of family members silently watch television. Even a dinner scene with eight family members gathered around the table is notable mainly for its quiet. Almost no conversation takes place. Instead the soundtrack, as with much of the film, is dominated by the ambient noise of clinking spoons, scraping chairs and television music. Aljafari makes liberal use of haptic images. His repeated slow panning shots of the concrete block walls of the unfinished second floor and long photographic shots of family’s homes in Ramleh and Jaffa suggest an attempt to interrogate or penetrate, to reveal to viewers the significances and associations these spaces and objects have for their owners.

        Aljafari’s work teases the viewer by simultaneously suggesting the auras of the roof and the home beneath it but refusing to reveal their secrets. In a prac tice he repeats in other home spaces featured in The Roof, the detailed survey of the filmmaker’s home includes a series of photo-like shots of details within each room: a pendulum wall clock, a dresser top full of cosmetics, photographic snapshots tucked into the frame of a needlepoint panel on the wall, a wedding photograph, curtains and a canary in a bird cage. The effect is to suggest, but not actually convey, intimacy. Aljafari appears to offer up his Arab family’s most private spaces to the gaze of outsiders, as if he were participating in the prac tices of penetration and unveiling that characterize Orientalist representations of Arab or Muslim life. However, these images obscure as much as they reveal. People and objects are mute. Viewers can confidently infer that the nail polish and hairbrushes on the bedroom dresser are used by the young women napping on the room’s narrow beds, but know almost nothing about where, when or why they might do so. The photos are clearly of family members, but one cannot be sure of who is who or why these particular photos were chosen for display. These private objects surely possess auras of experience and contact for the residents of the house, but Aljafari resists revealing them. The effect is one of inscrutability, of the impossibility of viewers ever sharing the experiences of those who appear in the film.

        Moreover, thing-like characters in The Roof are marked by an almost alarming passivity. Over and over one sees shots of people in states of rest or inactivity. When they work (e.g., the sister chopping tomatoes, the brother mounting a car tire) they do so silently and without visible personal engagement. In scene after scene characters sit, either staring into space or watching television. However, as is the case with the mute objects that Aljafari patiently offers up to a viewer’s gaze, characters are protected by an avoidance of emotion or meaningful disclosure. Within the mundane chronicling of the family’s daily life, gestures reveal no more than their surface meanings. How characters may feel about their lives or each other, their strategies for coping with the alienation that permeates the film, their frustrations or failures, is not revealed.

        Passive people and mute objects add up to a depiction of characters and lives stripped of the justifications or claims that would otherwise clutter and hence obscure a central point of the film: it is the mere existence of Palestinian Arabs within the state of Israel that gives the lie to the Zionist narrative and reveals the racism at its core. Viewers are made to pay attention not to characters' actions, accomplishments, relationships or injuries, but rather to their presence. In this regard Aljafari’s use of language is also of critical importance. Televisions screen Arabic language shows from the surrounding Arab countries, not Israeli shows.8 The characters’ Arabic is also almost entirely free of the Hebrew that usually peppers the speech of Palestinians in Israel. Hebrew and English appear in the film, but circumscribed within contexts of nationalism (a magazine article about soldiers in the Israeli army, Aljafari’s driver’s license application, and the song ‘I Believe’) and of colonialism (an audio tour recounting a history of Jaffa). Finally, the extra-diegetic music of the film, much of which appears over smooth, tracking shots of the walls of the family home, is made up of well-known Arabic songs from the 1940s to the 2000s. Arabic, then, is ostentatiously present in the film. This choice has ramifications that go beyond the experience of Palestinians to gesture toward another major erasure that grew out of the creation of the state of Israel and continues in the sense memory of many of its citizens, namely the violent erasure of the Arab-ness of Israel’s Arab Jewish citizens.

        While Aljafari protects characters from false intimacy, his pacing creates empathic unsettlement by offering viewers an affective experience akin to that created by the existential position of the film’s characters. The panning shots and lingering on static scenes place viewers in a position of suspended, ironic contemplation that itself mimics the subject position of the characters within the film vis-à-vis the Israeli mainstream. Like Aljafari and his family, viewers gaze at something to which they are not a part, sitting before a screen, their immobile bodies suggesting suspension rather than action. Stillness, slowness and inscrutability, then, create refraction, carefully preparing viewers for a confrontation with the Israeli Zionist discursive framework that appears later in the film.

        A climax of sorts occurs when Aljafari visits the Azrieli Center Tower in Tel Aviv. There, he engages in encounters utterly alienating in their insistence on Jewish Israeli-ness. He picks up a book titled How to Make a Jewish Movie and sugar packets emblazoned with the images of Jewish Israeli leaders (F2). He gazes out the windows of the tower at the city of Jaffa, dwarfed and hemmed in (another visual reference to imprisonment) by the high-rises of Tel Aviv. He listens to an audio tour in English that completely elides Jaffa’s Palestinian history. In a final shot Aljafari sits slumped and immobile in the armchair of a lobby, while the English lyrics ‘I exist, I exist, I’m the son of Israel’ from the nationalist song ‘I Believe’ fills the soundtrack. This last shot is heavily ironic, of course; the lyrics clearly are not intended to include Aljafari and other Palestinian citizens of the state, and yet there he is, incontrovertibly existing before the viewers’ eyes. Moreover, the contrast between the quiet practice of Arab Palestinian life that has permeated the film up to this point with the noisy assertion of nationalist and ethnic identity in this section of the film make manifest the constructed nature of the latter.

        The placement of this segment near the end of the film, after nearly 45 minutes dominated by the contemplation of silent objects and mostly impassive figures, is key to its power. Up until this point viewers have been conditioned to inhabit a perspective of ironic distance and temporal suspension—as Bennet would put it, to come into contact with a sense memory, in this case one arising from the Aljafari family’s experience with the Nakba and its ongoing effects (Bennet 2005: 44). Israeli nationalist discourse is suddenly not just visible but experienced from a perspective of silencing and exclusion.


        While The Dream and The Roof differ significantly in their subject matter and historical contexts, and while Malas and Aljafari evince different relationships to their material and resort to very different approaches in their filmmaking, they also share a great deal. Both films address conditions of loss; The Dream referred to in Malas’s title is not just the Palestinian dream of a liberated Pales tine, but also the broader dream of the Arab left to emancipate the region from colonialism, imperialism and despotism through national liberation. The Roof arises within the fraught context of the continued erasure of Palestine and the Palestinians from Israeli history, with the removal of Palestinians from Ajami—the last Arab neighbourhood of Jaffa, referenced in the film through the ‘accidental’ destruction of a house. Both filmmakers challenge dominant discursive contexts—the ideological framework of the failing Palestinian rev olution on the one hand and Zionism on the other—through refraction. Both also refract the claims-making that dominates solidarity narratives from the time of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut to the present. Character and viewer meet through these films not as supplicant or testifier on the one hand and actor or sympathizer on the other, but as fellow dreamers and as unknowable but approachable others to one another.

1        Photographs and film were used in human rights campaigns related to King Leopold’s atroc ities in the Belgian Congo and the Armenian genocide (Sliwinski 2011; Torchin 2012). Both projects assumed efficacy for the image of atrocity. Sontag begins Regarding the Pain of Others with a discussion of Three Guineas, published in 1938, in which Virginia Woolf argues strenu ously for the efficacy of photographs of violence for anti-war campaigns.
2        In this paragraph I reference works that treat both still and moving images as well as verbal (oral and written) testimony and films or videos of testimony. While there are significant differences between these media, I am concerned here with what they share as means through which claims are made about experiences with violence and dispossession. Space constraints do not allow for an elaboration on the relative efficacy of each in creating secondary witnesses out of their respective spectators or audiences; or, for that matter, of image and word together. This is treated at length in Torchin 2012.
3        Azoulay herself addresses this point when she says ‘I employ the term “contract” in order to shed terms such as “empathy”, “shame”, “pity”, or “compassion” as organizers of this gaze’ (Azoulay 2008: 17). However, her theory does not address the problem that claims-making images will elicit such emotions in viewers who are not trained to avoid them.
4        What exactly constitutes Palestinian cinema is a complex question, given that the geographic, infrastructural and financial criteria by which national cinema categories are usually defined cannot apply. Malas, a Syrian filmmaker, received funding from the plo to make his film, but did not create it within the framework of the plo’s Film Unit. His writing about the film make it clear that he was aware of differences between his own perspective and that of the Palestinians he filmed. While Aljafari is a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, his film was made with European funding. See Alexander (2005).
5        Bennet borrows the term from Dominick DeCapra.6        I am indebted to Nick Denes for significant input into the analysis of this scene.
7        In the film itself, Aljafari himself is never actually identified as a filmmaker residing in the diaspora.
8        Aljafari has spoken of his own pleasure in constructing an Arabic mediascape within the film (personal communication, October 2009).
Alexander, Livia (2005). Is There a Palestinian Cinema? The National and Transna tional in Palestinian Film Production. In Stein Rebecca L. & Ted Swedenburg (eds.), Palestine, Israel and the Politics of Popular Culture, pp. 150–174. Durham, nc: Duke University Press.

Azoulay, Ariella (2008). The Civil Contract of Photography. New York: Zone Books.

Bennet, Jill (2005). Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma and Contemporary Art. Stanford, ca: Stanford University Press.

Berger, John (1980). About Looking. New York: Pantheon Books.

Butler, Judith (2007). Torture and the Ethics of Photography. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 25(6): 951–966.
Fassin, Didier (2008). The Humanitarian Politics of Testimony: Subjectification through Trauma in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Cultural Anthropology 23(3): 531–558.
Feldman, Allen (2004). Memory Theaters, Virtual Witnessing and the Trauma Aesthetic. Biography 27(1): 163–202.

Keenan, Thomas (2012). Publicity and Indifference: Media, Surveillance and ‘Human itarian Intervention’. In Joram ten Brink and Joshua Oppenheimer (eds.), Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence, pp. 15–40. London and New York: Wallflower Press.

Limbrick, Peter (2012). From the Interior: Space Time and Queer Discursivity in Kamal Aljafari’s The Roof. In Lebow, Alisa (ed.), The Cinema of Me: The Self and Subjectivity in First Person Documentary, pp. 98–120. London and New York: Wallflower Press.

Linfield, Susie (2010). The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Malas, Muhammad (1991). al-Manam: mufakkirat film. Beirut: Dar al-Adab.
Sliwinski, Sharon (2011). Human Rights in Camera. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sontag, Susan (1977). On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
–– (2004a). Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador.
–– (2004b). Regarding the Torture of Others. New York Times Magazine, 23 May 2004. 

Torchin, Leshu (2012). Creating the Witness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

Weizman, Eyal (2011). The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza. New York: Verso.

Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 7 (2014) 152–168
Kamal Aljafari
All Rights Reserved © 2024
Designed by Chiara Alexandra Young