February 13th 2011
Film Review

Stillness Amid A Shifting World

        ︎︎︎Port of Memory

        by Rachel Saltz
        on The New York Times

        The Palestinian director Kamal Aljafari’s elliptical film “Port of Memory” occupies ground somewhere between documentary and fiction. The port of the title is Jaffa in Israel, and Mr. Aljafari shows its streets, its crumbling walls, the interiors of its houses. He also shows people engaged in the banal activities of daily life: a woman washes her hands; people sit on a couch and talk. And is that the sound of gunfire in the background?

        As a filmmaker Mr. Aljafari favors discretion over explanation and formalism over narrative. (His work has been compared to that of Antonioni and Bresson.) He keeps his camera mostly stationary; scenes contain almost no cuts; music is used minimally. He may be making a motion picture, but Mr. Aljafari is attracted to stillness. The people in his scenes are often sitting, barely moving, in postures that resemble despair. It’s as if he wanted to stop time, to freeze the city as it has been but won’t be for long.

        “Port of Memory” doesn’t have a story exactly, but a plot thread runs through it: A family is about to lose its home as old neighborhoods in Jaffa disappear and, presumably, the Arab population is displaced. That “presumably” is because Mr. Aljafari, whose method is more about withholding, doesn’t provide much context.

        Audiences, especially foreign ones, will find themselves at sea at times. Is that Arabic or Hebrew being spoken? (Note to subtitlers: Find a way to let us know. It’s important here.) This may be part of Mr. Aljafari’s plan: Viewers should be unmoored, unsettled, like the people in the film. Yet the movie too often fails to reward the close watching it requires. While its stillness powerfully suggests stasis, its fragmentary approach doesn’t achieve a cumulative power.

(“Port of Memory” plays on a program with Mr. Aljafari’s short film “Balconies” and an eight-minute work by Ken Jacobs, “The Day Was a Scorcher.”)

Opens on Monday in Harlem.

Produced, written and directed by Kamal Aljafari; director of photography, Jacques Besse; edited by Marie Helene Mora; production design by Silvija Saranovic; released by Maysles Cinema/Documentary in Bloom. Shown with Mr. Aljafari’s short film “Balconies” and Ken Jacobs’s short film “The Day Was a Scorcher” at the Maysles Cinema, 343 Malcolm X Boulevard, between 127th and 128th Streets, Harlem. Total running time: 1 hour 11 minutes. These films are not rated.

Kamal Aljafari
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