The Ritual Against Oblivion: An Archeology Of Everyday Life In Kamal Aljafari's Port Of Memory

Nour Ouyada,

Intérieurs du rituel: approches, pratiques et représentation en arts; Art and Media Conference of the Université de Montréal


        In 2005, Salim, Fatmeh and Sadika Bilbesi received a notice of eviction from their 40-year- old home. This is happening in the once wealthy Ajami neighborhood (or what's left of it) in Jaffa, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Salim, Fatmeh and Sadika are also uncle, aunt and grandmother of Kamal Aljafari, director of the movie Port Of Memory (2009). They are accused of squatting the house that the grandfather of the director bought yet forty years ago. The lawyer in charge of the case said to have lost the documents proving the legality of their situation. In this respect the director's aunt repeatedly asks the unanswered question: 'w eysh el hall?'

        “What to do now?”

        Since the 1980s, Jaffa has been subjected to multiple waves of evictions and demolitions orchestrated by the Tel Aviv Municipality. The city of childhood of the director is now reduced to buildings in ruins scattered on some corners of deserted streets. It is to answer the absurdity of this situation that Kamal Aljafari begins to film in December 2008 the daily life of his family as well as that of their neighbors. He tries to frame their movements, observe the movements of their bodies and scrutinize their movements in space. The filmmaker cumulates the images and develops, little by little, a sort of audio-visual archive that documents the way his family uses the space of their homes and their city. Aljafari films ritual actions that are repeated on a daily basis (washing hands, eating, sleep, read, feed pets, pray, etc...). Faced with the absence of any oicial documentation, and where the word has lost its credibility within a corrupt colonial system1, Kamal Aljafari presents in Port Of Memory the filmic recording of everyday rituals as a concrete way to legitimize the presence of his family in their home, demanding as much cinematographically as materially the place - or even the right to the place - which was confiscated.

        In this text, we will try to show at first how the filmmaker makes legitimacy daily by filming the gestures of his family and neighbors in the public and intimate places of Jaffa. We will then look at the shift from the punctual to the ritual, anchoring the characters in the places thanks to the insistence on the repetitive nature of the filmed gestures, to finally focus on the way in which Aljafari builds rituals strictly cinematographic transforming the spectator into a witness of the conflicting belonging of the Palestinian inhabitants to Jaffa.

            By filming the daily life of his family and neighbors, Kamal Aljafari is reappropriating the actions that have long been taken away from Palestinians. Recall that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories stems from the idea that in 1948 the Israelis settled on deserted land. The presence of the Palestinians who inhabited this land was - and still is - then completely denied. This means that the very existence of Palestinians on this territory upsets the founding premise of the Zionist colonial system. Presence, existence and belonging merge. In his text "Contested spaces: Kamal Aljafari's transnational Palestinian films" Peter Limbrick writes:

        [...] Aljafari's film unsettles has dominant mode of media representation in which the state of Israel is portrayed as homogeneously Jewish and Palestinians are visible only in relation to the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and the West Bank. Jewish settlers - rather than as second-class citizens of Israel itself2.

        Although Limbrick has written these lines about The Roof, the director's first feature film of 2006, this is just as fitting for the film in this text. By recording the daily presence of his family and his neighbors, Palestinians living in Israel, in Jaffa, Aljafari fights the dichotomy on which is based the mediatized image of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It complicates the deal and traces a space where the image of a Palestinian daily has been erased. The director defies the figure of the Palestinian symbolized by the militant who throws stones at the oppressor during the first and second Intifada and strives to distance the gestures of his characters from the public universe. The camera of Aljafari is thus in search of lost gestures. The filmmaker, for example, is interested in his aunt washing his hands, preparing his mother's medicine, making the bed. He puts his camera in front of his uncle who eats and sleeps. He watches his neighbor feed a horde of cats, and stares at a few men who frequent the same almost deserted coffee every day (see F4–9). By moving towards the sphere of intimacy, Aljafari gives back to his family the legitimacy of their daily actions        

        In his Notes on Gesture, Giorgio Agamben writes that "In the cinema, a society that has lost its gestures tries to reclaim what it has lost, and at the same time records the loss.3 Agamben therefore places the gesture - and not the image - in the center of the cinema, to put it at the end of a dynamic of reappropriation worked out by what has been lost. The desire to find the lost gesture is fueled by the obsession with losing and disappearing. Port of Memory embodies this tension in its very structure, as we will see. Aljafari's camera lingers on the stone, the concrete and the traces of destruction that they reveal, placing the loss as the first fruits of any act of reappropriation. For example, panoramic views and tracking shots of walls, building facades and rubble are interspersed with scenes where family and neighbors are at home or in the café.

        Through a long traveling shot, the film opens on a half-destroyed building. We then attend the scene where Salim, the filmmaker's uncle, visits the lawyer and discovers that the lawyer no longer has the necessary documents to prove that the house belongs to their family. This scene acts like a shadow that projects itself on the rest of the film, without necessarily maintaining with the others who follow a causal relation. Indeed, it is only a question of this meeting with the lawyer that during two night scenes, where the uncle and the aunt, sitting in front of the television try to update themselves with respect to the stages of the legal case. The rest of the scenes seem to float without subordination to this initial situation. Due to its location at the beginning of the film, the scene where the possibility of losing the house is revealed, seems to threaten the rest of the sequences, weighing down all movement and movement. We are dealing with a structure resembling that of an atom where all the scenes would gravitate around the scene of the beginning, like a nucleus that would radiate and haunt all the planes. This configuration gives everyday gestures a meaning that goes beyond their original purpose. The act of eating, of washing one's hands, of preparing a bouquet of flowers, or even of praying, loses innocence of their utilitarian aim to become proof of belonging to the places in which they are practiced.

        Let us return to Agamben, who writes in the text already quoted: "What characterizes the gesture is that it is no longer a question of producing or acting, but of assuming and supporting4. Because they are recorded, gestures, such as the Alfajari films, assume the role of authenticating a presence in a place at a given moment. They testify that what is on the screen took place at that time . As Roland Barthes explains the noema of photography by anchoring it in a "that-a-summer" that says "someone saw the referent in flesh and bone, or in person5, the filming "certifies, not by historical testimonies, but by a new order of evidence, experimental in some ways6 that the family and the filmmaker's neighbors were there, in flesh and blood, in Jaffa.

        The characters on the screen live in these places, they are not passing. With their gestures and their objects, they take root. Indeed, it should be noted that the film contains many close-ups on the objects that populate the places filmed: photo frames, furniture, religious symbols, decorative paintings, everything that is a choice that a character would have made to make the more intimate living space (see F10-11). The importance of these objects is emphasized in a sequence where we see on the screen an Israeli film crew who films a TV show in the house of the filmmaker's neighbors. The team will remove the picture frames, the mirror and the living room table to prepare the venue. We then witness the repetition of the scene in which a man explains that he himself built the windows and painted the ceiling of this room. The show wants to put this man as the owner of this house while we have already met the real owners, neighbors of the filmmaker. To be able to stage this lie, the film crew had to remove these objects and any trace of the presence of the two women in the place. Moreover, during this scene, they are shown locked in their bedroom. the film crew had to remove these objects and any trace of the presence of the two women in the place. Moreover, during this scene, they are shown locked in their bedroom. the film crew had to remove these objects and any trace of the presence of the two women in the place. Moreover, during this scene, they are shown locked in their bedroom.

        In contrast, by choosing to record the daily actions of the inhabitants of Jaffa, Aljafari places his family in the place where they are threatened with eviction, reminding the viewer that "any photograph is a certificate of presence7. And to better mark the characters' belonging to filmed spaces, he insists on the ritual value of gestures, thus emphasizing the continuous use of these places over time. These gestures are reproduced by the characters but also by the structure of the film. It is thanks to the repetition by editing that the passage from the punctual form of the event to the ritual form of daily life takes place in Port of Memory.

        Gestures and repetitions: towards a ritual of everyday life

        We see Fatmeh, the filmmaker's aunt, wash her hands three times during the film or Salim twice bring a dish of food to their neighbor Samir. In addition, the family is repeatedly picked up in front of the television. In addition, we are witnessing twice a scene where a waiter makes a strange gesture: that of spinning a piece of coal lit around his neck. Each repetition anchors the character concerned in the place, particularly by focusing on the objects that serve as extension to the gesture (soap, plate, coal...). The gestures slip from punctual to ritual. In addition, Alfajari films them in a fixed shot, taking the time to look at them and giving them time to unfold, to reveal themselves. Called to be repeated, the gestures shown, whose stages are shelled, constitute a form of archive of everyday life. There are religious micro-rituals (pray, visit the graveyard, recite rosaries), micro-rituals related to food (eating, feeding the neighbor, feeding the mother, feeding cats), those related to hobbies (watching TV, strolling in a cafe, strolling through the city), and those related to housework (doing the bed, doing the laundry). Each gesture is realized under our eyes in its entirety and can be inventoried as a document that describes a way of living and using the place. those related to a hobby (watching television, strolling in a cafe, strolling around the city), and those related to housework (doing the bed, doing the laundry). Each gesture is realized under our eyes in its entirety and can be inventoried as a document that describes a way of living and using the place. those related to a hobby (watching television, strolling in a cafe, strolling around the city), and those related to housework (doing the bed, doing the laundry). Each gesture is realized under our eyes in its entirety and can be inventoried as a document that describes a way of living and using the place.

        In La Chambre Claire, Barthes evokes a certain daily indifference to the noema "that-is-been" of the photographic image. He writes that there needs to be a certain awakening in order for the noema of images to emerge as obvious8. The importance of repetition becomes in this crucial perspective: the ritualization of gestures, in its reiteration, its insistence and accuracy, triggers a loop mechanism that would awaken the viewer of his indifference. Thanks to the repetition and the minute documentation of this repetition, there is a transition from a “that-a-summer” to a “that-has-been-always-the”. The spectator finds himself faced with a double obviousness: the daily rituals performed by the characters he sees on the screen not only airm a presence in action, captured at a given moment but also testify to a perpetuity in space from Jaffa. Port Of Memory confronts in this way the empirical membership - the experience and experience of the Palestinians - with the bureaucratic and oicial Zionist colonization. The ritual gesture is opposed here to the oicial paper.

        However, the expression "ritual (or micro-ritual) of daily life" contains in it a contradiction that would be interesting to note: that of suggesting at the same time a sacred time, that of the ritual, and a profane time, that of the daily. By filming banal gestures of a secular time, the filmmaker celebrates them, even sacralises them, as suggested by the ritual of cleaning the hands of his aunt who, despite his apparent banality, is ceremonial. Aljafari places these two components of the ritual on the same level and builds his film in this space.

        The same dual configuration is found in the cloudy genre of the film, both fiction and documentary. In a 2016 article titled "Kamal Aljafari: A Recollection," Hamid Dabashi says the filmmaker mixes documentary and fiction as if he did not know the difference between the two9. If Port Of Memory is a documented reconstruction where the members of Aljafari's family perform their daily rituals, but they replay what they experienced some time before, at the time of the eviction notice . The film is therefore caught between the everyday and the performance, the filmed individuals playing themselves under the confident gaze of the director. In this regard, Aljafari recounts the anecdote that his aunt, not understanding the interest of his nephew in the very particular way in which she made her bed, proposed to her nephew a "more beautiful" alternative. But it was important for the filmmaker to film his actions as they appeared every day. Without really being completely convinced of the relevance of revealing to the camera gestures that seemed unimportant, the aunt of the director accepted with confidence in him. It is through this trust that the filmmaker shows us that the space he films is part of his intimacy to him too. He lived there and he belongs to it.

        This duality that runs through the film also manifests itself on another level. Port of Memory is built around inner spaces as much as around outer spaces in the city of Jaffa. But the filmmaker develops another relation vis-à-vis these external spaces. Panoramic and travellings sweeping walls and facades (see F12-13) reveal a glance that slides on the walls and which contrasts with the fixed shots capturing the interiors. The clean cut and the ellipse are the means which assure the passages between internal places and external places. In the houses, the characters do not circulate, they sit, stand, asleep. We do not see them coming in or out of a space. They are either inside or outside, often immobile (or almost). Movements of deterritorialization and reterritorialization intertwine through the film to account for a home that is strongly anchored in the place while still being displaced; suggesting that, like any Palestinian living in the Israeli state, the characters - and Aljafari himself - are both inside and out, exiled in their own country. The film inscribes less its project in the desire to show a cultural phenomenon (a Palestinian community living under the occupation), than in that to deploy an experience of time and space, a texture of everyday life to Jaffa that would be communicated to all spectator bodies. the characters - and Aljafari himself - are both inside and out, exiled in their own country. The film inscribes less its project in the desire to show a cultural phenomenon (a Palestinian community living under the occupation), than in that to deploy an experience of time and space, a texture of everyday life to Jaffa that would be communicated to all spectator bodies. the characters - and Aljafari himself - are both inside and out, exiled in their own country. The film inscribes less its project in the desire to show a cultural phenomenon (a Palestinian community living under the occupation), than in that to deploy an experience of time and space, a texture of everyday life to Jaffa that would be communicated to all spectator bodies.

        Cinematographic Rituals

        In parallel with the ritual gestures he films, Aljafari constructs purely cinematographic rituals. By repeatedly returning to the same facades (whether filmed from the same angle or from a different angle), a return gesture (which would be a variation of the repetition gesture) is created (see F14-17). The symmetrical framing directs the gaze towards the ruined areas, the facades become monuments of a present always colonized by the past. Their reappearance on the screen triggers a mechanism of recognition in the spectator: in the same way as in the ritual space (profane or sacred), the recognition of the places is part of the experience, the familiarity with the places that results from This return initiates the viewer to a look recalling the journey of a pilgrimage.

        Returning to these seemingly banal places, Aljafari gives them importance. He tells us: here are the walls, the stones, the streets, the textures of this city, it still exists, it always resists, pay homage. This multiplication of returns and repetitions draws circular movements in the film and make the spectator slide into a kind of trance where he thinks he is observing the unfolding of a daily life.

        In an article entitled "Ecology of ritualistic forms of ethnographic film", Alice Leroy writes about the concept of "film-trance" in Jean Rouch and Maya Deren:

The camera is not content to describe the conditions of the "real" situation by mimetic or analogical action, it is the intermediary of a sharing of the sensible forms of the ritual. In this contagious chain, the possession is transmitted from the filmed body to the filming body, and consequently to the body of the spectator, the last link in the contamination of the subjects of the gaze by the radical otherness of the trance10.”

        This "ritualistic" aesthetic found in Rouch and Deren makes it possible to fashion a new cinematographic reality11. It is not a question in this film of exposing only the dislocated daily life of the inhabitants of Jaffa, but it is especially a question of constructing a cinematographic space which accounts for it and which can thus contaminate the spectator who makes the experiment. In this perspective, we question the nature of the space that builds the accumulation of ritual gestures in this film.

        Cutting and sound are two important elements to examine under this light. Inside the houses, the continuity between the different rooms is not assured. In fact, the viewer can not understand how the different rooms are distributed relative to each other. It is almost impossible for him to map the places. Also, the only logic that seems to cross the spaces is that of the gestures that pose characters moving from one room to another in order to perform the rituals of everyday life. We can see that there is dislocation between the place, its inhabitants, and the way in which it is inhabited, used and occupied. This fragmentation of space is exemplified in a scene where Salim stops in front of a poster on which is written that an entire apartment, or in part, is wanted to be rented or bought. Likewise, a young woman knocks on the door to ask, in Hebrew, whether the house or one of her rooms is for rent or for sale. The place is not conceived in its unity, nor its coherence, but rather, in its capacity to shelter the various filmed gestures.

        An omnipresent soundscape for indoor scenes, consisting of noise coming from the outside - jackhammers, tractors and rather noisy yards off-field -, however highlights the fragility of the partitions. This gives us the impression, although the camera is inside, that all doors and windows are open, or that a partition, wall, or roof is missing. The characters and gestures, the concept of closed space are constantly challenged by the sound field, evoking a city under construction, destruction and constant transformation. Any house in which one finds oneself seems perpetually threatened with ruin or construction.

        It is the frame, in its fixity, which becomes the closed space now everything in place. Without this stability of the frame, everything seems to flee or collapse. Here, the possessed bodies12 are the inhabitants of a city that can not contain itself to tell itself. This is manifested in the film through the three scenes where a man on a motorcycle stops in front of several places in Jaffa and begins to yell or laugh hysterically, for no reason (see F18). The absurdity of this act contrasts with the silence of the other characters, coming to highlight the complexity of a hurting memory, worried by oblivion and loss.

        Jaffa is a place where the Palestinian past and the colonial reality struggle to coexist. The images and sounds of Aljafari are not reconstructions or memories: what the viewer sees in Port Of Memory is "the real in the past: both past and reality"13. When the past close to the recording of everyday rituals comes into contact with the distant past of destroyed facades and houses, the reality of the present moment of viewing opens and welcomes the heterogeneous mixture of temporalities. "There is a dual joint position: of reality and past14. Which places the viewer within this conjunction: he is not only a witness to the fact that the inhabitants of Jaffa belong to their city, but is above all a witness to their being obliterated by the Israeli state. The characters in Port Of Memory are ghosts15, and thanks to the insistent camera of the director, the viewer can see them. Aljafari builds cinematographic rituals to draw a place where the inhabitants are caught in a permanent in-between.


        According to Agamben, "the cinema brings back the images to the part of the gesture. [...] he is the dream of a gesture. To introduce in this dream the element of awakening, such is the task of the filmmaker16. "In Port Of Memory Kamal Aljafari films the daily rituals of family members and neighbors in Jaffa, recording in detail their interactions from a place where they are threatened with expulsion. Faced with lost oicial documents, Aljafari refers to these gestures as marks of a "they- have-always-been-there17". It is by filming them that they reveal their familiarity and their ability to talk about the place and the trauma that crosses it. The filmmaker gives them the ability to reactivate the place through his rituals.

        However, towards the end of the film, Kamal Aljafari performs the dream gesture that Agamben evokes: to make his uncle walk in the city of Jaffa as it no longer exists. Indeed, with the help of digital tools, the filmmaker makes literally disappear an Israeli actor of the images of a musical comedy turned in Jaffa to keep only the streets in which this actor circulates (digital technique of erasure that will resume and develop in his feature film 2015 Recollection ). He instead inserts his uncle Salim whom he has previously filmed while walking in front of a green screen. Aljafari's uncle wanders through the streets of Jaffa and, after a stroll, reclaims the territory. According to Michel De Certeau, "the act of walking is to the urban system what the enunciation (thespeech act ) is to the language [...] it is a process of appropriation of the topographic system by the pedestrian [...] it is a spatial realization of the place18. Walking allows man to speak, to narrate and therefore to practice space. "The games of step are shaping spaces. They weave the place19. It is then this ritual of walking which at the same time inscribes the uncle of the director in the landscape traveled, updates the filmic image of the city and introduces the possibility of walking there (see F19-22). Port of Memory therefore makes an impossible gesture: to make a Palestinian walk in a territory that has been confiscated.


1        In writing about The Roof (2006), Aljafari's first feature film, Peter Limbrick says: "[...] the Jewish state renders invisible and invalid Palestinian claims to a prior and ongoing spatial practice within the terrain now claimed by / as Israel proper "in Peter Limbrick," Contested Spaces: Kamal Aljafari's Transnational Palestinian Films ", in Terri Ginsberg and Andrea Mensch (eds.), A Companion to German Cinema, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, p. 224. As Palestinians in Israel, Kamal Aljafari, his family and his neighbors have the status of second-class citizens. These Palestinians are the ones who stayed after the Nakba of 1948. They speak Arabic and have learned Hebrew. They undergo an internal exile which makes their presence on this territory paradoxical, even absurd.
2        Limbrick, 2012, p. 224.
3        Giorgio Agamben, "Notes on the gesture", Trafic, n°1, winter 1991, p.33.
4        Ibid., p. 35.
5        Roland Barthes, The Claire Chamber. Notes on photography , Paris, Cahiers du Cinéma, 1980, p. 124. Barthes will also say that "the photo is literally an
emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, left radiations that come to touch me, who are here; regardless of the duration of the transmission; the picture of the disappeared being comes to touch me like the delayed rays of a star. A kind of umbilical link connects the body of the thing photographed to my eyes: the light, though impalpable, is here a carnal environment, a skin that I share with the one who was photographed "in Ibid., p. 126-127. It should also be noted that then Barthes does not fail to distinguish the photo of the cinema (in relation to the exposure time, the intervention of a staging and a fiction), the evidence of "that-a According to him, "summer" is the characteristic of every photographic image, whether in motion or not (in the quotation above, he speaks of "duration of transmission").
6        Ibid., p. 125.
7        Ibid., p. 135.
8        “It is possible that in the daily wave of photos, the thousand forms of interest that they seem to arouse, the no-name" That-has-been "is, not repressed (a noema can be), but lived with indifference, as a trait that goes without saying. It was from this indifference that the picture of the Winter Garden had just woken me up.”, Ibid., p. 121.
9        Hamid Dabashi, «Kamal Aljafari: A Recollection», Ibraaz, November 2016, ︎︎︎ (accessed October 18 2017).
10        Alice Leroy, "Ecology of ritualistic forms of ethnographic film. Rouch, Deren, Gardner, Russell and the Sensory Ethnography Lab. Cinétrens , n°1, spring 2016, p. 7.
11        Ibid., p. 8.
12        These are the bodies that are found at the beginning of the "contagious chain" as understood by Rouch and Deren, a chain that allows the transfer of a state of trance from the bodies filmed to that of the spectator and that through the filming body of Aljafari. The viewer, for the duration of the film, is invited to experience a dislocated place. An experience that leaves him disoriented and where the only reference is the quasi-ritual repetition of daily gestures. The fact of insisting on his gestures posed by the protagonists insists on their body to them as a vehicle of the trauma of the erasure they experienced.
13        Barthes, 1980, p. 130.
14        Ibid., p. 120.
15        It is the filmmaker himself who uses this term in a conversation where he told me how his mother forbade him to speak Arabic at school (a Jewish institution) to avoid revealing or insisting on his Arab identity. He then describes himself as a ghost (a ghost) that should not be seen or heard.
16        Agamben, 1991, p. 34-35.
17        I repeat here the expression of Jacques Derrida according to which: "The trace is the" it took place there "of the film, the survival. Because all these witnesses are survivors: they lived that and say it “in Jacques Derrida," The cinema and its ghosts”, Cahiers du Cinema, n° 556, April 2001, p. 80. In the context of this film, this last sentence can become: Because all these witnesses are survivors: they lived there and say it. In this same passage, Derrida continues: "The cinema is the absolute simulacrum of absolute survival. He tells us what we do not return, he tells us about death. By his own spectral miracle, he points out to us what should not leave a trace. It is thus twice a trace: a trace of the testimony itself, a trace of oblivion, a trace of absolute death, a trace of the without-trace, a trace of extermination. It is the rescue, by the film, of what remains without salvation, the salvation to the sans-salut, the experience of pure survival that testifies.” The cinematographic image does not only indicate, as Barthes would say, that "it-has-been" but also that what has been, is no more. If Barthes insists that the photographic image “does not say (inevitably) what is more, but only and for sure, what has been” (Barthes, 1980: 133), Derrida strives to bring the moving image back to survival, to its capacity to testify to what is no longer there
18      Michel De Certeau, 1990. The invention of the quotidian. Tome 1: arts of making, Paris, Editions Gallimard, coll. “Folio”, 1990, p.180.
19       Ibid., p. 179.
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