My most recent foray into Palestinian film is Port of Memory (Aljafari, 2010):
The history of the town of Jaffa, a thriving port city now part of Tel Aviv, provides the background for Aljafari’s most recent film, centering on his mother’s family at risk of eviction if they can’t find proof that the house they have lived in for decades belongs to them. Their predicament is rendered with Aljafari’s usual subtlety, as well as deadpan humor and dark wit. This skeletal narrative provides the scaffolding for a portrait of life in what was once a bustling neighborhood that was nearly emptied by fighting during the establishment of the state of Israel, and then suffered decades of official neglect. In the meantime, Jaffa was often used as a location for action adventure movies featuring the likes of Chuck Norris. While these films used the city as a generically exotic location, they have now become, in a neat bit of irony, the source of documentary images of the city as it was. (Havard Film Archive, 2010)
The film’s setting in run-down Jaffa and its story of a family trying to prove ownership of their house is an interesting exploration of memory through place. There are long sequences in which the audience sees the desolate destroyed architecture and infrastructure of Jaffa, abandoned buildings and empty streets, creating an atmosphere of a place in which the present is so demoralising that its people cling to a past, to memories and history, as they hope for the future to return them to this history. The title invokes this place of memory, and it also references the transient nature of movement through its reference to Jaffa as a port (although no ships dock here any more).
The slow pace of the film and its lack of dialogue supports an atmosphere of limbo, of waiting.; Aljafari himself said that the film is about “being in a limbo and living in an uncertainty, which is the situation of almost any Palestinian (Chaudhary, 2011)”. The scenes of Salim waiting in the lawyer’s office, the men drinking coffee and watching TV in the desolate cafe, and the scenes of Salim’s mother and sister watching TV at home are all suffused with a purgatorial quality and the feeling that time is standing still. The boredom born of waiting that seems endemic in Jaffa is exemplified by the man at the cafe who seems to burn things just to see them burn and almost burns himself just to feel the heat.
TV watching is an important part of this limbo, it features as a device to illustrate how little else the Palestinians of Jaffa have in their lives. But it also serves to highlight another device that Aljafari uses to explore memory and its connection place. In the port-side cafe which the men while away the hours, one man sits watching a Chuck Norris film, The Delta Force (Golan, 1986), which was made in Jaffa with Israeli Jews playing Arabs (Chaudhary, 2011). Scenes from this film are seen again later in Port of Memory as shots of Chuck Norris careening through Jaffa’s streets in an extended chase sequence are juxtaposed with Salim walking though these same streets, now abandoned and empty.
A similar play between past and present, memory and reality, using footage from other media occurs when “An Israeli man singing in Hebrew a song (which ironically expresses the memory of Palestinians) morphs into Aljafari’s uncle walking down these same streets (Chaudhary, 2011).” In this way “All of these moments inhabit the same physical space and image (Chaudhary, 2011)”. And the fictional present that is presented in these appropriated images becomes a kind of documentary of the past, a representation of Jaffa as it was.:
[…] layering of memory, indeterminacy of truth, precariousness, uncertainty; these ideas frame the second image, the streets of Jaffa, created and recreated through the lens of the action film, the song and finally (and always) the filmmaker himself portraying a paradoxical, true staging. (Chaudhary, 2011)
The concept of fiction becoming a documentary is inverted in another sequence in Port of Memory, in which an Israeli film crew appear to be making a documentary about another house in Jaffa. The subject of this documentary is encouraged by his director to stress the he made the house in which they stand; linking back to Aljafari’s exploration of place and its ownership:
Aljafari’s camera focuses on the cameras of the film crew and its director as he repeatedly attempts to get the subject to emphasize his role in creating the house. “Ani! Ani!” [I!, I!] the director admonishes. The subject seems less certain of this emphasis than the director. The audience is unclear. Is Aljafari documenting fabrication, confusion or simple amateurism? […] Claims like this and films like Delta Force, shot on the streets with Jewish Israelis portraying Arabs, seem to, in Aljafari’s mind, make a claim like the director is pushing the man to say in the film, ‘I made this. This is mine.’ It puts a stamp on the geography. It creates an uncertainty that people then inhabit. (Chaudhary, 2011)
Writing in Village Voice, Michael Atkinson describes Port of Memory as a demi-documentary:
An oblique, impressionist portrait of Arabs living in Jaffa, Kamal Aljafari’s Port of Memory is only an hour long, but quietly and atmospherically touches on the Kiarostamian Uncertainty Principle, with Aljafari liberally corrupting his demi-documentary with scripted dialogue, rehearsals, and even digital effects. (Atkinson, 2011)
And Atkinson notes how the observational quality of Aljafari’s presentation of the minutiae of Palestinian life creates this documentary effect, despite the obvious scripting of much of the film (Atkinson, 2011). This exploration of the smaller, more mundane, aspects of Palestinian life in Jaffa links to Ajay Singh Chaudhary’s theory of facts and counter-facts:
Marc Nichanian writes in his recently translated work, The Historiographic Perversion, of the need to think of testimony and of narrative without the reduction to merely “provide proof or establish facts.” Writing of the horrific experiences of Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, he says, “They wished for their testimonies to be archived, so that the word fact could preserve some sense for civilized humanity. And they were wrong. They were powerless. Their obsession, which aimed at the archivation of testimonies, had only one consequence, a truly catastrophic one: the disowning of their memory; the transformation, grave, and never to be undone of the ‘mnemogenic’ narrative into a discourse of proofs…” […] Port of Memory resists precisely this obsession. It establishes counter-facts. It presents testimonies that do not participate in a discourse of proofs. There is a collapse between fictional story telling and documentary testimony. Here is a testimony of a disappearing world of Jaffa that persists in its truth as opposed to its facticity. There is an uncomfortable elision between the universal and the local in house cats and hand-washing; non-historical counter-facts, as it were, that stubbornly refuse to go away. (Chaudhary, 2011)
The breakdown of barriers between fiction and documentary is clear in many Palestinian films; are they trying to present these “counter-facts” as images of Palestine which will not be subdued? This presentation of “counter-facts” as oppose to “a discourse of proofs” seems to reference the “the conceit of cessation (Orr, 2000 p134)” which is “not only the agony of the decision to start the fight but the decision about whether to relinquish the fight because it is no longer fruitful to go on (Orr, 2000 p134)”. Does the refusal to let go of the past and accept the present prevent Palestinians from reaching a better future, because this future cannot be created until the past and present are accepted? Is this what Aljafari (and others) are trying to change by the presentation of the daily life of Palestinians with such detachment? Are they trying to promote the acceptance of the present to make a better future? It could certainly be seen this way. But it could also be seen to be a way in which to create empathy for Palestinians in international audiences, by presenting the everyday moments of their lives that are just like ours, thereby generating sympathy for their cause. And it could also be seen as a damning indictment of the Israeli regime, one which has destroyed the lives of Palestinians in more ways than simply killing them. This ambiguity is one of the reasons why Aljafari’s film is so intriguing; it asks more questions than it answers.
Aljafari, K., (2009), Port of Memory, [film]
Atkinson, M., (2011), Port of Memory: An Oblique Demi-Documentary With Surprisingly Vivid Images [online], Village Voice, Available from: http://www.villagevoice.com/2011-02-09/film/port-of-memory-an-oblique-demi-documentary-with-surprisingly-vivid-images/full/ [Accessed on 27 October 2016]
Chaudhary, A. S., (2011), Kamal Aljafari’s Port of Memory [online], Filmmaker Magazine, Available from: http://filmmakermagazine.com/20541-kamal-aljafaris-port-of-memory/#.VLKAiyusUnw [Accessed on 27 October 2016]
Golan, M., (1986), The Delta Force, Golan-Globus Productions, [film]
Havard Film Archive, (2010), An Evening with Kamal Aljafari [online], Havard Film Archive, Available from: http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2010aprjun/aljafari.html [Accessed on 27 October 2016]
Orr, J., (2000), The Art and Politics of Film, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press