Les États généraux du film documentaire 2016 Fragment of a filmmaker’s work: Kamal Aljafari

Fragment of a filmmaker’s work: Kamal Aljafari


Ten years ago, we screened at Lussas the first feature-length film by Kamal Aljafari, a Palestinian filmmaker now living in Germany. With The Roof (2006), he began exploring his history, a Palestinian history. The problems of confiscated territory and obscured past became those of his cinema, and the exploration of this cinematographic terrain allowed him to differently appropriate the memory of places. After this first return to Jaffa and Ramla, Kamal Aljafari once again represented his family in Port of Memory (2009). The Israeli occupation and the invisibility of Palestinian presence even within Israeli cinema are a form of confiscation of the imagination. Aljafari's cinema is an attempt to regain the possibility of imagining, to reappropriate fiction, in other words the possibility of inventing one’s own narrative. Recollection (2015) continues digging this cinematographic hypothesis: how can we return to haunt and populate space in a troubling, feverish dream?

From Visit Iraq (2003) to The Roof

Your first student film, Visit Iraq is about an empty room where it seems that people and furniture vanished suddenly. The story of this room, the political context for example, is not explained but we understand step by step what happened here because of the neighbours’ testimonies. Each story is different; they are interpretations because nobody really knows the real story. In this first short film, your attention to the details, papers, and pictures of daily life is already a way to build a complex mood. The story of this deserted room looks like a premise of your next films.

I passed by the office of Iraqi Airways in Geneva by chance. It was 2003 and I was surprised to see that such an office still existed, as there had already been ten years of embargo against Iraq! The office was in total order as if it were still being used. A few weeks later, when I returned to Geneva to shoot the film, I found the office destroyed and empty; only a few objects were left: postcards showing the Iraqi Airways planes, phones, dusty tables, and some letters. I decided to film the place, and slowly it became a film about absence, all forms of absence. The camera collects what was left behind and tries to somehow capture its beauty, a lost beauty. The passers-by and neighbours were very suspicious about the people in the office, who had now been gone for over ten years. The film becomes a kind of study of this area of Geneva in 2003, of how they perceive the other, of daily life around the office. I learned that by staying in one locale, I could create poetry.
A year later I shot The Roof, and I discovered the unfinished second floor of the house where I was born. I spent all my childhood playing in these rooms with no roof. This is where I come from. They were home for me, and also for my father. You don’t choose your subjects but rather the opposite, and every film takes you to another. Right now I feel that this journey is about to lead me to a new path, a new place, perhaps to a happier place. I feel the need for cinematic salvation.
I quickly understood that all I can do is to collect; all we have to do is to look around us. I also felt somehow obliged to collect, to preserve everything vanishing, even the people. I could express my feelings with images and sounds. I couldn’t put my feelings in words really, my feeling of being from there, but an immigrant in my own country. Isn’t that what we do in cinema? We visit places, memories, feelings, people; we go there to freeze time; we create albums. In a way, that is all we do when we create in film; with music, one is freer. I wish I could make films like a musician!

From Port of Memory to Recollection

Port of Memory is inspired by something said by Godard in Notre musique and is a kind of cinematic response to it: “For instance, in 1948, the Israelites walked through the waters to the Promised Land. The Palestinians walked through the waters to their drowning. Shot and reverse shot. Shot and reverse shot. The Jews moved towards fiction. The Palestinians towards documentary.”
Still in other words, fiction is the possibility of telling the story of one’s own history, therefore of being able to imagine a story. To be erased from the field of fiction (all trace of Arabs disappears from the Israeli and American fiction films shot in the streets of Jaffa and cited by your films) means being dispossessed of this possibility of imagination, it means being dispossessed of one’s own history.

I think cinema, like everything else in Israel, has been a form of confiscation, certainly in films made from the sixties to the eighties. Israeli fiction films are a form of colonial activity. I guess what I want to say is that when you create fiction there, in films, in novels you attempt to create a narrative in this place, to seize life, to say: “I belong here, I have history here, I have a story here, I have memories here, I belong here; I’m here.” But it is fiction. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I never enjoyed watching an Israeli fiction film. In Israeli documentaries there is always a certain unsettledness; you question more and you claim less, unless you are making a propaganda film. In that sense all fiction films are propaganda films.
Also as Siegfried Kracauer put it: the films (popular films) of a nation reflect its mentality, because films are never the product of an individual, and furthermore films are supposed to satisfy existing mass desires. . . .
I think that with Recollection I was trying to free myself from many concepts, including my own concepts, of the real places, and this time I chose to use what these fiction films had captured unintentionally. In this process I realized that I could find everything there, even my uncle who spent all his life in a mental hospital and was captured by chance on his way back to the hospital one Sunday morning, because the Israeli film team didn’t work on Saturdays and he used to be released on weekends always. I knew him as a ghost who disappears and reappears, and so he appeared in the background of an Israeli fiction film on his way back to the hospital. I found a whole album of places and people who no longer exist in reality, but are to be found in Israeli and American fiction films which ironically wanted to uproot them, but they managed to smuggle themselves inside the images! . . .
Sound is the music that images are not; it is my desire to be free, to work like a musician! This short dialog with the girl – “Where are we and who are we?” – is really what I felt when making Recollection and what I feel even more now. Storm is a bomb and the sun brings the rain. It is the sound from after the catastrophe, the sound of the present and future of our planet. . . .
Television colonized our mind; it was an entertainment of depression, like drugs, resulting finally in sadness. Certainly I used the sound of the television to capture a certain mood, to express certain feelings, like in the scene at the dining table. My parents are seated on opposite sides, separated by the television playing a video clip, a melancholic love song. Television is an escape, a drug. In Recollection the use of the film material itself is another story. I wanted to do the impossible, what is only possible in cinema: to see the past, to revisit places that no longer exist, to reclaim an entire city, a life which was stripped away from us. Yes, all that is left is cinema as a place to live in for me, as Adorno says, and his statement in a way is the future of a growing number of nations in our world. . . .
So many films already exist and we should treat them as an archival material, and use them freely, change them, erase the actors if needed, and go back to places and reinhabit them, make new films inside them. We should feel free to mix everything, because there are no limits or difference between what lives and what we watch. It is also the only way to really express who we are now, in this age; the age of the imaginary and of illusions. . . .
I didn’t write any words for Recollection. The film was made with images, writing with images, as Bazin, Astruc, and Vertov said and believed could be done a long time ago. I don’t believe in writing films before making them, and I think today we have the same freedom people had before sound, in the silent era, when cinema was free and naive. Any smartphone today can be used to create films. It was the dream of so many filmmakers in the sixties: being able to film with a pocket camera anytime they wanted.

Can you tell us about the Spanish film you chose to screen?
I saw The Empty Balcony while living in New York in 2010, and it has stayed with me ever since. I like its cinematic freedom and the poetic point of view of the girl/camera. The film was shot in Mexico, where this group of filmmakers (the ones who made the film) lived in exile; Spain in Mexico. “The war is here”, says the voice of the girl. It marks the end of daily life, intimacy and memories of their home that the film is trying to preserve by telling the story of what happened to them and their country. In this film the present and the past are one. They beautifully reclaim the country and the home they have lost. I do think now that the point of view of a little girl is the ultimate way to express the fate of a country. It is as simple as poetry should be; a film of moments, home objects, streets, empty balconies. The military ended their life back home and the life of the man this little girl saw hiding. She kept the secret, but the neighbour, the adult, told the soldiers about him and they killed him. The little girl is the witness, the only witness we should trust!
I couldn’t really find someone to produce the film, to take the risk of using images from fiction films, and making this film was a journey, a very mysterious one, only possible through the personal and private involvement like the one I had.

Interview with Kamal Aljafari by Christophe Postic.


Debates led by Christophe Postic.
In the presence of Kamal Aljafari.