Kamal Aljafari: Unfinished Balconies in the Sea
Filmmaker Kamal Aljafari talks to Nathalie Handal about the poetry of memory, and displacement in Palestine.
In Kamal Aljafari’s new film, Recollection, freedom is experienced in “the sound of the ocean…the echo you can hear outside but recorded from inside the wall. Life buried beneath, inside the sea.” As the images move slowly, other times brusquely, from a silhouette to a shadow, a sliver of the port city of Jaffa to another, the sound moves us into the present unearthing a past. We begin to see the ruins as breathing bodies. We see the place Palestinians have lived in and have been exiled from. And gradually we are brought face-to-face with history, with destruction. The phantoms stare at us. The filmmaker “frees the image,” an act he calls “cinematic justice.”
Recollection is epic. In an impeccable pas de deux between what’s seen and unseen, the Palestinian filmmaker creates a symphonic visual experience. He dives into the crevices of memory, inquires violence, observes stillness.
The film displays the ferocity of occupation and how it’s transfigured in Israeli culture, and in this case more specifically, the cinematic one. To make the film, Aljafari watched every Israeli film shot between the 1960s and 1990s, the majority of which excluded Palestinians. They were, as he affectingly says, “uprooted in reality and in fiction,” explaining that these films used Jaffa because it provided them with “history and narrative.” His film is a witness. In Recollection, he “removed the Israeli actors and gave the stage and space to the people unintentionally filmed in the background [Palestinians].” He says, “I could have worked years on it, not only because I enjoyed removing the actors but because I felt I was doing something magical, that’s only possible in cinema.” The film is visceral, and makes us question what torments a man without a country.
Aljafari was born in al-Ramla, and raised in Jaffa, where his mother is from. The city plays center stage in his three films, which have received numerous awards and accolades for their artistry. Recollection has garnered praise around the globe from Argentina to Torino. Film expert and Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University writes that Kamal Aljafari is a “visionary artist…the chronicler of the inchronicable.” The Argentinian film critic Luciano Monteagudo lauds: “It is very rare to find in today’s cinema a film so original in its conception, so personal in its political commitment, and so inventive in form as Recollection.”
Like the Italian cinema masters Pier Paolo Pasolini and Michelangelo Antonioni, Aljafari’s films challenge our perceptions, transport us to poetic realms and move us. They encompass image and sound crafted with precision. His cinematic language is one built on the alphabet of the sea and its ruins, dream-like ricochets, where silence is storm and soliloquy. Stillness sculpts the complexities of what’s split in displacement and exile, memory and the heart.
If “Jaffa is the sea,” Kamal Aljafari is its waves. I’m reminded of that when we leave Zazza, a café on Schonleinstrasse in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin, where the interview is conducted. As we walk towards a small bridge, accompanied by the metallic winter skies. Reach the frozen canal, see a few hovering birds. The sea nowhere, the sun absent. I wonder how a filmmaker deeply rooted in a Mediterranean city survives the interminable opaque clouds. When I turn to ask him, I realize wherever he is, Jaffa is present.
After seeing Recollection, viewers want to go back and experience the images again, walk through them, rediscover them, listen to them more judiciously, look at them more deeply, feel them more intensely. Images that amplify our sense of what it means to exist, and what it means to see and be seen.
—Nathalie Handal for Guernica