In Recollection, Palestinian filmmaker Kamal Aljafari takes a highly experimental approach to portray his hometown of Jaffa, an ancient port city in Israel. Part of this approach is his elimination of Israelis from the film’s 70 minute, loosely organized, yet thematically rich narrative, which is overlaid with various soundscapes and very minimal dialogue (in fact, there is only one instance of dialogue, and it takes place over less than 20 seconds). The film’s omission of Israelis moves directly against a dominant narrative of sorts, which normally threatens to remove Palestinians from a place to which they have a deep historical connection; Aljarfari’s restoration of their place within Jaffa is a form of resistance and reclamation.
As the discussion moderator, Nitin Sawhney – a co-founder of the festival, professor at The New School, and a good friend of Aljafari’s – explained after the film screened, the only scene which features an Israeli person – an excerpt from what appears to be some kind of suspenseful feature film – is edited to flip the frame upside-down, making her hard to observe. Aljafari establishes, in this manner, his desire not to capture the Israeli narrative in any sense, but rather to capture the place, the building and all that it symbolizes both concretely and in a cultural, political sense. The building in which this young Israeli woman wanders, and our ability to sense its character (rather than hers) ends up being less affected by the frame’s rotation than our perception of this woman. It’s harder to focus on her, so we don’t; it’s easier to look at the stairs, or the walls, or the open windows, so that’s what we end up doing. This is exactly what Aljafari intends, and his editing choices are effective in orienting our perceptual capabilities.
The meaning of space, place, and memory are especially powerful in Aljafari’s treatment of Jaffa. Through carefully edited found footage – none of the film’s material was shot by Aljafari – the filmmaker seems to wander aimlessly, but one can imagine he actually knows exactly where he is and where he might be going. It is us, who don’t know the city (apart from those watching who share Aljafari’s birthplace, which is indeed a possibility) who truly have the sense of being aimless wanderers, and we (or, at least, I) project that feeling onto Aljafari, almost unfairly. Far from happening upon this place and exploring its corners for the first time, Aljafari’s returns to the city in search of something that might be completely lost, but which, perhaps, Aljafari intends to recover in some sense. Indeed, Sawhney described it as a cinematic inquiry, a “forensic investigation” or “media archaeology” which is composed of layers of both sound and image.
Aljafari’s use of sound in Recollection was, in my view, one of the most engaging and thoughtful aspects of its experimentation. Sawhney descibed the process by which Aljafari made these soundscapes, by attaching recording instruments to the walls of the port city, so we can hear the sounds of the sea as the walls hear and feel them. The walls of Jaffa, in this sense, become the very fabric of its being, setting its boundaries and structuring the way in which its residents move around. Another effect of using these physical structures, and the sounds that they produce, is to capture a sense of uneasiness, or a state of agitation, that the city inhabits due to the modern sociopolitical circumstances under which it has so radically changed. Indeed, this is why Aljarfari’s search through the town focuses especially on its people, who show up sporadically and unexpectedly.
A poetically written epilogue, which runs at the end of the film alongside the credits, shows us just how familiar Aljafari is with the characters who lurk, sometimes unsure of themselves, in the background of the film’s footage. He ends up being able to name many of these people and even recognizes a man for his uncle, and another for his mother as a young schoolgirl. Others are friends and neighbors. In this way Aljafari weaves together a kind of storyline for them; he reasons why he might have found them in those places, and where they might have been going. As attendees noted, the idea of sifting through found footage, which has been collected by nameless, faceless, unknown entities, and finding your own family members or friends, is astounding. It also highlights the interconnectedness of Aljafari’s home community, and reveals something nostalgic and sentimental about his search. The film emerges as not only deeply personal and poetic, but also as a cinematic commentary on what can be done with the conventions of memoir and documentary.
dir. Kamal Aljafari
Screened Sunday, 10/16, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Part of the 10th Annual Boston Palestine Film Festival