By Caroline Curran
CAIRO: One of the outstanding films screened at the Third Panorama of European film, which wrapped up on Tuesday, was Palestinian filmmaker Kamal Ajafari’s “Port of Memory”.
The hour-long film, a joint production of Palestine, Germany, France, and the UAE, was shown twice during the six-day Panorama.
Aljafari hails from Ramleh, Palestine and is a graduate of the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne. Currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, Aljafari’s films have been shown at major festivals around the world.
The film chronicles the story of Jaffa, the Palestinan port city, now part of Israel, from where Aljafari’s family hails. The story begins in 1948, showing the city’s decline from a cosmopolitan center to its current state of semi-ruin and the accompanying dislocation and dispossession of the city’s Palestinian residents.
“Port of Memory” simultaneously explores the human reaction of his relatives to their displacement and the physical impact of these events on Ajami, their once-prosperous seaside neighborhood. When the family is ordered to evacuate their house, they find they lack the means to fight the injustice of having their property confiscated, and the absurdity of their situation as sudden outsiders, at once absent and present in newly hostile territory.
The power of routine is powerfully reinforced by the actions of the characters, who find that the only thing they can cling to is their mundane daily routine. We see a man sitting in deep thought about his fate, while a woman cares for her elderly mother and a girl daydreams. Despite their grim prospects the concerns of the characters remain fundamentally simple and human, even when efforts to strip them of their humanity intensify. Rituals become the lifeline to hope in a destroyed city.
Aljafari elegantly sums up Jaffa’s situation in the present day by portraying the ways in which the city makes a perfect Middle Eastern battlefront set for Hollywood films like “Delta Force” and 1970s’ Israeli war films. Aljafari reveals how Hollywood is complicit in the destruction of Arab homes in Jaffa and, by extension, Palestinian identity. The film explores this environment and its impact on the Palestinian community that continues to live in the city.
The director’s approach is overtly political, in line with his past works, which have explored similar themes in Ramleh and Iraq. Aljafari’s approach is not alienating, however, and approaches devastating personal and social issues with humor and sensitivity, creating a film in which content does not overpower artistic intent.
The film is valuable as a political commentary, providing rare insight into the plight of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and takes a nuanced approach to the particular situation of this group of Palestinians that leaves them technically outside of the occupation, but realistically bound up with its paradoxes. The film manages to go beyond simple description by successfully blending fiction and non-fiction to create a poetic evocation of the intersection between collective memory and daily ritual that allows for free movement between the realms of subjectivity and objectivity.
Aljafri’s artistic vision is clearly evident in the film’s shots and controlled use of silence, which effectively capture the melancholy of Jaffa’s ruined neighborhoods and reveal the complex layers of history that bind the past and present and make Jaffa the physically and psychologically convoluted place it is today.
“Port of Memory” demonstrates the versatility of filmmaking as an art form that stands alone as a demonstration of skill while maintaining the ability to powerfully express a message — political or otherwise — that remains with the audience long after the lights come up.