Sign of the times? James T. Hong's "This Shall Be a Sign" plays Artists' Television Access Wednesday, April 9, alongside Kamal Aljafari's "The Roof." (Photo courtesy Kino21)

"Palestine: Interior/Exterior"

Robert Avila April 9, 2008

Watching Kamal Aljafari’s astonishing film The Roof (2006)—a work at once explicitly personal, coolly contemplative, and full of coruscating protest—is to recognize a marvelously intuitive artist and the momentum of a larger cinematic movement at the same time. In its hour-long exploration of two Palestinian family homes inside Israel, that of Aljafari’s parents’ house in Ramleh and his grandmother’s house in Jaffa, The Roof recalls the social-psychological landscapes and formal strategies of such filmmakers as Elia Suleiman, Hany Abu-Assad and Rashid Masharawi without ever feeling merely derivative of them. Rather, The Roof registers a potent new cinematic voice while offering more proof that today’s Palestinian cinema is one of the most vital anywhere.

Of course, this vitality stems from an inescapable association with place, and the sense of being perpetually out of place, even at home. A burden of history, and a tradition of struggle, informs the film more than any particular aesthetic practice. The opening scene makes just this point, in the quiet but devastating way Aljafari has throughout of combining testimonial, close observation and a serendipitous knack for visual metaphor. The filmmaker and his sister are talking quietly, seated in profile against a rain-flecked window looking out on a storm-battered line of trees. Kamal is relating his experience of prison two decades earlier (along with a detail about a fellow prisoner and friend that will circle back later on in a telling phone call he makes to Lebanon). Was the situation so tense, she wonders? “It was during the first Intifada,” he answers. “Ah,” she responds with sudden understanding, clearly too young to have remembered it herself.

The conversation introduces a literal prison, while the setting suggests the comfort and security of home, from where one might safely watch a storm raging beyond. But home, we see, can also be a prison if the storm outside does not abate, if home itself becomes the site of displacement, unfulfilled life and endless waiting. Both prisons, meanwhile, are also schools for understanding.

“Everything began in 1948. In May,” continues the filmmaker in voiceover, as his ever graceful camera takes in the surf and the overgrown rubble of what seems a beautiful seaside ruin. “My grandparents were on a boat on their way to Beirut, after their city Jaffa had been bombed. Over those few days the waves got too big, so they were forced to return. They waited in the port for one week, for the sea to calm down. They said that the weather was like in winter and that it would never calm down again. But when they came back Palestine was already gone. Their homes were gone as well. The people who remained were forced to live in one neighborhood and they were given the houses of other Palestinians. This was the case of my mother’s family in Jaffa. And the same happened to my father’s family in Ramleh. In 1948 the owners of this house were still building the second floor. My parents live on the first floor and the past lives above them.”

Literal and metaphorical absence are one in the bizarre circumstance of a house without a roof. At the same time, the choice to defer completing a confiscated home stands in contrast to the historical and political violence that continues to shape and be shaped by the built environment beyond, as the film’s subtle mapping of personal, ideological and physical terrain emanates outward, via an elliptical narrative, passed the Arab neighborhood and the surrounding post-1948 town to Jaffa, Tel Aviv, and the mammoth serpentine wall cutting waywardly along Israel’s 1967 border.

Although its approach remains dramatically different, Bay Area filmmaker James T. Hong’s This Shall Be a Sign (2007), which screens with The Roof tonight as part of Kino21 and the Arab Film Festival’s program Palestine: Interior/Exterior at Artists’ Television Access, also grounds the ongoing history of conflict in Israel/Palestine in the contested physical landscape. At the same time, Hong forcefully suggests that its meanings and messages are ultimately mediated by the technology and symbology of global capitalism and its English-speaking empire. His own idiosyncratic and provocative intervention fuses original and found footage, media reports, a quizzical narration told in a de-familiarizing electronic voice, and abstract shapes and signs into a half-hour analysis of the controversy surrounding Israel’s rebuilding of a connecting ramp at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem. The new ramp coincides with parallel excavation undertaken under the Israeli Antiquities Authority near the Muslim holy site, leading to fear and protest among the embattled Muslim population. The subject’s very specificity is occasion here for a hauntingly apt interrogation of truth and complicity.

Watching these two films together makes for a highly suggestive approach to the problem of place and displacement in Israel/Palestine, while highlighting complementary and far-reaching concerns with the architecture of violence and the role of media spectacle in the “projection” of social alienation, anomie and political deferral. Aljafari, currently based in Paris, and Hong will both be in attendance tonight at ATA.

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.

  • Oct 19, 2011

    Essential SF: Irving Saraf and Allie Light

    Saraf and Light's work is marked by an unwavering appreciation for underdogs and outsiders.