War and reality: Kamal Aljafari's Port of Memory documents the painful process of erasure.

SFIFF53: War Stories

Matt Sussman May 5, 2010

Films about our species’ enduring capacity to be inhumane toward its own are perennials at film festivals (and, one can suppose, they will continue to be so as long as sides are drawn, wars are waged, and violence is sanctioned as the most expedient solution). This is certainly the case with the San Francisco International Film Festival, which offered visceral stopovers at the Sri Lankan civil war (Between Two Worlds); the Rwandan genocides of a decade ago (The Day God Walked Away); the Third Balkan War (Ordinary People); the 2008 Russian-Georgian war (Russian Lessons); and the various battlefronts, past and present, that have gripped the Mid-East (Budrus, Lebanon, Port of Memory), including those which have become outposts in our own government’s "War on Terror" (Restrepo, The Oath).

Yet when witnessing actual violence in the world, albeit second hand, is now something anyone with an Internet connection is able to do, one has to wonder what, really, is the value of a war movie? Wikileaks posts horrifying footage of the U.S. military gunning down innocent bystanders from the Apache helicopter’s perspective–an act whose journalistic bravura was strangely warped by Wikileak’s editorial decision to give the clip the Michael Bay-esque title "Collateral Murder." Why bother to strap oneself alongside the shell-shocked Israeli tank crew in Lebanon, a film which also frequently aligns our POV with that of the gunner’s scope? For a measure of the immediacy of the Internet, one need only think of Neda Agha-Soltan whose martyrdom during the protests over last year’s Iranian presidential election became known largely via Twitter. What is the value in the long-form viewing of war and its effects?

The answer might be obvious, that we need to be reminded of the well-known reality that "war is hell" –but the films themselves are subtle. Many of the war-related films of SFIFF53 focus not on the heat of battle, but on what happens as the fog of war finally lifts. Their register isn’t the properly historic, but rather, ranges from the quotidian to the mythic. And although none of these non-war war movies could be wholly described as optimistic, all are underwritten by some faith in the possibility of survival.

Take the lush and beguiling Between Two Worlds. Part vision quest, part historical allegory, Vimukthi Jayasundara’s film unfolds like the mutable folktale told between two fishermen in one of the its many asides. An unnamed South Asian man falls from the sky into an unspecified South Asian country under siege by revolutionaries (although the Sinhala the actors speak clearly places us in Sri Lanka). Fleeing a riot-ravaged city, he winds up in the countryside where he reconnects with his sister-in-law, and undergoes several mysterious and mystical experiences. "It’s possible that one can see today what has happened in the past," cautions an old man to our protagonist, and Jayasundara attempts to re-see the traumas of the civil war that ravaged Sri Lanka for over three decades.

The tableaux-like images, gorgeously captured by cinematographer Channa Deshapriya, that punctuate the film’s elliptical narrative–a street strewn with smashed televisions; village women gathered around a dead man like a silent Greek chorus; the rhythmic emptying of a poisoned pond, bucket by bucket–buzz with a symbolic charge: They are both events in the film’s present and indexes of the past. Between Two Worlds seems to suggest that if it is indeed possible to see what has happened in the past, we can only do in those moments in which, without warning, it floods into the present, as when the protagonist envisions marauding soldiers on horseback making a lakeside ambush.

Kamal Alijafari’s Port of Memory eschews Between Two Worlds’ bold formalism but is no less moving in its minor-key depiction of Palestinians slowly being dislocated from their old Jaffa neighborhood by the latest wave of Israeli-led gentrification. Recalling, in some respects, Pedro Costa’s filmic collaborations with residents of Lisbon’s Fontainhas slum, Port of Memory cuts back and forth between several characters–a man about to lose his longtime home; a woman who takes comfort in caring for her elderly mother and the neighborhood’s many stray cats; another woman who busies herself making wedding decorations; an old captain planted at an outdoor cafe; and an erratic, young motorcyclist–interspersing their narratives with footage of crumbling facades, Hebrew realty posters, and virgin construction sites. Taken together, the characters’ daily rituals and peregrinations form a kind of lived protest, not only against the looming threat of eviction, but against Israeli’s overarching occupation of Palestinian territories.

If Port of Memory documents a real place slowly undergoing the process of erasure, Jeff Malmberg’s documentary Marwencol focuses on the powerful effect that creating place can have on rebuilding an erased life. Although not technically a war movie, it could be argued that the subject of Marwencol, Mark Hogancamp, very much inhabits one in his mind’s eye After surviving a brutal assault outside a bar that erased all memories of his former life, Hogancamp found a restorative outlet in collecting 1/6 scale WWII-themed dolls. Each figure became an alter ego of a real person in Hogancamp’s life (including one for Hogancamp himself). Eventually, Hogancamp built an entire model town for the dolls in his backyard–the fictional Belgian frontier outpost of the film’s title–and started photographing the meticulously crafted scenarios he would place his miniaturized self in. Even as Marwencol avoids the thorny issues of representation and compensation raised by Hogancamp’s discovery by the capital-A art world in the its third act, the film never loses sight of the fact that the fantasy world he has built is a very real form of self-therapy as much as it is a creative outlet. The first person with which Hogancamp frequently slides into when he is describing ‘life" in Marwencol is a testament to this. And though rural New York is miles away from Sri Lanka’s bloodstained countryside, or the seized properties of Jaffa’s historic district, Marwencol is, at its heart, very much like those places. It is a home between worlds.

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