ALFILM Festival Berlin
This year marked the 14th edition of Alfilm Berlin, a film festival aiming to show the diversity of contemporary Arabic cinema as well as some of its classics inside the German capital. For this event, cinemas from different neighbourhoods – Arsenal Kino (Kreuzberg), Sine Transtopia and City Kino (Wedding) as well as Kino Kulturbrauerei (Prenzlauer Berg) – offered their screens for films to be projected on.
A projector, a white screen, loud speakers. These are the basic technical elements required for a film screening. But cinema can’t be reduced to its technicality. The spectators are at the center of its aim; they are the ones giving these narratives a purpose and meaning. They are the ones who learn from them; in the process of agreeing or disagreeing with what is shown and of feeling different ranges of emotions – indifference included.
It was my first year at the festival and it caught my attention how many of the spectators knew each other. When presenting their film, the directors were commonly expressing their gratitude at seeing loads of familiar faces and friends. Throughout these seven days, there was a sense of mutual awareness and support in the crowd. Something, beyond their love for films, seemed to bring together a lot of the visitors. Being part of the Arabic diaspora and its accompanying feeling of being grounded in-between different cultures; sharing the need to preserve and transmit stories related to the Arabic world, perhaps. In this context, Cinema can undoubtedly be asserted as a motif of gathering and exchange, as a vector for a feeling of belonging, as the creation and spread of underrepresented and underheard narratives and finally, as an opportunity to educate oneself and others.
The festival included thirty one films from fifteen different Arabic countries, as well as panel discussions and masterclasses. A large range of topics were addressed. The state of traditions within fast paced cultural and urban change, gender roles and the place of LGBTQ+ people within these different societies, the importance of the mundane with its ritualistic aspect, the impact of war and finally and what the different forms of resistance against destructions and social injustice are were discussed.
This year marks the 75th year since the Nakba – the 1948 “palestinian catastrophe” – the displacement of 75% of palestinian Arabs from their homes, the destruction of an abundant amount of their towns and villages. In the welcoming speech of the festival, organizer Pascale Fakhry pointed out that she and other members organizing the festival have been told how courageous it was of them to show palestinian films in Germany. To that, she answered that spreading palestinian voices and narratives “should not be seen as a courageous act; it should be seen as normal”.
Palestinian voices of this 14th edition festival programmation included Kamal Aljafari with his short film PARADISO, XXXI, 108 and his mid-length feature film Port of Memory, Jumana Manna with her docu-fiction Foragers, Firas Khoury with his feature film Alam, Tarzan and Arab Nasser with their feature film Gaza mon amour. Furthermore, a panel discussion with directors Jumana Manna, Firas Khoury and Basma Al-Sharif moderated by Claudia Jubeh, addressed the subject of Palestinian Cinema 75 years after the Nakba. A decisive point which was expressed during this discussion is how it is in cinema’s power and duty to show aspects from life that are not supposed to be seen, to share information one does not necessarily have access to, and to affirm one’s particular, individual perspective through film-making.
There are, through this medium, different ways of conveying these ideas; the aesthetic and narrative decisions will determine the approximate genre a film belongs to, and according to its genre, the film usually attracts a different crowd, or at least requires a different sort of engagement from the part of the viewer. Whereas films like Gaza mon amour, Viva Laldjérie, The Damned don’t cry and other films included in the program are built upon rather conventional narrative structures and aesthetic choices, films like PARADISO, XXXI, 108 and Port of Memory, Foragers, In the Fields of Words: conversations with Samar Yazbek, and others, respond to a more subjective logic, one that is more challenging towards conventions, one through which the individual perspective of the filmmaker is more visible.
The fact that the festival’s programming was made out of a mixture of both “conventional” and “experimental” narratives is per se convenient, as it invites the public to be curious about films that might not be at the center of one’s usual focus. However, apart from the short film selections that were divided into different categories (absence/presence; renegotiating gender scripts; the power of suggestion: experimenting with sound design), there were no categories for the feature films, which could have been helpful to navigate the festival. Categorization is however not always easy; some directors use different cinematographic languages and tools for their compositions. Kamal Aljafari, for example, plays with conventional narratives by using popular culture or propaganda videos to build his own creative and political storytellings.
In Paradiso, XXXI, 108, Aljafari challenges the idea of a constructed image-and-sound based narrative having a fixed meaning. More than the images themselves, the montage and editing make the story. By using archival footage of the Israeli militia proceeding to experiments in the desert and rearranging them in a personalized collage, the director transforms war propaganda into a film with a tragic-comic tone; one in which the soldiers’ oversaturated faces make them look like being burned by the sun; one in which they seem to target themselves with their own weapons. At some point they look like astronauts playing on the moon. The war propaganda is turned against itself, the army becomes its own enemy, the image becomes its own reflection, Heroism is transformed into absurdism. The title, taken from the one of a short story by Borges, repeats itself in different fonts and colors at the end of the film. As if there was no end. Or as if the end did not want to end. Like mines exploding decades after their burials.
Port of Memory – by the same director – starts with a Palestinian man trapped in a kafkaesque nightmare. Authorities claim to have lost the documents proving he is the landlord of his house in Jaffa. His faith is clear: he will lose his home. Through meticulous observations, Aljafari shares with us what makes a house a home, what makes a city a home and what remains of it when its inhabitants are threatened with its dispossession. Inside a house, we repeatedly see water flowing from a sink and hands being washed, always in the same way, using the same gestures – gestures of comfort and habit – dusting-off street’s dirt to then sit on the couch and watch TV; a ritual most of us can identify with.
What largely makes a place a home, are these simple, mundane, rituals. Rather than having the story of these people being told, it feels like the story tells itself. The film is moved by an almost metric rhythm of these intimate procedures appearing again and again. When the camera is not observing someone’s ritual, it performs its own, by moving through the streets, by visually caressing walls; walls whose irregular, unrenovated surfaces are characteristic of their history. These rhythmic rituals are at the core of the film’s structure; they are its skeleton. As an observer, Aljafari allows them to exist by themselves, and we know that, whether he’s filming them or not, they aim to remain; they don’t need any special intervention from the part of the director; the story tells itself.
Port of Memory, like Paradiso XXXI, 108, contains archival footage; only this time these visual remnants from the past are intermittently integrated into the performed sequences of the filmed present. The archival footage belongs to different film scenes shot in Jaffa – a city that once used to be a dynamic palestinian port city. However, in the used archival images, palestinian lives are concealed to the viewer. Aljafari poetically plays with this irony by giving a ghostly appearance to them, in contrast with the visualised solidity of contemporary palestinian lives in the port city, its people standing upright despite their vulnerabilities and wounds, like the walls of their houses, performing their rituals as acts of resistance.
Having images made in the past embedded into contemporary ones does not change the past nor the present. What it does, is to form a counter-hegemonic discourse1Yakub, Nadja, Refracted filmmaking in Muhammad Malas’ “The Dream” and Kamal Aljafari’s “The Roof “, Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, Jan. 2014, p.155 in which a dominant narrative is being subdued to a dominated one. The narrative lies in the power of the storyteller, and here the storyteller is one’s whose reality differs from the global image of Jaffa that has largely been spread. Port of Memory thus resists the Israeli nationalist narrative and the ongoing Nakba.
“Everything that is empty is full. That’s what war is. The bombs make holes, empty spaces, tombs, and life rushes in, fills them up anywhere death seemed permanent. Each space becomes a story. Each name becomes a memory”. These words, pronounced by Roger Assaf in the film Beirut, my city – directed by Joyceline Saab – accompany images of an empty beach restaurant, with a cat strolling in-between its chairs. Jocelyne Saab documents Beirut after the July 1982 israeli invasion. Four days prior to that, the filmmaker had seen her house collapsing; her home turned to ruins; but ruins are not mere destruction, they are built structures reduced to pieces. Within these pieces, something remains. Saab’s house was 150 old, 150 years of history outside and inside its walls, 150 years of history turned into rubble in one day. But this rubble constitutes history too.
The director starts with a personal anecdote to then put it into a wider context – the one of war, making it clear that her drive is not only political but also emotional. Difficult images are exposed to us: burned corpses, demolished homes and homeless children – the traumatic consequences of war on the civilians. Joyceline Saab started her film career by being a journalist and reporter; showing images of devastation comes along with that discipline. Nevertheless, Beirut, my city, together with the two previous documentaries from Saab’s “Beirut trilogy”, is idiosyncratic in that it combines the craft of reportage with the one of poetry.
The overlapping of images depicting violence and a text (by Roger Assaf) condemning the nature of these same images delivers a dissonant piece towards which the viewer is forced to notice the ambiguity of watching war images: does being a spectator of violence make the spectator complicit in this violence?
“Too much has been said about the horror and devastation, about the death reigning down on us, coming from elsewhere. During war, in the end, the images we hold on onto, that we tend to spread, are the ones that show the presence of an enemy. Their war. Their crimes. Their images projected on the city. All these images of death, layered on each other, so that one no longer sees the people who cling to life with such passion that they gave birth to the city and give it a soul” – words of Roger Assaf. Sprouts of hope are given with the depiction of acts of resilience, like the one of a man reviving his garden.
Growing grass and plants: the response of a fertile land displaying the process of birth and renewal despite the committed horrors – an insistence on life. In Foragers, Jumana Manna showcasts Palestinians foraging for wild-growing zaatar and akkoub in the Golan Heights, the Galilee and Jerusalem – an act that is condemned by Israeli law. Foraging for these plants belongs to a palestinian custom; they are key ingredients for their cuisine. Meanwhile Israeli state representatives legitimise these penalties by supposedly seeking to protect and preserve the environment, foragers risk financial penalties and jail for the sole sake of preserving traditions.
The film mixes documentary and fiction. All the scenes are staged except for one : In a Zaatar-filled Kibbutz, a nature patroller tells director Jumana Manna that Palestinians destroy the harvest of these plants by taking their roots off; “but that’s not true, we never take the roots off”, she answers; “when we do it’s out of fear to be caught”, she adds. It sounds like these laws contribute to the nuisance of the environment it claims to guard – on top of affirming its irony: accusing a group of people who are forcibly constantly being deracinated from their land of ignorantly taking roots off its ground.
Drone cameras show birdviews of the vast unmoved, immaculate land with the foragers seemingly powerlessly moving in it, proceeding to their duties under constant supervision, trying to hide in-between these plants they merely aspire to cook and eat. But their power lies in their insistence on doing it anyway; “they are cultivating a continuity with their relationship to the land” – as Jumana Manna affirmed when presenting the film. Intimate portrayals of her family members practising foraging enter in contrast with the cold nature of the drone camera-shots, encouraging us to empathise with the condition and resistance of the represented subjects.
The question of how to bring the viewer to empathise with the people who are being filmed without conveying a narrative reducing them to the state of victims is one that accompanies many of the films of political nature that were shown in the festival. “Can literature and cinema capture this (the Syrian) tragedy?”. That is the question posed by the Lebanese director Rania Stephan and that is at the base of her piece In Fields of Words: Conversations with Samar Yazbek. Yazbek is a Syrian journalist and writer exiled in france; an unfiltered description of violence characterises her novels.
Stephan however decides to omit the violence from the images she chose to use. Instead, Yazbek is at the centre of the director’s attention. We accompany her in her work during literature fairs, on the train, in her apartment. The hand-held camera functions as an intruder to the writer’s life, who is also her friend. Sometimes, a fragment of conversation is shown in slow motion, making Yazbel’s facial expression perdure for additional seconds – a given time during which we can’t avoid noticing the sadness in her eyes. However, the words she omits are a proof of her dedication and strength.
To the question of whether the violent tragedy of war can be captured in literature and cinema, Stephan does not give a concluding answer; instead she reframes it by capturing someone whose work is driven by the same question. The overlapping of violent passages of Yazbek’s books with non-violent images create a space in which a dialogue is constructed upon different languages and means of expressing pain – one in which the victims can only be imagined but not seen in his*her suffering, unlike those shown in Saab’s Beirut, my City.
This procedure of coping with violence without visually representing it goes against the tradition of journalistic reportage and the types of images that have largely been spread in the West, accordingly forming the westerner’s imagination of non-western countries facing humanitarian catastrophes. The outcome of war victims being filmed or taken pictures of is not necessarily the spread of awareness – particularly when there is no agreement made between the observer and observed. Often, this practice is at the chore of a hierarchical dynamic in which the camera-holder holds undeniable power in opposition to its subject.
However, if the subject actively participates in the way he*she is being represented, the capture of their image can contribute to a “framework that offers an alternative – weak though it may be – to the institutional structures that have abandoned and injured them2 Azoulay, Ariella, The Civil Contract of Photography, Zone Books, 2008, p.20”; through the photographic act, they have an opportunity to claim their citizenship in what Azoulay calls “the citizenry of photography”. A major point Azoulay explores is how the construction of a photograph’s meaning is “no less important than the very testimony it bears3 Azoulay, Ariella, The Civil Contract of Photography, Zone Books, 2008, p.252”. By having a friend who saw and experienced the violence of war as a participant to her film, Stephan favours the voice of the witness rather than shocking images containing blood, wounds and mutilation inflicted on some of the survivors. The conversation between the director and the writer appears on a cinematic level, where the recorded words impact the images that are shown. Images, sounds, words, conversations; Alfilm festival Berlin offered a space in time for these to merge into an informative week on the Arab world and cinema at large.
- 1Yakub, Nadja, Refracted filmmaking in Muhammad Malas’ “The Dream” and Kamal Aljafari’s “The Roof “, Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, Jan. 2014, p.155
- 2Azoulay, Ariella, The Civil Contract of Photography, Zone Books, 2008, p.20
- 3Azoulay, Ariella, The Civil Contract of Photography, Zone Books, 2008, p.252