Directed by Kamal Aljafari
(Occupied Palestinian Territories/UAE/Germany/France, 2009)
Kamal Aljafari has created Port of Memory to be seen and absorbed at face value. For American audiences uninformed about Middle East history, more context would help them interpret the “current events” angle of the movie, which is about the daily existence of Palestinians in a devastated neighborhood of Jaffa, awaiting their futures that they are powerless to control. Even without a few strokes of context, the movie can be understood—listlessness and oppression exist for members of this undefined community. One of the female characters prays to Christian icons, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and crossing herself afterwards, which can be confusing for the uninitiated viewer trying to grasp which nationalities are being depicted.
The location is Jaffa, by the seaside, and sounds of the sea and seabirds form the background atmosphere, which is otherwise a battlefield silence. Late in the movie a flashback shows a real battle taking place on the same neighborhood streets—a van chased by a military truck with machine-gun fire crackling. We might guess the Israeli army chasing Palestinians in the van, but not knowing the uniforms or jeeps, and not knowing what happened in Jaffa historically—and not being told this is Jaffa, at least in the subtitles—we must take the film at face value: Battles ruptured here in the past, the place is devastated, and the lives of those still dwelling here lack freedom because of an oppressor.
Visually, the movie strives for a poetic rendering of the devastation, with slow camera coverage of patched buildings, blackened windows, and overall ruins. Interiors range from barren to minimalist to middle class. Characters are straight from life. The central woman character who makes flower arrangements for weddings obsessively washes her artistic hands, and the third time we watch her hand washing, it’s too much. As if aware of this overkill, the hand washing is the third time.
As we are told nothing and can only absorb what we see in the daily lives of several characters, we lack answers that aren’t necessary but might also deepen the film by deepening our understanding. For instance, who receives a daily plate of food on his doorstep and why? Who is the child sleeping on the couch who has never appeared before and never again after? Who are the listless men who sit or stand all day at a place that might be—or might have been—a community center; or is it a home for mentally impaired people? One of the men is a pyromaniac. Another recurring character is a crazy man on a scooter who stops every 100 feet to scream.
The principal theme running through the 60-minute movie is one family’s upcoming eviction from the home they own. Unstated aggressors (we assume Israelis) assert that the family does not own the property. The man of the house goes to see a lawyer that the audience never sees, just hears, for he is not worth seeing—he is the scum of the earth, caring only for money. We hear his voice admitting that he has lost man’s documents submitted ten years before over a different housing crisis, so that now the man has no proof that his family owns their house. The lawyer says he’ll take the case anyway, for an extortionist’s sum. The man nods agreement. We don’t know if he ever gives the lawyer money for the case, but we do witness a later scene where he goes to the lawyer’s office and it’s locked, closed for good. The man kicks the door—the lawyer was his only frail hope. As the man’s wife has said about the housing crisis: It’s our word against their word. And the audience knows as well as the family that their word is worthless against a tyrannical power.
Once the man leaves the lawyer’s building he walks and ruminates on his problem, his fate, his future. His walk leads us through the town, the rubble, a cemetery, and out to a perch over the sea where the man sits, continuing to ponder. We cannot help but think he, too, is acutely aware of the striking contrast between what he gazes upon—open, rippling blue sea and clear sky—and what lies behind him, no man’s land, a hopeless quagmire.
We see machinery building new roads on the outskirts of the neighborhood and sense that soon enough they’ll be mowing down the remnants of the battle-ruined but also ancient streets. As the man passes a wall on his ruminating walk we see papers tacked to it with beautiful calligraphy that says: We miss you. We assume this means family members lost to the past battles.
Women in the movie are practical. The wife of the man who has seen the lawyer, poses questions to her husband about what they can do, but he has no answers and no motivation to fight for his rights. In our own society, women would take the matter into their own hands and attempt to pierce the bureaucracy, the records, the courts, to obtain justice. The women on the screen have the same practicality, acumen, and potential to win justice, but by tradition they defer such matters to the man of the house.
The movie ends with images of the wasteland—the town’s crazy man riding his scooter and this time pausing to cackle demonically; the woman washing her hands as usual; and the empty rooftop where she usually hangs laundry. We stare at these images of what there is, what is left, and the hapless characters inhabiting what is left. We feel the dead weight of an existence that is not right, is not just.
For screening times visit the San Francisco International Film Festival http://fest10.sffs.org
© 2010 Gail Spilsbury, all rights reserved