The Director Who Won't Take Money From Israel but Wants Israelis to See His Films

Kamal Aljafari was born in Ramle but works from Berlin. In a conversation with Haaretz, he explains how his work is about the place he left: ‘I use cinema as an act of reclamation’

Palestinian filmmaker Kamal Aljafari in Berlin.
Aleks Stota

When filmmaker Kamal Aljafari talks about Palestinian cinema and where it is going, he begins with an important clarification. “It’s becoming clear that Palestinian art and cinema is now coming from all over the world. We’re not talking about historic Palestine anymore.”

Why the Palestinian art scene is increasingly being seen as an international movement has obvious political reasons related to the absence of a Palestinian state and the unresolved status of refugees. The majority of Palestinians today – over 6 million – live in the diaspora. But the case of Aljafari, who has Israeli-German citizenship, is different: It touches on the universal relationship between art and exile, and attests to an inability to create from within.

Aljafari, 47, was born in Ramle, in “what Israelis call the Arab ghetto,” he tells Haaretz by phone. In 1998, after completing his studies at Hebrew University, he went to study film in Germany and has stayed there ever since. He lives and works in Berlin, but continues to visit Israeli regularly – because “my work is about the place that I left.”

He says he simply couldn’t accept the conditions of his existence in Israel anymore. “I was fed up with being a second-class citizen. We come from there, but it is not our country anymore,” he says.

Reality as sci-fi

Two weeks ago, Aljafari premiered his new film, “It’s a Long Way From Amphioxus,” at the Berlin International Film Festival. Continuing his objective of “taking people from the margins” and making them the main focus, his 17-minute short was filmed in a West Berlin center for processing asylum seekers – one of the largest of its kind.

The film presents dark, crowded scenes from the waiting room, with only the bright red numbers of the queue-management system shining brightly. In the film’s only moment of dialogue, a Syrian woman turns to a young man and asks him “What are they distributing here?” “Numbers,” he responds.

The short starts like a documentary and ends with a strange animation: Red LED numbers come alive, invading the space of the waiting room and the cinematic frame. As reported by the Lebanese Daily Star, the premiere provoked a lively debate between the German-speaking audience and Aljafari. One couple expressed concern at the film’s association of humans with numbers. It wasn’t Aljafari’s intent to reference Nazi identification numbers, he explained, but “of course it is a part of [mankind’s] collective history.”

A screenshot from Kamal Aljafari's short film “It’s a Long Way From Amphioxus,” which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2019.
Screenshot

As an immigrant, the centers are a familiar place for Aljafari, since he used to attend them to renew his documents. “Numbers are an essential part of who we’ve become,” he tells Haaretz. “Asylum seekers are totally dependent on a decision of an employee who sees them as numbers, as documents. This reality already comes across like a science fiction.”

Aljafari adds that he too has been living in uncertainty all his life, and knows the desperation of being dependent on a system. He recounts how some of the people he encountered at the center kept showing up every day – even if they had already been rejected by the system – because they couldn’t imagine life outside of it.

The filmmaker spent weeks there, collecting stories and characters. In one scene, we see a scuffle between two people, one of them wearing a security jacket. Aljafari is between them (he often shows up in his films), mediating an inaudible argument.

“There was one guy who wore a jacket with the word ‘security’ written on it. I thought he was a security man, until one day I saw him talking to himself. Another day, a guy got his application rejected and wanted to hit the guy with the security jacket. I knew the man with the security jacket was not a security man, so I was forced to intervene so a fight wouldn’t break out.”

Uprooted in reality and fiction

Exploration of identity and form are at the center of Aljafari’s work. “I grew up in a place that was ultimately renamed: I use cinema as an act of reclamation,” he says. That may be a hard concept to grasp on paper, but not when you see Aljafari’s films.

In his 2015 documentary “Recollection,” Aljafari watched dozens of Israeli films made between the 1960s and the early 2000s. Many of them were shot in the place of his childhood, Jaffa, but excluded the resident Palestinians, who, Aljafari explains, were “uprooted in reality and in fiction.” He in turn removed the Israeli actors from the scenes and made a whole new film showing just the city with the Palestinian passersby who had been filmed in the background.

Why did Aljafari need to remove Israelis in order to reclaim the spaces of his childhood? “They were actors. They stood in my way,” he says. “I wanted to make a film from the background.”

Aljafari’s work is subtle and smart – able to push a narrative that is constantly being challenged, without resorting to sensationalist politics or insult.

“Now I’m expanding into a new form which is more imaginary, less nonfiction,” he adds. “I want to make my own interpretation of the medium, my own rules. I want to take this aesthetic and continue developing it with my new project – a much bigger production.”

That film is “Beirut 1931,” inspired by a building in the Jaffa market with the inscription “In Memory of Beirut 18.05.1931.” “I was intrigued by it and made up a story about this person who had a love affair in Beirut and inscribed this sentence on his house, which he eventually lost in 1948,” Aljafari says.

There is a nostalgia attached to the title; a common yearning among Palestinian citizens of Israel for the pre-1948 days when the Levant was one cultural space and you could get a bus from Jaffa to Beirut for 1 Palestinian lira (about $40 today) and be there in a few hours. “All our lives, we are looking for the link to these people who are part of our culture,” Aljafari says. “We are the same people, the people of the Levant. There is no difference between someone from Haifa and someone from Beirut. The only difference is that in the last 70 years borders were erected, and history took a turn.”

Living overseas, Aljafari has plenty of opportunities to live and work with people from Arab countries that as an Israeli citizen he is not allowed to visit. “The incredible thing is that these borders fall in one second, as soon as you talk to them,” he says. “This is something the occupation hasn’t succeeded with.”

Aljafari intends to combine the fictional story in “Beirut 1931” with an investigation into the death of his uncle, who spent most of his life – and eventually died – in Abarbanel Mental Health Center, Bat Yam. This uncle also happens to appear in “Recollection” after accidentally being filmed in the 2009 film “Jaffa.”

“When I noticed him, it was a strange moment of reemergence,” Aljafari says. “My uncle was kept in a mental institute and I rarely saw him growing up.”

The personal and systemic will also feature in another upcoming project, this one based on CCTV footage Aljafari’s father captured in 2006, in order to identify the person who had repeatedly been breaking his sister’s car window in Ramle. “Eventually the guy came back and broke the window again. He was just a mentally unstable guy from the neighborhood and he was caught. But the unintended result was that my father filmed the entire neighborhood for one month. This material is incredible. The camera captures everything and everyone I knew from my childhood but haven’t seen in 20 years.”

Kamal Aljafari, right, attending the Cannes Film Festival with actress Afef Ben Mahmoud, May 2016.
Jacopo Raule / Getty Images IL

What we imagine for ourselves

In his bio on the Berlinale website, the filmmaker is described as “Kamal Aljafari, born in Palestine in 1972.” In Germany, he says, he can be a Palestinian and not have to submit to a system that compromises his identity.

“I couldn’t accept a situation where I was being renamed, to have to use another name that someone gave me,” he says. “It’s not about facts, it’s about what we imagine for ourselves – and I try to do the same in my films.”

He reiterates that he is not talking about a national identity. “I’m talking about what it means to be a person from the margins – geographic margins, gender margins, whatever they are. It’s more natural for me to be an immigrant here [in Germany], where there are other immigrants. But I couldn’t accept being an immigrant in my own country. I needed to free myself. Saying ‘Born in Palestine in 1972’ is abstract, it’s poetic.”

His films may be experimental but Aljafari is an extremely down-to-earth artist, able to soberly diagnose the challenges facing Palestinian filmmakers. “We are a fragmented, diasporic nation,” he reflects. “The problem of cinema is that it relies heavily on money. If you look at national cinema – in Europe, Asia or in Israel itself – there’s a state behind it. We are stateless, and this makes it a lot more difficult to gather the means to make films. History is written by the powerful, and as an oppressed people it’s harder for us to tell our stories.”

The financing dilemma is especially pertinent for Palestinians in Israel. As Aljafari explains, “The Israeli state pours a lot of money into cinema, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to make critical films. They intervene in the content. We see this with the ‘loyalty law,’” he says, referring to the legislation that allows Israel’s Culture Ministry to withhold funding on political grounds.

“Imagine a film fund asking German or French artists to declare loyalty to the German or French state,” Kamal continues, “It’s crazy. It’s against art.”

There is also another obstacle, with this one coming from a surprising source. The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement makes no concessions for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and in theory applies the same regulations to them as it does to their Jewish-Israeli counterparts. It appears that disenfranchisement, in some cases, can be just as bad, if not worse, than statelessness.

Aljafari, though, has a typically original take on the problem. “I want my films to be shown to Israeli audiences, but I’m just not interested in cooperating with Israeli government institutions,” he says. “The system didn’t grant me a place to live and create, so I chose to work outside it. I made the decision to never take money from the Israeli state a long time before BDS existed. It’s related to a personal decision to restore who I am.”