Berlin-based Palestinian filmmaker Kamal Aljafari revisits familiar themes in “An Unusual Summer,” a personal work that captures the invisible lives of people in a Palestinian neighborhood in the Israeli city of Ramla.
Composed of recordings from a surveillance camera installed by Aljafari’s late father at their family home in 2006 in the hope of catching a vandal who kept damaging his car, “An Unusual Summer” is a video diary populated by local residents, shoppers, pedestrians and school kids.
“In many ways it wasn’t really my choice to make this film,” Aljafari tells Variety. “I was kind of chosen.”
The film, which screens in International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Harbour section, continues themes the director explored in his 2016 work “Recollection,” in which he reconstructed the old city of Jaffa from excerpts taken from Israeli and Hollywood feature films shot there from the 1960s to the 1990s.
“An Unusual Summer” is a poetic homage to human existence that creates “the space for all these ghosts that actually always existed within the frame but nobody was paying attention to,” Aljafari says. “This is very symbolic of being Palestinian, especially inside Israel. You are basically uprooted from reality as well as from fiction. So you really don’t exist.”
The surveillance camera footage presented an opportunity. “This is something that is not achieved by any filmmaker. It’s not possible because no one would stay there 24 hours and film nonstop. … Most of the people living in the neighborhood appeared on the camera. In itself this was a treasure, a miracle.”
The film is a chronicle of a Palestinian community in Ramla, “which used to be a Palestinian city up until 1948,” Aljafari explains. “After the occupation of the city, the vast majority of the Palestinian population was expelled. The remaining Palestinians, a few hundred, were forced to live in this one neighborhood, and this neighborhood was named, already in 1948, the Arab Ghetto.”
While trying to discover the identity of the vandal provided the film with narrative direction, breathing life into the cold and soundless surveillance footage became a challenge. “Creating emotions and building up narratives, that was achieved through a lot of work with sound.”
“It is a very personal film and I believe cinema is a form of personal expression,” he adds. “For that reason, finding this material from a camera installed by my father was something really quite incredible.”
Aljafari just returned to Europe from Ramla, where he experienced the harrowing violence of the recent weeks. The neighborhood, whose social fabric is already severely frayed due to rising crime, became a target for armed right-wing Israeli settlers during the upheaval, Aljafari says.
“These groups were attacking the neighborhood like they did in other mixed cities, Lydd, Jaffa, Ramla. They would come at night mostly, armed, and try to burn some houses. In other instances, they would mark homes of Palestinians, because there are some Jewish people living in this neighborhood. And this was all under the protection of the local Israeli police. I saw them from the balcony. … Being there was a nightmare. Most people wouldn’t sleep at night because they were afraid that they would be attacked by these groups of thugs.”
“It’s really something that is difficult to describe, to understand even, if you are not there and seeing what is going on. Being in this house, in this neighborhood, knowing all this history of what happened to this community and seeing all of this again, it can really bring only nightmarish memories, because in Ramla and Lydda, in Jaffa, in all these places, in 1947-1948, many massacres took place.”
The systematic suppression and institutionalized violence has severely affected Palestinian society, Aljafari explains. “I was born in my own city but I always felt like an immigrant. This is a very scary mental state of mind. You know that you are from this place but you are not recognized for who you are.”
“This discrimination is everywhere and it’s been happening to generations: the generation of my grandparents, the generation of my parents, my generation, the generation of my nieces. They go through the same thing.”
“It’s not surprising that I’m interested in this kind of cinema because this is where I came from. I came from a city where there are ruins everywhere and the traces of the war are to be found everywhere.”
Aljafari points out that the violence and the death and destruction in Gaza has created unprecedented international awareness of the ongoing occupation and oppression of Palestinians in Israel.
“I’m really surprised about what’s happening in the U.S., because you had many demonstrations and many really prominent people [speaking out]. This is a result of a new alliance between Black Lives Matter, queer movements, immigrant movements, human rights movements and Jewish peace movements with the Palestinians. This is something quite promising and I think it will eventually influence the political system in the U.S., at least the Democratic Party.”
Aljafari will soon return to Israel to begin work on his next project, a narrative feature film he plans to shoot in Jaffa next winter. “It’s based on the real story of my late uncle, who passed away in an Israeli mental hospital. The film is about this feeling of being a ghost in your own country.”
He is also developing another archival film. He notes, however, that while films usually take time to make, Palestinian films can be particularly difficult due to their inherent political nature. “It is perceived as controversial because you ask difficult and very uncomfortable questions.”
“I’m very excited about shooting again. For me it’s a very exciting time as well because, despite all of that, there’s a very strong spirit among people, especially among young people, and it’s very beautiful to see. This is what gives us hope.”