Images Blog 4 - 2010 Andrew James Paterson
Port of Memory, Kamal Aljafari & Covered, John Greyson
Images’ opening night gala double bill was one of bittersweet subtlety. Both Kamal Aljafari’s Port of Memory and John Greyson’s Covered are concerned with surfaces that are not at all what they appear to be. And , although Port of Memory is shot in what is usually described as a naturalistic mode (avoidance of artificial lighting, understated performances which in fact suggest documentary as much as fiction, and also lack of gratuitous music), Aljafari has quite effectively inserted jarring discordant elements into his mise en scene.
Greyson, of course, has blended an aesthetic in which distinctions between mise en scene and montage are problematized if not completely obliterated. Covered assumes multiple perspective - I did not see one single framed moment within the entire film (parallel to Greyson’s operatic documentary “Fig Trees” of 2009). But Covered primarily refers to time-honoured documentary essay practices, only to upset them. Although Covered is itself an essay, Greyson draws heavily on an essay which he reveals to be fictional.
The Palestinian feature Port of Memory is located in the port city of Jaffa, indeed one of the world’s oldest ports. But Jaffa has for some time been a disputed city. As a largely Arab city, in 1947 the United Nations Partition Plan designated this city to be part of the Arab state. However, an offensive by a militant Zionist group (Irgun) forced massive evacuation. As Jewish families have steadily settled in the city, now it is part of the municipality of Tel Aviv. And the Palestinian neighbourhoods remaining have for some time been in a sort of legal limbo over property deeds and many houses are boarded up and unoccupied. The film’s primary character - Salim - must negotiate with rote bureaucrats who have all too conveniently lost crucial legal documents. Eviction is not a matter or if but rather when.
Aljafari effectively depicts Salim’s trajectory within the context of the city’s architecture and its governing structures by contrasting a humanist base with strategic directorial interventions. The media is not quite omnipresent, but it is a constant. At one point, fairly early in the film, there is a staged documentary within the film. The staged documentary of course reveals documentary making to be as artificial as soap-operas or melodramas. Port of Memory is very concerned with exactly what gets covered, and then how.
Erosions of cities, gentrification - these very realities tend to either not be covered by not only mainstream media or be covered in terms of progress and modernization. Here there is a parallel with the 2008 Queer Sarajevo festival. The presence of a queer festival in a location widely regarded as being un-progressive with regards to rights issues including queer and gender issues is of course a sign of progress - or engagement with the real world or modern world (and also market economies). But the festival had to be shut down - its opening ceremonies were in conflict with the holy month of Ramadan. But Greyson is concerned about the coverage of this incident of mob censorship. Festivals are themselves full of contradictory signifiers and more. They are socially-discursive and they are also great for tourism and they do have their corporate sponsorships. Festivals, like everything else “celebratory”, can and have tended to airbrush out elements of dissonance. And dissonance is not necessarily synonymous with mob violence - let alone censorship.
Greyson, a gleeful enthusiast of mirrored narratives, plays on the etymology of the words “cover” and “covered”. While keeping an eye and ear as to how events and festivals are covered in the specific and general media, he also plays with another definition of “cover” - referring to cover versions. Popular culture, primarily musical, is saturated with cover versions that function in many contradictory directions. Some are well-meaning but exploitative. Some mean well but eclipse their originals because of factors pertaining to media and to marketing or distribution systems. Popular culture is loaded with covers that themselves have become personal signatures. How many people know or care that “Tainted Love” predates Soft Cell? Or that “Piece of My Heart” predates Janis Joplin? The tendency for covers to eclipse their originals is not always a matter of copyright infraction, nor is it an argument for exhorting the modernist originator as a point of principle.
Greyson is having fun with well-meaning Western liberals who just have to get in there and confuse matters further. He frequently quoted from an essay by Susan Sontag on “cover versions”. Well, why wouldn’t Sontag essay cover versions? After all, they are a fertile source of camp amusement and also they can be extremely painful to others. But the artist reveals this essay as a fictional conceit, a structural device. Greyson enters direct documentary territory by highlighting the four courageous organizers of the Queer Sarajevo Festival, but he must parallel indexical stock with clearly manipulated stock, in tandem with his rigorous concern about covering and being covered.
The double-billing of Port of Memory with Covered proved to be a thoughtful opening night for the 23rd Images Festival. . Both films shared key tropes - an alternatively trenchant and angry critique of sensationalist representations of Muslims as well as the pervasiveness of dominant media, which either wields the power itself or is forced by superiors to be selective about what gets covered and what does not. Both films are also highly critical of stupid red tape and its cynical manipulators. Port Memory is almost Kafkaesque with its mordant humour in spots, while Covered is often joyfully abrasive. Covered pokes barbed humour at the overfamiliar conception of birds as being these free-flyers who transcend such troublesome obstacles such as borders, while Port Memory contains a great sequence in which a cat takes the piss out of the programme being played on the television monitor below her. Settlers come and settlers go, but cats are the eternally true homeowners.
Opening night was not spectacular, nor was it intended to be. It was simply well-thought out and also well-attended.