BEIRUT: The security camera is in danger of becoming a thing of nostalgia.
Once upon a time, CCTV (not China Central Television, in this case, but “closed circuit television”) was a metaphor for Big Brother -- the means by which the state and its private-sector subcontractors monitor their subjects (us), the better to oppress them.
Nowadays, with global concerns about online privacy seemingly contradicted by the imperative of curbing the spread of COVID-19, a more intimate and compulsive technology has emerged as our privacy nemesis – the mobile phone.
Alongside a gadget that we take with us to work, to bed, to the toilet, the voyeurism of immobile cameras installed at shopping malls and street intersections seems quaint.
Kamal Aljafari may inadvertently contribute to the rehabilitation of CCTV, thanks to his new film “An Unusual Summer,” whose principal photography was shot by a security camera.
Its premise is laid out in a few intertitles early on. Abedeljalil Aljafari, the filmmaker’s father, one day found his car window had been smashed, so he installed a security camera to monitor the parking lot in front of his house.
Aljafari’s setup is promising, crime being a staple of cinema. Like a cop on stakeout, though, the security camera must witness a neighborhood’s workaday normalcy while awaiting the criminal.
In retrospect, the calm the security camera documented acquires as much interest as the violation it was meant to record. The Aljafari family live in Ramla, a town in that part of Palestine which European settlers declared to be the state of Israel in 1948. The tapes that make up this film were shot over 10 days in the summer of 2006, when, as the intertitles note, Israel was at war – its uniquely destructive and inconclusive 34-day attack on Lebanon.
For the filmmaker, the weight of this footage is also personal – his father having passed away in the intervening 14 years.
“Summer” unfolds as a dialogue between the moving image and narrative intertitles, which stand in for the filmmaker’s voice.
Among the figures walking through the frame are family members – his sister, mother and Abedeljalil Aljafari himself. Various neighbors are recognized too. Abu Rizq is a fixture, as is George Sousou – a name that, we are informed, is shared by a number of Ramla taxi drivers.
“On my father’s camera,” the intertitles reflect, “everyone has a chance to exist.”
The camera captures incidents of nighttime mischief. Young men throw rocks – and not at Israeli soldiers – while daytime vignettes sometimes show family members inspecting the elder Aljafari’s car, or gesturing as they discover a shattered windshield or broken window.
“Summer” premiered in late April at Switzerland’s Visions du Reel festival -- an online-only affair this year, thanks to this novel coronavirus outbreak – in its Burning Lights Competition, devoted to experimental cinema.
It’s Aljafari’s fourth feature-length nonfiction. He debuted in 2006 with “The Roof,” a quiet, beautifully shot observational doc located in the two Palestinian towns that the Berlin-based filmmaker calls home – Jaffa and Ramla. His 2010 follow-up, “Port of Memory,” steps away from observational documentary convention to recreate the conditions of his family’s existence in Jaffa.
Aljafari returned to feature-length film in 2015 with his widely lauded “Recollection.”
That film assembles an intimate montage of Jaffa and its residents from an archive mostly comprised of cheap DVDs of 50-odd Israeli and American films shot in and around the port town. The filmmaker edited out the Israeli-American actors and schlock plotlines from the footage, bringing the locations and Palestinian figures on the margins to the center of the frame.
Relying exclusively on found footage, with the filmmaker’s creative contribution coming via selection and post-production, “Summer” is a fitting follow-up to “Recollection.”
His use of found footage also brings Aljafari’s practice into dialogue with that of a number of contemporary artists. The security camera images of “Summer” in particular evoke a long history of street photography.
Plenty of photographers have devised means for taking candid shots of random passers-by. Philip-Lorca di Corsia’s “Heads” series, for instance, captures portraits of random New York City pedestrians, using a fixed camera and street-mounted strobe light.
While the randomness of Aljafari’s footage recalls di Corsia’s work, its aesthetic – hinged to a more rudimentary digital technology – is far removed from the crisp portraits of still photography.
Shot on a device that didn’t work very well – one of the film’s identifiable figures is a camera repairman – this footage was stored on a cache of VHS tapes. Because the data storage was limited, the filmmaker told The Daily Star in a phone conversation, the camera did not record at 24 frames per second. In fact, it randomly skipped forward so as to fit more data on a tape.
“If you slow down the footage,” he said, “you never see a fluid sequence.”
The medium’s limits are immediately obvious. The figures’ movement resembles stop-gap animation more than the realism of film and contemporary video footage.
To “zoom” on the tableau (as he sometimes does to follow a neighbor or a stone-throwing perp) ironically makes a figure less distinct, more pixellated. This throws into question the reliability of the archive – whose function was to identify the window-smashing vandal.
Fiction profits from documentary’s loss. From time to time Aljafari and film editor Yannig Willmann found it useful to accentuate technical flaws in the video footage. When the camera seems to zoom on a flock of birds or a rat skittering into the frame, or a plastic bag looping in an inaudible wind, the pixellation adds a muddy lyricism to the scene. The dissonance of the film’s image challenges any associations audiences may make between photographic clarity or beauty and accuracy.
The camera shot in color (though Aljafari says the digital transfers he ordered sometimes came back in black-and-white) but it didn’t record audio. Rob Walker is given principal credit for the sound mix, but Aljafari drew on the skills of several editors to devise a sound design that complements the film’s image, but not too perfectly.
To complete “Summer,” the filmmaker returned to Ramla to record his old neighborhood’s ambient sounds – including a rainstorm that gives voice to an unseasonal squall that visited Palestine that July. Where possible, other sounds – the mutterings of a neighbour who habitually talks to himself, or Aljafari’s sister informing her father his windshield’s been smashed again – were recorded with the characters themselves. Abedeljalil Aljafari, who sometimes coughs in the footage, is voiced by the filmmaker.
A further layer of personality comes in the voiceover of 9-year-old Darine Dibsi, the filmmaker’s niece. The filmmaker recorded her as she watched the raw footage, responding to earlier versions of her mother, grandmother and grandfather as they looked before she was born.
Wedged between private and public, home video and police procedural, “An Unusual Summer” finds resonant lyricism in the resolutely banal.