“THE DEAD OF JAFFA”
The Past Haunts the Present in Israel
Ram Loevy is known for his cutting-edge political works. He began his career in 1966 with the documentary “My Name is Ahmad,” which shocked his audience by putting a dispossessed Arab at the center of his narrative. His 1978 television film “Khirbet Khize” portrayed the expulsion of Palestinians by Israeli troops in 1948, and questioned the morality of Israel’s actions. It was censored in Israel and its broadcast of “became a major debate. It earned Ram Loevy a reputation as a filmmaker who would take on a deeply politicized system. His films gave an unprecedented voice to the Israeli underclass: the 1986 television drama “Bread” is an Israeli classic. Loevy has made dozens of narrative and documentary movies for television, which won him the prestigious Israel Prize. But only now, at 79, he has directed his first feature for the big screen. Written by Loevy’s longtime collaborator, the late Israeli writer Gilad Evron and a Palestinian-Israeli author, Ala Hlehel, “The Dead of Jaffa” was sixteen years in the making. It is both a debut, and a culmination of a career.
It continues the conversation started in “Khirbet Khize.” However, where the earlier film narrated the events of 1948, the new one fuses history with current events, by intertwining two plotlines. The main plotline springs into action when three children from the West Bank are smuggled into Israel. With their mother dead, and their father serving a life sentence in an Israeli jail, they are effectively orphaned. They arrive at the home of George (Yussuf Abu-Warda) and Rita (Ruba Bilal-Asfour), Palestinian citizens of Israel living in Jaffa. George and Rita, who may or may not be the kids’ relatives, are a couple without children. For Rita, the children’s arrival is an answer to her desire to be a mother. George is more cautious since he lives in a world where even a friendly neighborhood cop hunts down and brutally arrests “illegal infiltrators” from the West Bank and harboring the orphans is an enormous risk.
The three children are traumatized, but where the younger two are just thrilled to be with loving adults again, the older one, Talal (Jihad Babay), is a rebellious teenager with a budding political consciousness. He sneaks into an abandoned house nearby. George finds him and, in order to dissuade Talal from the property, tells him “This is a house of dead people.” In fact, it is the house of Palestinians expelled in 1948, which George’s family has been protecting from Israeli appropriation. But Talal is stubborn and he stays. As he looks out of the house’s window, he sees a window into the past, as the courtyard nearby comes alive with people and music. A Palestinian family in 1940s dress is preparing for a celebration. Three girls in blue dresses prepare to dance. A whirling dervish begins and as he starts to twirl, he floats into the air in a scene full of cinematic magic.
Alas, they are not ghosts, but actors and extras in a foreign film that’s being photographed in the neighborhood. Their presence starts the secondary plotline. A British director (Jonny Phillips) is there to recreate the love story of his parents that started when both were stationed in Mandate Palestine. He is entitled and oblivious and the way he acts with neighborhood people is a replication of the colonial hierarchies from the time he is trying to depict. The two plotlines come together when he asks George to play the small part of a Palestinian doctor. George agrees but does not quite understanding what the role entails. The scene of the filming symbolizes the place of Palestinians both then and now: the camera depicts multiple takes, in each one of them, an actor playing the British soldier shoots George’s character. George is to fall, covered in blood, again and again, visibly retraumatized by the experience. Talal, who was watching the entire scene from the side, confronts him: “You let them kill you!”
The climatic moment comes when the crew recruits people from the neighborhood to act as extras for the street protest scene. At first, the locals giggle. But gradually, they get into it, their chants of “Free Palestine!” grow stronger, and Talal, swept by emotion joins the demonstration. Soon, he is leading it, throwing real, rather than prop rocks towards the actors in the uniforms of British police. The make-believe protest becomes real, as past and present fuse, and tensions erupt. The events come to the fore when the procession reaches the checkpoint of the real Israeli police, who jump into action. “The Dead of Jaffa” doesn’t have a happy ending and considering the burden of violence past and present.
The film’s strongest element is the story of the Jaffa couple, George and Rita, their petit-bourgeois life undone by the children. They are torn between their emerging parental responsibility and very real fear of police retribution. Their drama is deeply felt due to the moving performances of Abu-Warda and Bilal-Asfour, as well as a Babay. They fully inhabit their complex characters. Just as convincing are the characters of their friends and neighbors, their Arabic dialog, still rare on Israeli screens, occasionally adds humor to the heartbreak. In contrast, the characters of the British director and his actors might seem less developed. But their story is important since it allows the film to engage not only with the history but with memory and representation of the 1948 events. In the fictional film-within-the-film, the Arab dispossession appears only as a colorful backdrop in a British family saga. The historical locals are relegated to the fringe of the narrative and their story is again silenced. Their absence from historical narrative haunts the present.
This absence is symbolic of the place of the Nakba in the Israeli public consciousness. In national cinema, the events of 1948 have been normally represented from the Israeli-Zionist vantage point of portraying heroic sacrifices in the War for Independence for the sake of nation-building. The very few filmmakers who have dared to touch the subject are either iconoclasts working largely outside of Israeli system.
“The Dead of Jaffa” leaves us with profound thoughts about the collective memory of Nakba and about its aftermath. It is a cinematic achievement in that it brings together Israeli and Palestinian realities and memories that are real and imagined.