We usually don’t think of a debut feature as made by someone senior, especially if the filmmaker is one of the figureheads of Israeli culture. And yet, this is the case with Ram Loevy’s “The Dead of Jaffa,” which premiered recently at the Jerusalem Film Festival, and which will go into theatrical release in Israel later this year.
Loevy, known for his cutting-edge political works, started 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. First censored in Israel, the broadcast of “Khirbet Khize” was a subject of a major debate. It earned Ram Loevy a reputation as a filmmaker who was willing and able to take on a deeply politicized system. His films also gave an unprecedented voice to the Israeli underclass: the 1986 television drama “Bread” is considered an Israeli classic today. Throughout his half-century career, Loevy made dozens of narrative and documentary movies for television, which won him the prestigious Israel Prize. But only now, at 79, has he finally 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. Paradoxically, it is both a debut, and a culmination of a career.
“The Dead of Jaffa” continues the conversation started in “Khirbet Khize.” But 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 childless couple. For Rita, the children’s arrival is an answer to her yearning for motherhood. George is more cautious: in a world where even a friendly neighborhood cop hunts down and brutally arrests “illegal infiltrators” from the West Bank, harboring the orphans is an enormous risk.
All 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 already 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 peaks out of the ruin’s window, he witnesses the most extraordinary sight. It becomes a window into the past, as the courtyard nearby comes alive with people and music. A Palestinian family in 1940s garb is preparing for a celebration. Three girls in blue dresses (calling to mind the famous twins from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”) prepare to dance. A whirling dervish appears, and as he starts to twirl, he floats into the air in a scene full of exquisite cinematic magic.
Alas, they are not ghosts, but actors and extras in a foreign film that’s being shot in the neighborhood. Their presence kicks off 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; his dynamic with the people in the neighborhood ironically replicates the colonial hierarchies from the time he is trying to depict. The two plotlines intersect when he asks George to play the small role of a Palestinian doctor. George agrees, without quite understanding what it 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 has 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 film’s climatic moment comes when the crew recruits people from the neighborhood to act as extras in a street protest scene. At first, the locals giggle. But gradually, they get into it, their chants of “Free Palestine!” grow stronger, and Talal joins the demonstration, swept by the emotion. 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, past and present fuse, and tensions erupt. The events come to the fore when the procession reaches the checkpoint of the actual — Israeli — police, who spring into action. “The Dead of Jaffa” doesn’t have a happy ending. Under the burden of violence past and present, it can’t.
The film’s strongest element is the story of the Jaffa couple, George and Rita, their petit-bourgeois life undone by the encounter with the children. They are torn between their emerging parental responsibility and a very real fear of police retribution. Their drama is deeply felt thanks to the moving performances of Abu-Warda and Bilal-Asfour, both accomplished Israeli Palestinian actors, as well as a newcomer Babay, who fully inhabit their complex characters. (International audiences might be familiar with Abu-Warda from his roles in several films by Amos Gitai). Equally convincing are the characters of their friends and neighbors, their Arabic dialog, still rare on Israeli screens, occasionally adding humor to the heartbreak. In contrast, the characters of the British director and his actors might seem less developed. But their story is important. 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 — like George today — are relegated to the margins of the narrative, their story silenced once again. But as the film so powerfully suggests, their absence from historical narrative haunts the present.
This absence is symbolic of the place of the Nakba in the Israeli public consciousness. As a recent investigative report by Hagar Shezaf in Haaretz reveals, Israel has systematically attempted to conceal archival documents on the Nakba. It is equally missing from Israeli screens. In national cinema, the events of 1948 have been normally represented from the Israeli-Zionist vantage point portraying heroic sacrifices in the War for Independence for the sake of nation-building. The very few filmmakers who have dared to broach the subject are either iconoclasts working largely outside of Israeli system, like Amos Gitai (“Kedma,” “Ana Arabia”) and Udi Aloni (“Forgiveness,” “Junction 48”), or Palestinian auteurs like Elia Suleiman (“The Time That Remains”), whose Israeli passport hardly defines his national identity. In recent years only documentaries, such as Neta Shoshani’s “Born in Deir Yassin,” bring dark history to light. Ram Loevy’s new film is a welcome addition to furthering the exploration of the difficult past. “The Dead of Jaffa” leaves us with a profound meditation about the collective memory of Nakba and about its aftermath today. It is a cinematic achievement, weaving together Israeli and Palestinian realities, memories real and imagined, usable past and an entirely untenable present.
Olga Gershenson is Professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies and of Film Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.