A Fidai Film Review: Images Speak Louder Than Words

An act of appropriation and reclamation

5 mins read

A Fidai Film
(Germany/Palestine/Qatar/Brazil/France, 78 min.)
Dir. Kamal Aljafari


In 1982, during the political unrest of the Lebanese Civil War, a massacre occurred in the south-western region of Beirut. From September 16 to September 18, over 3000 civilians were murdered by a right-wing militia in coordination with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Civilians residing in the Sabra neighbourhood and Shatila refugee camps were murdered in cold blood. Israel’s goal was to dismantle the Palestinian Liberation Organization. During the atrocity, leaders from the organisation fled to Libya. The IDF would later raid the Palestine Research Center. Thousands of books, newspapers, press clippings, microfiches, and films were stolen from its comprehensive archive. The stories, identities, and images of the Palestinian people were robbed by their oppressor. In the case of Kamal Aljafari’s A Fidai Film, the documentary anchors its political condemnations against the state of Israel within the aforementioned massacre.

Aljafari’s introspective, if esoteric, film frames the senseless looting of indigenous history through his compilation of archival material. For the project, the Palestinian filmmaker contacted Israeli researchers who salvaged footage from the research centre catastrophe. To this day, the majority of the archive still remains in the hands of the IDF. Due to the suppression of Palestinian stories, Aljafari organised his own isolated archive. In A Fidai Film, the documentary contrasts zionist propaganda with footage pre-dating the Nakba, the 1948 event in which the State of Israel established itself through the violent displacement of Palestinians. The footage is presented without context, as Aljafari avoids traditional storytelling conventions. The chronology of the footage is sporadic, alternating between different timelines of Palestinian history with intellectual montage.

Aljafari reclaims stolen history through appropriation. A Fidai Film retaliates against Israeli censorship by drawing over archival images and text. People, landscapes, and propaganda are scratched out of the picture with bright red markings. For context, in the aftermath of the Beirut massacre, the IDF plastered degrading captions onto archival films for investigative purposes. The anthropological documents were used to study and suppress Palestinian movements. The IDF’s goal was to better understand indigenous traditions, in order to obtain control of the population under the apartheid system. A Fidai Film draws over the zionist text as an act of resistance. Aljafari also includes the motif of a moving flame with the censored markings. Wavering fires are digitally imposed upon the footage. The kaleidoscopic compilation carefully ignites powerful symbolism amidst the genocidal accounts.

Accompanying the reclaimed images, sound designers Attila Faravelli and Jochen Jezussek worked in tandem with the kinetic editing by Aljafari and Yannig Willmann. A Fidai Film mixes reverberated ambient sounds and disturbing effects to accompany the images. The soundscape is erratic and unpredictable. The documentary plays with diegetic and non synchronous spaces for unnerving effect. Instead of relying on talking head interviews and audio commentary, Aljafari focuses on the introspective writing of Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani. Through Kanafani’s intimate and devastating text, A Fidai Film effectively voices the severity of the occupation.

During his festival tour, Aljafari described his approach as the “camera of the dispossessed” by recovering lost images and memories of life in Palestine. The documentary decontextualized pre-existing material as a form of artistic and political liberation.  The radical form of the documentary emulates the spirit of its title, as the Arabic translation of Fidai means “the one who dedicates his life to a cause.”

However, due to the nature of the direction, Aljafari’s film may work best within an academic setting. The powerful images, clever sound mix, and retaliative animation combine to create a scholastic conversation starter. On the other hand, the looseness of the approach may prove alienating for some audiences. The footage featured in the documentary is undeniably compelling and the juxtaposition of images permits provocative commentary. Audiences willing to be actively engaged in the exercise may find rewards, while it may fall flat for others. A Fidai Film is an important, albeit meandering archival experiment on the Palestinian struggle.

A Fidai Film is now screening on the festival circuit.

David Cuevas is a filmmaker and writer based in Ottawa, Ontario. With his limited time, he can be seen trekking between Toronto and Montreal to avoid the cataclysmic mundanity of the National Capital bore. You can also find the man of the hour at prestigious film festival events around the globe, with prior journalistic history with festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, IFFR, and TIFF. During the hot summer nights, David works as an associate programmer for the Ottawa International Animation Festival. David has written for various publications including POV Magazine, Next Best Picture, In Review Online, The Playlist, and ASIFA. He is also the Festivals Editor for FilmHounds Magazine. David funds his short film Ouvre on the side. David Cuevas was last seen as a filmmaker at the 2023 Fantasia Film Festival with his short film Avulsion.

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