Interview with Kamal Aljafari, director of Paradiso, XXXI, 108
Wednesday 1 February 2023, by , ,
“Nothing can be heard anymore; the roar of our plane absorbs every other sound. We are heading straight to the world’s biggest display of soundproof fireworks, and soon we will drop our bombs.”
Palestinian filmmaker and artist Kamal Aljafari has built a solid reputation for his cutting-edge experimental filmmaking over the years, with work shown at the Berlinale, Locarno, Venice.... and here in Clermont-Ferrand! Aljafari’s new film certainly doesn’t disappoint. Its title is taken from a short story by Borges. The images are footage from an Israeli army propaganda video showing it conducting "tests" in the desert. Aljafari repurposes these to depict what seems to be a staged fight, or playacting, it’s never quite clear, and intentionally so. It’s an ambitious, uncanny film, very rich in symbolism, which manages to say so much about our own relation to on-screen violence.
Where and when does Paradiso, XXXI, 108 take place?
Paradiso, XXXI, 108 is taking place in Al-Naqab desert, in the south of Palestine.
From which material did you get the military pictures? Did you do editing?
The material is coming from films commissioned by the Israeli Army. They were didactic, educational propaganda films, where basically being in the army meant to look very entertaining and full of learning. The whole concept of the film is in the editing, which allowed me to subvert the material by changing the order of scenes and actions, by exasperating the iteration of mechanical activities through which these war games are questioned and seem senseless. But in some scenes the editing was kept as it is because it served the idea of the film. Also the narration in Hebrew was taken from the original material and, despite the fact that it is fictitious, it is a document that testifies to a certain state of mind.
What did you have in mind when making the soundtrack of the film?
First I was interested in the mechanical aspect of human beings, and, more specifically, of an apparatus of destruction, the army. The sound gives you the feeling of that and builds up the tension. Like the “Danse Macabre”, which is a music that already talks and reflects on human nature, as its title reveals. In a way this is what we see. While I used Haendel’s “Sarabande” for delivering a kind of melancholy for all that is going wrong with humanity, which always pays the price for being at war and creating systems that are enforcing destruction. Surely this film is showing a specific place and a specific case, but I think it is a reflection on humanity itself and on its failure. Then there are some parts in the film where we are using Suleiman Gamil’s music (“Pharaoh Funeral Process”, “Isis Looks for Osiris”) that in a certain way is the sound of this landscape. The sound of the flute is coming again and again, like the wind, it is almost what this landscape is telling: you cannot defeat me. This area of Palestine has been very affected both by using a large part of it as army bases for exercises and by creating settlements and, by doing so, changing the nature of the place. Where there is desert, in many places in the world, it has been used to exercise, to test bombs and finally destroy the landscape itself. In the material we never see the people: the enemy is always supposedly hiding behind the hills, or between ruins, but we never see it. Nevertheless the soldiers continue bombing and maneuvering and attacking again and again with their power forces. This whole thing that the enemy is not to be seen is also quite symbolic: it’s the way the Palestinians, are perceived in many aspects of their life, as non-existing and temporary. Yet the “state” is set to look for them, in a way the material testify for this ideology, they are there and not there. They are not being recognized as human beings and the army attempts at the same time to fight them, which is in itself very contradictory and prone to failure.
Is there a sequel to Paradiso, XXXI, 108? Do you have further projects dealing with this issue?
The film was born out of another project we are still editing called A Fidai Film, and in that sense what we see in Paradiso, XXXI, 108 is just one aspect of a work of sabotage that I do to archival materials. A Fidai Film deals with the looting of archives, of a culture, of an entire country, and which is still going on. The film is a visual treatment of all of this. Working with archives allows me to study images and find patterns. In A Fidai Film there are a couple of sequences where we see exercises of the army from different times, and where they attack ruins, empty of humans. There is something very strange about using old and ancient structures to exercise an occupation. Making it in some ways symbolic for the whole story of Palestine, and not only in modern times.
What’s your favourite short?
I would say Homage by Assassination by Elia Suleiman (1992). To me it is one of the best short films of all time. It is his first movie he made in New York.
What does the Festival mean to you?
I have always heard about this festival and I am very happy that my film was selected in your program. What I really love about the Clermont-Ferrand short film festival is the idea of having a place that focuses on and supports short films, which to me manage to deliver the most experimental ideas in cinema. This is both because of their length, which most of the time makes them the most difficult to produce and support, but also gives them the freedom to be independent.