SFIFF Returns are dangerous. The story of Lot’s wife tells us that looking back is enough to be compromised. In cinema, the figure of return can stretch the basic spatiotemporal properties like so much silly putty. Take the two San Francisco International Film Festival speculative nonfictions that allow archival footage to overflow its conventional containers: 14-18: The Noise and the Fury, an epic reexamination of World War I narrated by a fictional French soldier, and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, Serge Bromberg’s dogged excavation of the eponymous French director’s famously unrealized film. Then there’s Claire Denis’ return to Africa (White Material), a Chinese documentary portrait of a family’s fraught journey home (Last Train Home), and American filmmaker Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us, a double return (the story of a Black Panther’s homecoming to his troubled neighborhood and a reconstruction of 1970s Philadelphia).
The cliché that “you can never go home again” is made freshly acute in Kamal Aljafari’s Port of Memory, a melancholic study of the Palestinian community of Jaffa where Aljafari is from. The film reminds me of The Exiles (1961) in its urban-fragmentary scenario, well-portioned running time, and lovingly quotidian portrait of a marginalized group. Port of Memory doesn’t announce that the fretful middle-aged woman who goes through the motions of housekeeping and caretaking is Aljafari’s mother and the man who wanders Jaffa’s crumbling streets his uncle — we’re left to piece together these intimate views on our own. As a narrator, Aljafari is discreet but hardly complacent: he intercuts establishing shots of his uncle’s promenades with footage from old Israeli and American films (for example, the 1986 Chuck Norris vehicle, Delta Force) that use the same streets for dubious spectacles of violence and nationalism. Doubling back on these inadvertent documents of occupation, Port of Memory‘s thin line of fiction has the now off-screen Israelis acting as a gentrifying force.
Like Aljafari’s film, Pedro González-Rubio’s gorgeous Alamar (“to the sea”) is set between landscapes (land and sea) and ways of telling (fiction and documentary). The bare frame of a plot places a young boy with his father and grandfather, Mayan fishermen working the Mexican Caribbean. The sweetness of this idyll is tempered by its provisional bounds: the boy will return to his mother in Rome at the end of his compressed experience of a father’s love. Every shot is earned: there are several in which the camera bucks with the boat, physically linked to the actors’ experience. The child is at an age of discovery, and González-Rubio channels this openness by fixing on the details of the fisher’s elegant way of life and the environmental contingencies of their home at sea.
The same well of patrimony and nature has been poisoned in Vimukthi Jayasundara’s surreal fable of destruction, Between Two Worlds. In this mythopoetic work, Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war ravages on in screaming city streets and darkened forest visions. We first see the film’s central figure — a nameless wanderer resembling many other “chosen ones” — in a death pose, splayed on the beach with crabs crawling over him. Two fishermen trade variations of the story of a prince destined to survive great bloodshed to kill his powerful uncles, and several forest dwellers seem to think our protagonist is the man. The slipperiness of Between Two Worlds‘ reality, in which visions are liable to be doubled or outright contradicted, evokes both the shifting ground of trauma and different rules of oral storytelling. In its best moments, the film put me in the mood of Jeff Wall and Raúl Ruiz; in its least, a slow-motion Lost. But Between Two Worlds amply demonstrates that returning is not always a matter of volition: such is fate and endless war.