An Unusual Summer. Notes on surveillance video

1 May, 2020

If surveillance camera footage was once a prerequisite of western states, a symbol that stood for the endless broadening of panoptic and Foucauldian surveillance in states that had very finely-tuned and sophisticated mechanisms of control at its fingers, with these pictures being, in a certain sense, their actual figurative manifestation, these kinds of images are now ubiquitous in contemporary society. The omnipresence of such a method of producing images and its detritus can also be largely attributed to the moment in which such technological means become available to domestic consumers, from which point onwards it spills into social media flows. (All of us have already probably seen some viral recording of an accident or traffic scuffle caught on a dashboard camera, footage of an American yard overrun by raccoons, or rows of garbage cans floating away on a suburban flood, and so on.)

In Gefängnisbilder (Prison Images, 2001), Harun Farocki – who is, par excellence, the very best analyst of utilitarian imagery of the 20th century – investigates the representation of carceral spaces and its transformation over the course of the first century of cinema, culling his material from various sources: from fragments of features by Genet and Bresson, to surveillance camera footage from American prisons. Here, Farocki’s observation in regards to the latter type is intriguing: they are not just unprocessed (meaning, time and space are no longer compressed through montage) and monotonous, they also are an open invitation to observe what constitutes a deviation from the norm, as well as to observe the inactive and fundamentally uninteresting nature of the experience of detainees, thus demystifying it.

Farocki (who passed away in 2014) is still the t-0 filmmaker of the found footage film movement, and the practice of this specific cinematic subgenre has virtually bloomed across the past couple of years, a fact which is also due to the massive availability and production of potential source-material, by means of digital technology. Recently, found footage films that are exclusively sourced from purely digital materials have become increasingly prevalent within this subgenre, with films such as No Place For Fools (dir. Oleg Mavromatti, 2015) and Present.Perfect. (dir. Zhu Shengze, 2019), although it seems that surveillance footage hasn’t yet piqued the interest of filmmakers all that much. One of the few examples would be Xu Bing’s controversial 2017 feature, Dragonfly Eyes, which was pieced together from over 10,000 hours of material, mostly sourced from public surveillance cameras, and highlights precisely gruesome moments – explosions, accidents – which are, however, reunited under a fictional narrative line that follows a female character.

Gefangnisbilder (2001), Harun Farocki
Gefängnisbilder (2001), Harun Farocki

What can be generally observed is that the imagery in these types of films is usually put in the service of a discourse with a clearly negative, even dystopian tone: household access to recording technology allows us to access all sorts of mishaps and disasters that take place just beyond the corners of our eyes, to all sorts of freaks and to their meltdowns, to a society that seems to have given up the rights over its public and even intimate image. This is the context in which Unusual Summer, directed by Palestinian filmmaker Kamal Aljafari (a found footage regular), manages to untangle the concept of surveillance images from this ensemble of negative connotations. The film also achieves these goals by means of a cinematic discourse which, on the one hand, brings into discussion a very radical means of creating an observational documentary, while also owing up to the directions which Andrei Ujică popularized in The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu (2010), using sound design to achieve fictionalization.

Showcased as a part of the online edition of Visions du Réel festival, within its second round of programming (which ran between the 25th of April to the 2nd of May), Unusual Summer starts out from a premise that is almost funny: in the summer of 2006, the filmmaker’s father sets up a surveillance camera on his home in order to catch a hooligan that has been repeatedly breaking his car’s windshield. And so, the first quarter-hour of the film is constructed almost like a thriller of sorts – any passerby throughout the film’s fixed frame (a dusty street-end that runs into a roadway, with three cars parked in the middle, right in front of a fenced garden with a resplendent tree in its middle) is the potential perpetrator.

Slowly, by means of textual interventions, Aljafari reveals that we are observing his neighbors, which are regarded with affection, highlighting their hilarious habits: Abu Rizeh, whose limp makes him lean on the trunks of the cars when he passes by; two sisters who never leave the home without each other; Youssef, who speaks to himself and thinks he’s being followed; Abu Gazaleh, who has never been seen without his bicycle. Between their recurrent appearances, images of passersby are shown – everything from kids passing by on their bikes or trying to raise a kite, to youngsters running away for cover after a gang shooting. And, of course, Aljafari’s own family is heavily featured: sequences which he decides to set to the narration of his niece, who identifies the contents of the frame very matter-of-factly, including „mom” (the filmmaker’s sister); this choice is justified later on by a very tender scene in which a man holding a gigantic bouquet of flowers approaches the home – an intertitle revealing that „someone’s fallen in love with my sister”. „On my father’s camera, everyone has a chance to exist” is seemingly the film’s motto, through which the filmmaker manages to contextualize a series of images that are not just pixelated and unaesthetic at their origins, but also fundamentally hostile and boring. Images that are usually never seen by anyone, in fact, at least not in the real sense of the term, which are just destined to infinitely accumulating and, as Farocki observed, serve to identify deviations from the norm. It is precisely the norm that interests Aljafari, identifying in it the great potential to humanize a type of image that is inherently hostile and punitive.

Unusual Summer (2020), Kamal Aljafari.
Unusual Summer (2020), Kamal Aljafari

By the time when, towards the film’s end, the vandal finally appears and smashes the car’s windowpane with a rock (his identity remains unexplored), Aljafari’s anti-suspense film almost makes one forget that this individual is the reason for which these images even exist in the first place. „How can I know where I’m going / Not all things have a reason” is one of the film’s first text inserts, which also sets the tone for its myriad experimentally-tinged interventions throughout – moments in which the image is zoomed in to follow a specific element (such as a cat, or a fluttering plastic bag), moments in which the glitch aesthetics are put to use to highlight sequences in which the camera breaks down, montages which are constructed around natural elements such as shadows or the wind.

Not all of these interventions are well-advised – some of them seem to be pulled from the „experimental filmmaker’s manual”, such as the decision to end the film on a suite of semi-redundant poems set to rolling credits – but the usage of foley and extra-diegetic music, which is sometimes strident in contrast with the purely observational images, other times discreet, shows that Aljafari isn’t inspired just by Farocki or Ken Jacobs (whose 1986 Perfect Film is the archetypal found film, whose aims differ from those of montage films), but also by Ujică and John Smith, with his famous experiment, The Girl Chewing Gum (1976), where an observational shot is set into tension with a voice-over which suggests that what is seen is completely staged.

Beyond being the kind of documentary film that, in times of social distancing, is a bittersweet reminder of how the streets manifest themselves, Unusual Summer is ultimately a nostalgic film: the tapes were discovered by the filmmaker in his basement after the passing of his father, which he uses to bring him back to life, in various mundane moments. The recordings also offer the chance to return to a town and a home that he has left behind (Aljafari seems to be established in Berlin) and from a space that he no longer belongs to in a larger, historical sense of the term: that of the occupied Palestinian territories. Although it is by no means perfect, or a masterpiece, Unusual Summer is certainly a riveting discovery and a template for an interesting, alternative mode of praxis for found footage film.

Flavia Dima Flavia Dima
Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short fim festival, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. For Films in Frame, she's in charge of interviews, along with Laura Musat. Favorite international film festival: Viennale.