The form of law that characterizes Kafka’s The Trial is a fundamentally spatial one. Dimitris Vardoulakis[1] evokes this spatiality when he writes “Joseph K.’s entrapment by law disperses over his entire milieu (...) Joseph K. finds himself trapped by an omnipresent and omnipotent law- he finds himself trapped in a cage without walls.” Vardoulakis’s reading of Kafka’s law brings a number of seemingly binary spatial relations in to play: Visibility and invisibility, absence and presence, universality and contingency, solidity and fluidity. These operative modes of law enact a complex spatiality of “empty” law, which acts topologically to redraw discrete territorial locations and cinematic subjectivities as points in network.

This article will briefly trace the genealogy of the “empty” law, from Kant, through Agamben to Vardoulakis. It will then use this reading of a Kafkaesque law to analyze the “space” of law through a close reading of Kamal Aljafari’s Port of Memory, Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s 5 Broken Cameras, Annemarie Jacir’s Like Twenty Impossibles and Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar. These films may appear both territorially and formally discrete, but in fact articulate differing modes of entrapment by law. A movement between molecular states, it will be argued, is characteristic of how the “empty” law manifests itself on screen and leads to what might be termed a “plasticity of confinement”. The modes of visibility/invisibility, absence/presence and universality/contingency will be examined within these films as constituent parts of this plasticity.

Joseph K.’s entrapment by the law disperses over his entire milieu. Joseph K. enjoys freedom of movement but everywhere he goes everyone seems to have already judged him as guilty for something indistinct, unexpressed, unknown. Joseph K. finds himself trapped by an omnipresent and omnipotent law – he finds himself trapped in a cage without walls.[2]

With this passage, Dimitris Vardoulakis articulates what he terms Kafka’s empty law, a “generalised sense of encagement”[3] that pervades Kafka’s work, notably The Metamorphosis and The Trial. The figure of imprisonment is key to Kafka’s work, but the question as to what shape that figure takes through its enactment by law is one with wider consequences. This article will attempt to trace the shapes of confinement occasioned by the empty law. The specter of the figure of Kafka and a construal of law as empty, are, this article argues, key to understanding an articulation of space in a number of recent Palestinian films, scenes from which will be read to illustrate this. Reading Vardoulakis’s empty law through a cinematic lens, Deleuze’s[4] concept of the perception image, with its three signs – solid, liquid and gaseous – will be rearticulated to read a multi-directional, topological movement of confinement on screen from the molar to the molecular; thus, the empty law can take various forms while – crucially – remaining contentless. This nature of being in force without content gives it points of condensation – into bodily presence – but also vaporization, into pervasive absence.

Introduction: Forms of Confinement – from Molecular to Molar

In Cinema 1: The Movement Image, Gilles Deleuze speaks of a “liquid” perception while articulating the form and function of the perception image, and particularly a movement between state of liquidity and solidity, or molecular and molar. When writing of the “two poles of perception”, Deleuze argues that “the perception-image was not to be reflected in a formal consciousness, but was to be split into two states, one molecular and the other molar, one liquid, and the other solid, one drawing along and effacing the other.”[5]

These poles can be applied to a certain reading of the form of law as absence and presence, which are rendered formally by molar, molecular and gaseous states. This allows the function of law to take fluid and changing forms, allowing for both pervasive universal absence and contingent presence. A movement between molecular states characterizes the empty law. Following Deleuze’s articulation of “liquid” perception, in its molecular form the empty law can move between states of condensation and vaporization while remaining contentless. This gives it points of contingent presence, but also pervasive absence. A reading of law that operates through solid, liquid and gaseous form echoes how Carl Von Clausewitz thinks the movement of resistant guerrilla warfare in On War.[6] Clausevitz speaks of the “nebulous and elusive” state that guerrilla forces must maintain, elaborating that “the fog must thicken and form a dark and menacing cloud out of which a bolt of lightning may form at any time”.[7]

A strikingly similar framework of condensation and vaporization can be applied to analyze the empty law’s insidious co-option of these movements of resistance. Rather than a strategy of resistance opposed to a “solid” form of traditional military grammar, Clausewitz’s equation can be modified and applied to the shifting solid, fluid and gaseous forms between which the empty law moves, and with which it encages.

Carceral Openings in the Work of Kamal Aljafari and Elia Suleiman

A seemingly paradoxical juxtaposition of freedom of movement with incarceration can be illustrated through a reading of opening scenes of incarceration, both fluid and solid, of two contemporary Palestinian films: Kamal Aljafari’s The Roof (2006)[8] and Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains (2009).[9] Arguably this points not to a trajectory, a loss of freedom unfolding over time and space, a “shrinking” space which Gertz and Khleifi[10] have identified as characterizing contemporary Palestinian cinema. Rather, in a reflection of Kafka's entrapped beginnings, both in The Trial and The Metamorphosis, these opening scenes can be read as an “always already incarceration” in which the empty law enframes and incarcerates seemingly open spaces.

Figure 1. Carceral forms in The Roof
Figure 1. Carceral forms in The Roof

Kamal Ajafari’s 2006 film The Roof opens with a flattened, shallow-focus shot of a rain-blurred window. We hear the director off-screen, describing a short period of time spent in a prison during the first intifada. Few details are revealed, we get a sketch of his experience, as his sister’s silhouetted face fills the frame, listening and questioning. The interior in this case is undetermined; perhaps a bar, café or hotel lobby, the mise-en-scéne opaque.

The description is matched by a formal claustrophobia. The shallow focus and tight framing brings his interlocutor’s profile into the foreground while the background is abstracted – raindrops streaming down a window – adding to the oppressiveness and confinement of the location. Rain effects a certain dislocation of time and place, as seen to similarly oppressive effect in the work of Elia Suleiman. The scene also uses a dislocating sense of irony, a recurring technique. While narrating his experience of prison and friends he made and lost touch with, Aljafari explains that he fell out of touch with his friend Nabieh “because I didn’t know what to say to him – I was free and he was in prison.” The words ring hollow, as both characters are held captive by the static frame. This scene is indicative of a trend of confined, carceral spaces opening recent Palestinian films. Enclosure and confinement become a defining characteristic of the visual language of these films.

Figure 2. Abductee POV shot in The Time That Remains
Figure 2. Abductee POV shot in The Time That Remains

Elia Suleiman's The Time That Remains (2009) opens with the main character, E.S., being taken to his home in Nazareth by a taxi driver. The film opens in darkness, which is punctuated by the opening of the car boot. Shot from a low angle, looking out from the boot, the mise-en-scéne is both claustrophobic and somewhat menacing; the black walls of the inside of the taxi framing the shot, its perspective familiar in cinematic convention, notably in the work of Tarantino, as that of an abductee. The taxi ride itself, in shallow focus with a rainstorm disorienting both the driver and the viewer, continues this sense of enclosure and confinement.

The shot is also laced with irony, as on the solid grey wall looming and fully enclosing the space behind the almost silhouetted form of the driver, are posters of rolling, pastoral landscapes with Jaffa oranges in the corner. The slogan “Eretz Acheret”, meaning Different Land, is written at the bottom. This difference can be read as a general disorientation and dislocation of place throughout the film, and a particular disorientation and dislocation that rain occasions in this scene. There is a formal and functional similarity with the opening scene of The Roof, in the role that rain plays. Rain, as Deleuze[11] has recognized, creates an ambivalent atmosphere. Space is indeterminate, enclosed and disorienting, with rain articulating a liquid form of confinement.

Figure 3. The molar space of law in Port of Memory
Figure 3. The molar space of law in Port of Memory

A more solid form of incarceration is at work in the opening shot of Kamal Aljafari’s Port of Memory (2009). The carceral space of the law here is molar. Tight framing and a low-angle close-up slowly reveal the wall of a ruined house. The fading light casts a blue, cold hue over the shot, which slowly tracks left along the wall, revealing scars of neglect; a broken balcony here, the jagged struts of a staircase jutting out like spikes there. The looming wall fills the frame, introducing a language of confinement which runs overtly through this film, and as will be seen, covertly through others. This covert, more textual logic of confinement contrasts with the molar form of confinement described above. While the latter often occasions space in the cinema of the “interior” (Palestinians within Israel), the former, molecular form of confinement determines space in the cinema of the West Bank. This fluid, molecular form will be the focus of the second half of this article.

The Genealogy of the “Empty” Law

Before elaborating on how the empty law functions, it is necessary to briefly trace its genealogy. Vardoulakis takes his lead from Spinoza, specifically the Theological-Political Treatise[12] for the dual functional modes of necessity and contingency. It is the function of law that is important, rather than its content. Obedience of the law is what matters – i.e. what is necessary – and this is accompanied by contingency, that is, its function depends on the circumstances of the community. Thus, writes Vardoulakis, the law is “empty because it is both necessary and contingent”.[13] This emptiness, or lack of content puts Vardoulakis’s reading of Kafka’s law in dialogue with Giorgio Agamben, albeit from different sources. Agamben draws the logic of law without content for his theory of the state of exception from Kant’s notion of a “simple” form of law, articulated in the Critique of Practical Reason.[14] For Kant, a law abstracted of content remains as an empty, “universal legislation”.[15] Agamben takes this zero point of signification as the stage at which life and law blur, citing the life lived in the village in Kafka’s The Castle as an example of which “law is all the more pervasive for its total lack of content”.[16] Agamben’s tracing of law’s being in force without significance back to Kant from Gerschom Scholem informs the logic of his theory of the state of exception. What both Vardoulakis and Agamben recognize in this Kafkaesque law is that its very lack of content, its invisibility, is precisely what gives it its pervasiveness and menace. In Vardoulakis’s reading of an empty law dislocated from the category of truth in The Trial, he recognizes it as taking a theological form – arguably temporal – and a biopolitical one – a spatial form. The latter, I argue, is key to understanding the form of law operating in contemporary Palestinian films, as this fluid form contains the movement between molar and molecular states that articulate differing modes of incarceration. The key relation within empty law in its biopolitical mode, is that of the universal contingent.

Articulating how biopolitical empty law can be both universal and contingent, Vardoulakis states:

In the absence of content, everyone in the novel becomes a guardian of the law. Thus when Titorelli says the judges are invisible, this is not because the judges are hidden and their judgements assume a universally true content, but because they are everywhere and their judgements are arbitrary. Everyone is a judge, everyone condemns Joseph K. from the very first moment of his arrest without charge.[17]

Empty law is thus dispersed universally in a biopolitical mode into the populace. Without content, these judgements are arbitrary and contingent upon mood. This movement puts force of law into the populace, marking the empty law as a fundamentally biopolitical space.

With that space in mind, this article will now trace these differing forms of encagement the empty law occasions through a close reading of scenes from Kamal Aljafari’s Port of Memory,[18] Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s 5 Broken Cameras,[19] Annemarie Jacir’s Like Twenty Impossibles[20] and Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar.[21]

Kamal Aljafari’s Port of Memory (2010) ostensibly tells the story of Salim, who due to what might be termed administrative amnesia, is on the verge of losing his home. The loss of home works as an analogy for the wider disappearance of Jaffa, the city in which the film is set. The scene described here captures the “nothing of revelation” of the law, which the main character Salim, finds himself before. The scene in question shows (or perhaps more accurately, obscures) a dialogue between Salim, the film’s protagonist, and his lawyer; they are discussing the whereabouts of the deeds to Salim’s house.

Figure 4. The disembodied voice of the empty law in Port of Memory
Figure 4. The disembodied voice of the empty law in Port of Memory

The lawyer is the disembodied voice of the empty law. We never see the lawyer as the camera remains on Salim, never cutting to the anticipated reverse shot. We firstly hear his voice as he dismisses a previous client before summoning Salim. He remains a faceless, disembodied presence throughout their dialogue. Not only is the law itself without content here, but even its personification, the faceless, nameless lawyer is invisible. It is a particularly Kafkaesque scene, not least because Salim is, in a spatial sense, held before the law. In the Kafka parable “Before the Law”, a man from the country encounters a gatekeeper, and requests access to the law, which is denied, yet the gate remains open.

Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admission at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. “It is possible” says the doorkeeper, “but not at the moment.” Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the gatekeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior.[22]

One reading of the parable is that there is no law as such, as it is in the words and deeds of those who guard it. Salim finds himself abandoned “before” the law, which renders him an outlaw. Much like Kafka’s man from the country or even Joseph K., he is held both outside the law which he is unable to locate, yet trapped before this very same contentless, and in this case disembodied law.

The law’s emptiness is further emphasized in this scene through a double absence. There is the faceless, disembodied lawyer, but there is also a reference to the documentation, the paperwork that would support Salim’s claim. The lawyer has no recollection. “I probably lost them”, he says of the deeds. The inaccessibility of anything written in relation echoes a scene in Kafka’s The Trial,[23] in which K. attempts to locate law books – finding them to contain not records or proceedings, but rather, pornographic pictures. The law as such, is without content, dispersing its universal contingency into unseen voices and bodies, acting as guardians of the law. This invisibility and inaccessibility gives the empty law a pervasiveness which amplifies these modalities of arbitrariness and contingency.

The contingency and invisibility of the empty law is taken to its limit point in a later scene in Port of Memory, when an already invisible lawyer disappears completely when Salim returns to his office, now a boarded-up door at the top of the staircase, again at the mercy of an arbitrary, inaccessible law. A faded cross is marked on the now sealed door. X here marks the vanishing point, the absence. This is the contingency of the empty law, its shifting materiality as it returns to nebulous, pervasive contentlessness.

Figure 5. X marks the absence of the empty law in Port of Memory
Figure 5. X marks the absence of the empty law in Port of Memory

This scene marks a key spatial movement, articulating cinematically how the universal contingency of the empty law operates. Its universalized lack of content can be read as a sense of generalized encagement which operates through framing. This can be seen throughout Port of Memory, reflected in a language of walls and surfaces which dominate the mise-en-scéne in both interior and exterior shots. However, its contingency marks a movement from pervasive absence to insidious presence which operates cyclically. This can be seen in the disembodied “appearance” and subsequent disappearance of the guardian of the law in Port of Memory, but a striking correlate can also be seen in a key scene from a territorially discrete film (being set in the West Bank rather than Israel), Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s 5 Broken Cameras (2011). The film documents the experience of Emad Burnat, a farmer turned filmmaker, whose five cameras of the title document the village of Bil’in in the West Bank, and its struggles with the Israeli settlement of Modi’in Illit, and the building of the West Bank Barrier that both demarcates the settlement and cuts off a large portion of the territory around Bil’in. The scene in question occurs towards the middle of the film, when the military arrive at Emad’s front door in the middle of the night to inform him that his house has been declared a “closed military zone” and thus should be evacuated.

Figure 6. The coming-into-being of a cinematic space of exception in 5 Broken Cameras
Figure 6. The coming-into-being of a cinematic space of exception in 5 Broken Cameras

This scene represents, in a way I would argue only cinema can, the transformative event of the coming-into-being of a space of exception, where, according to Agamben “an apparently innocuous space (...) actually delimits a space in which the normal order is de facto suspended...”[24] The opening of the door at night brings the sovereign exception – embodied here by the foremost soldier declaring the “closed military zone” – directly into Emad’s life and enacts a topological reconfiguration of the space. Emad is immediately (in the temporal sense, and without mediation) rendered both before and outside the law. He is also configured spatially as outside within the inside, an intruder within the “Closed Military Zone”. The borders of public and private, inside and outside are evacuated of meaning as the empty potentiality of the law becomes the insidious actuality of the exception.

The Topological Function of the Empty Law

The empty law, and how it holds discrete Palestinian spaces and subjectivities in a network, necessitates a thinking of space through topology. Topology, being the study of the properties of place, allows a thinking of space as a networked site of relations. Crucially, it occasions a rearticulation of space and territory beyond Euclidean geometry. Whereas the former is understood in quantitative and measurable terms (the distance between points), topological space is better understood qualitatively, as the properties of place under conditions of distortion, stretching and folding. Thus, a single surface of multiple, heterogeneous and discrete points can converge and diverge through folds in the surface. In this way, the movements of the empty law allow us to think the non-identical and continuous, how both seemingly discrete territories (Palestinians within Israel, the West Bank) which occasion discrete mise-en-scéne, can be held in relation through the differing modes of empty law, which function topologically and distort a stable thinking of inside and outside.

A topological reading of place has been employed by Giorgio Agamben and is a recurring theme across his work. Perhaps the most sustained engagement with place, indeed an “extraterritorial” undoing of territorial place, occurs in his 1993[25] essay Beyond Human Rights. Towards the end of the essay, which is both a reflection on Arendt’s work on citizenry and sovereignty and an attempt to think beyond the territorial nation-state, Agamben references the expulsion of 425 Palestinians across the border to a “security zone”[26] in Southern Lebanon. This Agambian zone of indistinction delimited a space “more internal to it (the territorial state) than any other region of Eretz Israel”.[27] Here, a thinking of place that is topological allows for a complication of inside and outside, to the extent where they become indistinct; that is, where “exterior and interior in-determine each other”.[28] Perhaps more crucially, this topological thinking implies the transformative effect on space occasioned by the encounter between life and law. Agamben comes back to this when theorizing the space of exception in Homer Sacer, drawing on Hobbes and Schmitt to posit the space of indistinction as a topological figure, a zone of indistinction between “outside and inside, nature and exception, physis and nomos.”[29] For Agamben, topological spaces are crucial for understanding both the positive and insidious potential of extraterritoriality.

Similarly, Gilles Deleuze[30] has employed topology for thinking about the complex spaces and connections of cinema, from the linkages in time to those in space. Deleuze employs a whole taxonomy of transformative space-times in his topology, from the crystal and “sheets” of the past and “peaks” of the present, to the any-space-whatever. Indeed, it is when theorizing “chronosigns” that Deleuze develops his topology. He separates chronosigns into two topological forms[31]: “the first are aspects (regions, layers), the second accents (peaks of view [pointes de vue])”.[32] Deleuze most explicitly engages with topology as a mathematical practice to articulate what happens to referential points within the pliability of the sheets of the past. When describing the relation between sheets of the past in Resnais, Deleuze describes the mathematical principal of the Boulanger Transformation:

a square may be pulled into a rectangle whose two halves will form a new square, with the result that the total surface is redistributed with each transformation. If we take the smallest imaginable region of this surface, two infinitely close points will end up being separated, each allocated to one half, at the end of a certain number of transformations.[33]

From this, Deleuze constructs a topology of transformations, through which events, characters and place are read laterally and are constantly being rearranged. In this system, cinema acts as an assemblage, with the constant rearrangement of connections and linkages of the elements of a film as a whole or a scene as a part; be they temporalities, elements of the mise-en-scéne, sound or editing. It with this topology of image that we see Deleuze’s articulation of the cinematic image as the extension of the image of thought; towards the end of chapter 5 of Cinema 2 Deleuze most explicitly describes his topology of images as images of thought:

The screen itself is the cerebral membrane where immediate and direct confrontations take place between the past and the future, the inside and the outside, at a distance impossible to determine, independent of any fixed point (which is perhaps what creates the strangeness of Stavisky). The image no longer has space and movement as its primary characteristics but topology and time.[34]

Curiously, for a thinker of the spatial such as Deleuze, to subordinate “space and movement” to “topology and time” seems like an unusual move. However, in thinking space and connection topologically, it becomes clear what Deleuze is arguing against is not a Lefebvrian notion of space as produced by social relations, but rather a Euclidean geometry. In Cinema 1, Deleuze theorizes the any-space-whatever in its greatest detail, reading affective spaces in Bresson and Antonioni, two forms of space he terms “deconnected” and “empty”. The former, the first definition of the any-space-whatever is the clearest break with Euclidean, geometric space; a space which has lost “the principle of its metric relations or the connection of its own parts, so that the linkages can be made in an infinite number of ways”.[35] The latter meanwhile, is an “amorphous set”,[36] a voiding of actions and events within it. However, acutely aware of the topological nature of these forms, he stresses that these two states are “implied in each other”[37] and the any-space-whatever retains a singular nature; namely, “it no longer has co-ordinates, it is a pure potential”.[38] In the following chapter, Deleuze again breaks with Euclidean geometry when speaking of “Riemanian spaces[39] in Bresson, in neo-realism, in the new wave and in the New York school” and “topological spaces in Resnais”.[40]

The topological thinking of place proposed by Agamben, read alongside Deleuze’s topology of the image, allows a thinking of Palestinian cinema whereby the encounter between the empty law and discrete Palestinian subjectivities can have a transformative effect on spatial relations.

Spatial Deformations: The Empty Law and the Topological Encounter in Like Twenty Impossibles (2003)

Annemarie Jacir’s short film Like 20 Impossibles[41] deals with the topological encounter between different Palestinian subjectivities and the empty law. The film opens in flight, with a disembodied hand dropping into the frame, shot in close-up from the passenger side of a moving car as the West Bank hills pass by. The disembodied voice of the protagonist – the director of the film within this film – rhapsodizes about the feeling of freedom from the back of a car, as open landscape passes by; the scene cuts away to an aerial long shot of fields, before returning to tracking the rolling hills from the car window. This opening fragmentation of body and voice will become significant. The open landscapes and freedom of this tracking shot are soon arrested, by way of a fade out and fade in to the traffic noise and stasis of Qalandia checkpoint (between Ramllah and Jerusalem), which is gridlocked with cars being stopped and IDs checked. At this stage, the maleability of territory comes into play as Mohammad, the cameraman, states “this isn’t a checkpoint. In a couple of years it’ll be a border.” This static checkpoint is averted as the crew decide to take a side road. This route initially leads to flowing movement, as the hills of the West Bank pass by the window, and the conversation flows between the returning Annemarie (who is based in New York) and Rami, her lead actor from Ramallah.

Movement is arrested once again, as high in the hills of the West Bank a mobile checkpoint emerges above the crest of a hill, an emergence which reshapes the territory in complex ways. In this new space, the characters of the film find themselves inside while simultaneously outside through a topological form of zoning. This is played out in a number of ways, from the legal paradoxes to the formal elements of the film itself. The characters are rendered, by this passage, legally and ontologically displaced. Annemarie, who considers herself “home”, carries an American passport. She initially shows the least concern about taking the backroad and tries to retain control of the space as its transformation escalates. Her cameraman, Mohammad, is from Jaffa, and thus legally an Arab-Israeli; he is informed that he can’t enter the West Bank as a citizen for his own “security” and is told there is a 2000 Shekel fine for his “transgression”. Rami, the actor, who is both from and in the West Bank, is detained because he is “suspected” – although of what, it never transpires. Annemarie, who carries an American passport, is regarded as an outsider; as highlighted when one of the Israeli soldiers, on learning she is from New York, states “actually, I was born in Miami” in a surreal moment of forced camaraderie. This territory is further complicated by a further legal question, the permit to be filming. When Annemarie shows the soldier her “right” to be making a film in the West Bank, he informs her that this permit is for Area A, but they have now entered Area B.[42]

Thus, the empty law here enacts a topological reordering of space. The three Palestinians find themselves caught by the legal processes of territory; functioning here as what Stuart Elden terms “the spatial extent of sovereignty”,[43] a (bio)political technology, a territory that is not a bounded space as such, but rather a fluid configuration of figures. Comprising the unexpected emergence of the soldiers, the three Palestinians (from the “diaspora”, the “interior” and the West Bank) who find themselves as points in a network constituting a new territory; both inside and outside, a space where the figure of the exile, who feels she is “home”, is a figure disoriented by the confusion of the arbitrary legal machinations that redraw the space. This disorientation is marked cinematically in a number of different ways. Annemarie, who, by carrying a US passport, has a certain legal freedom within this territory, nevertheless finds herself ontologically situated as a stranger. Her initial confidence in the group’s ability to pass is undermined by the sudden irruption of Agambian sovereign power into the space. There is further disorientation as she is informed that her permit is for the wrong area. The spatial (dis)order of the three figures is matched by a disassociation of sound and image. In the film’s closing moments, as Annemarie is ordered to stop filming, sound and image begin to disaggregate as the sound breaks up before disappearing, and the image becomes fragmented as Annemarie leaves the space, the fate of the others unknown.

An Empty Law without Truth in Omar (Hany Abu Assad, 2013)

Hany Abu Assad's Omar (2013), while ostensibly employing a less overtly static framing to the works of Suleiman and Aljafari, and a less overt confrontation with biopolitical law in Like Twenty Impossibles, can nonetheless be read as a film of formal enclosure and entrapment. Indeed, it is one which utilizes a language of guilt, necessity and lying which makes it particularly Kafkaesque in structure. The film tells the story of Omar, Tarek and Amjad, three friends in the West Bank, whose relationship is complicated by Omar and Amjad's pursuit of Nadia, Tarek’s sister. Overlaid onto this is the three’s involvement as militants, which becomes complicated after an Israeli soldier is killed in an operation. This opens the film into a cyclical movement of mistrust, collaboration and betrayal. This movement functions as a levelling device, which renders every character a potential double, potential spy, echoing the universal contingency in the biopolitical mode of Kafka's empty law.

The film opens with a close-up of Omar’s face, which cuts to a long shot, revealing the separation wall and a rope hanging behind him at shoulder height. With athletic dynamism, Omar scales the wall and drops to the other side as bullets ring out around him. He accelerates through a narrowing series of alleys and waits for confirmation that he is safe, before entering Tarek's house. This seemingly subverts the logic of walls and checkpoints as points of constriction and impediment. The kineticism and dynamism of Omar's movement in these early scenes marks the separation wall as an obstacle of play in Omar's “parkour”. However, it can be argued that this fluidity and kineticism is the first of the film's many layers of deception. Omar is allowed what might be termed an illusory freedom of movement. As Vardoulakis recognizes of Joseph K., the incarceration that takes place in Omar is enacted through a form of law that acts as a series of open cages, occasioning an entrapment of the lead character that “disperses over his entire milieu”.[44] Even in the “open”, kinetic scenes of flight through the streets of Jerusalem, a visual leitmotif of ever narrowing passages, walls and doors enclose Omar, leaving him with no spatial exit.

Figure 7. A visual leitmotif of open enclosure in Omar
Figure 7. A visual leitmotif of open enclosure in Omar

This is one form of a multiplicity of cages. These range from the “open” streets of Jerusalem, to the formal incarceration of the cell Omar shares with insects while he is awaiting interrogation. The largest of these cages is the invisible, open cage of guilt, collaboration and mistrust that entraps all of the characters and disperses across the entire film. This structure of betrayal, guilt and mistrust will now be examined in detail.

“It Is Not Necessary to Accept Everything as True, One Must Only Accept It as Necessary”: Lying as a Universal System in Omar (2013)

The category of truth is absent throughout the structure of the film, and categories of friend and enemy are blurred into indistinction as everyone becomes an agent of the law. There are multiple levels of deception throughout Omar, from the personal to the political, which also blur into indistinction. Omar is in a clandestine relationship with his best friend’s sister, Nadia, and sees her without Tarek’s knowledge. After he is caught crossing the separation wall he is beaten and humiliated by guards, prompting him to get involved with Tarek and Amjad in the resistance brigades. Amjad shoots a soldier at a checkpoint. In the fallout, Omar is imprisoned and interrogated by the security services, who believe Tarek is the culprit. During this incarceration, the first deception occurs.

Omar is approached by a Palestinian resistance fighter, who informs him of how an agent will try to get to him in prison, pretending to be his friend and warns him to “never become a collaborator”. Omar tells him he will never confess. In the subsequent scene, the “prisoner” is revealed to be Agent Rami, working for the Israelis. He has recorded their communication, included Omar’s refusal to confess, which in military jurisdiction, amounts to a confession. Later in the film, when Omar hears Rami speaking Hebrew to his mother, he admits that Rami’s Arabic was so fluent and without accent as to convince him that he was an Arab. While Rami appears to be the film’s antagonist, the universalization of guilt and mistrust flattens these categories. Everyone in the film inhabits the borders of friend, enemy, confidant and betrayer. These porous borders are articulated in the scene cited above, in which Rami and Omar, despite the obvious disequilibrium of power, show an affinity towards one another, trapped in a cycle of guilt, betrayal and manipulation as they both are. It is a disarming scene, as this affinity is mixed with a deep suspicion but an awareness that they are bound to one another by necessity and contingency. Omar and Rami are intertwined, dependent on one another, both with no exit.

Figure 8. The porous borders of friend/enemy in Omar
Figure 8. The porous borders of friend/enemy in Omar

As the film unfolds, the emergence of a collaborator, or mole, is revealed. With Omar’s repeated captures and releases, there is a presupposition of his guilt. Amjad reveals that he is giving information to the security services, as a result of coercion, having made Nadia pregnant. At this point, it appears to Omar that he has been betrayed by Nadia, whose relationship with Amjad has been used as leverage against the brigades. This leads to a standoff among Omar, Amjad and Tarek, as suspicion and betrayal comes to a head and personal and political betrayals become one and the same.

The film’s denouement acts as a structural reveal, and lays bare the entire system of lies and deception that the empty law functions on. Omar has an awkward conversation with Nadia, who after Tarek’s death has married Amjad and has two children (a decision Omar saw as necessary due to the pregnancy). When discussing the children’s ages, Omar realizes the extent of the deception by Amjad – that Nadia wasn’t pregnant at the time of Amjad’s claim, and thus every “decision” taken has been taken within a network of lying and counter-lying which has underpinned every relationship.

The modes of contingency and necessity that determine the empty law as an empty cage, which universally and arbitrarily ascribes guilt, is marked as separate from the mode of truth in the discussion of the gatekeeper and the man from the country that takes place towards the end of The Trial. The discussion of truth and law between Joseph K. and the priest leads to necessity as the condition that separates them:

It is the Law that has placed him at his post; to doubt his integrity is to doubt the Law itself.’ ‘I don’t agree with that point of view,’ said K. shaking his head, ‘for if one accepts it, one must accept as true everything the doorkeeper says. But you yourself have sufficiently proved how impossible it is to do that.’ ‘No,’ said the priest, ‘it is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.’ ‘A melancholy conclusion,’ said K. ‘It turns lying into a universal principle.’[45]

The absence of truth thus creates a structure, an open cage of lies, guilt and betrayal that ensnares everyone in the film within it. To exercise agency in a structure where choice is unavailable due to the pervasion of necessity, Omar elects to kill Rami, seeking an exit from the cycle of lies and violence, which is in reality no exit at all.


Through these readings of empty law, with its fluid movements of confinement, what emerges on screen in these films is what might be termed a “plasticity of confinement”. This plasticity is, I argue, key to understanding how the empty law works topologically to deform and distort the cinematic space of contemporary Palestinian cinema, creating a topological field in which the empty law can emerge within – and distort – discrete territorial spaces of Palestine-Israel, such as what Edward Said[46] terms the “interior” (Palestinians within Israel), or the West Bank. Similarly, images of movement and stasis alike can be topologically rearranged to occasion confinement in both molar and molecular forms. This form of law can remain in force without significance, enframing characters and organizing space in the interior. It can condense into presence, enacting a movement that takes up discrete Palestinian subjectivities and uses them as points in a network to delimit a zone of indistinction. However, it can also disperse into the populace in its biopolitical mode, rendering everyone an agent of the law. Such discrete but connected topological encounters with empty law, as this article has argued, define the spatial contemporaneity of recent Palestinian cinema.

Author Biography

Robert G. White recently completed his PhD at the London Graduate School, a Critical Theory doctoral program at Kingston University, London. His doctoral research utilized a topological approach to examine the dual questions of partition and the resistance of the image in contemporary Palestinian cinema. He is the co-editor, along with Anthony Faramelli and David Hancock, of Spaces of Crisis and Critique: Heterotopias Beyond Foucault (Bloomsbury, 2018).


    1. Dimitris Vardoulakis, “Kafka's Empty Law: Laughter and Freedom in The Trial”, in Philosophy and Kafka. eds. Brendan Moran and Carlo Salzani (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2013), 34.return to text

    2. Vardoulakis, “Kafka's Empty Law”, 34.return to text

    3. Vardoulakis, “Kafka’s Empty Law”, 33.return to text

    4. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (London: Athlone, 1986).return to text

    5. Deleuze, Cinema 1, 80.return to text

    6. Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984).return to text

    7. Clausewitz, On War, 481.return to text

    8. Kamal Aljafari, The Roof, Video (Germany, 2006).return to text

    9. Elia Suleiman, The Time That Remains, DVD (France, Belgium, Italy, Palestine, Great Britain, 2009).return to text

    10. Nurith Gertz and George Khleifi, Palestinian Cinema: Landscape, Trauma and Memory. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008).return to text

    11. Deleuze, Cinema 1, 111.return to text

    12. Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, in Complete Works, trans. Samuel Shirley, ed. Michael L. Morgan (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2002).return to text

    13. Vardoulakis, “Kafka’s Empty Law”, 36. return to text

    14. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Lewis White Beck (New York: Macmillan, 1993).return to text

    15. Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 27.return to text

    16. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 52.return to text

    17. Vardoulakis, “Kafka’s Empty Law”, 40.return to text

    18. Kamal Aljafari, Port Of Memory, Film (Germany, France, UAE, 2009).return to text

    19. Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, 5 Broken Cameras, DVD (Palestine, Israel, France, Netherlands, 2011).return to text

    20. Annemarie Jacir, Like Twenty Impossibles, DVD (Palestine, 2003).return to text

    21. Hany Abu Assad, Omar, DVD (Palestine, 2013).return to text

    22. Franz Kafka, The Complete Short Stories. (London: Vintage, 1999), 3.return to text

    23. Franz Kafka, The Trial (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1953), 61. return to text

    24. Agamben, Homo Sacer, 174.return to text

    25. Published as: Giorgio Agamben, “Beyond Human Rights”, in Means Without Ends: Notes on Politics, ed. Giorgio Agamben, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Cesarino (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 15–26.return to text

    26. Haberman, Clyde, “Israel Expels 400 From Occupied Lands; Lebanese Deploy to Bar Entry of Palestinians”, New York Times, December 18, 1992, https://www.nytimes.com/1992/12/18/world/israel-expels-400-occupied-lands-lebanese-deploy-bar-entry-palestinians.html.return to text

    27. Agamben, “Beyond Human Rights”, 25.return to text

    28. Agamben, “Beyond Human Rights”, 24.return to text

    29. Agamben, Homo Sacer, 37.return to text

    30. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, (London: Athlone, 1989).return to text

    31. These chronosigns are drawn from Henri Bergson’s “Cone of Memory”, which Deleuze depicts in a footnote and references (Deleuze, Cinema 2, 98) with the “peak” of present being “the most contracted degree of the past”.return to text

    32. Deleuze, Cinema 2, 101.return to text

    33. Deleuze, Cinema 2, 119.return to text

    34. Deleuze, Cinema 2, 125.return to text

    35. Deleuze, Cinema 1, 109.return to text

    36. Deleuze, Cinema 1, 120.return to text

    37. Deleuze, Cinema 1, 120.return to text

    38. Deleuze, Cinema 1, 120.return to text

    39. Riemannian space is described at length in the discussion of the relation between smooth and striated space in: Gilles Deleuze and Feìlix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Continuum, 2004).return to text

    40. Deleuze, Cinema 2, 129.return to text

    41. Annemarie Jacir, Like Twenty Impossibles, DVD (Palestine, 2003).return to text

    42. As a result of the Oslo Accords, the West Bank was divided into three Areas: A, B and C. Area A falls under Palestinian Authority jurisdiction, Area C under Israeli, while Area B acts as a “buffer zone”.return to text

    43. Stuart Elden, Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).return to text

    44. Vardoulakis, “Kafka’s Empty Law”, 34.return to text

    45. Kafka, The Trial, 243.return to text

    46. Edward Said, After The Last Sky (London: Vintage, 1986), 51.return to text