This article appeared in the May 10, 2024 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Aida Returns (Carol Mansour, 2023)

Sometimes, rather than whimsy and irreverence, a cinematic experiment is born of banal, even bleak circumstances, and the ingenuity required to overcome them. Aida Returns, screening on Sunday at Prismatic Ground, is a film whose formal innovations arise from the constraints of imperial borders.

The director Carol Mansour’s mother, Aida, was displaced from Yafa in Palestine during the 1948 Nakba. She eventually settled in Canada, but dreamt futilely all her life of returning. Even when Alzheimer’s disease had whittled away much of her memory in her final years, she could vividly recall the details of her childhood home. A few years after Aida passed away, some friends of Mansour’s visited her from Ramallah, and together they hatched a plan to smuggle Aida’s ashes back into Palestine, past Israeli checkpoints, and scatter them in the house in which she’d once lived.

So Aida returns—but as dust, carried by friends of her daughter, who can only bear witness from a distance. Mansour directs her cohorts on video call as they drive into Palestine through Jordan, asking them to turn their phone cameras this way and that. Often embedded images proliferate across the dividing line of a split screen. On one side, we see the friends in the car, pointing their phone at the scene visible through the windshield; on the other, Mansour at her desktop, holding up her phone screen, confirming that she can see what they see.

It’s a heist of sorts, and logistical issues take up much of Mansour and her collaborators’ conversations: Is it time to charge the phone? What’s the best way to transfer the footage and clear up storage space? These questions become technical analogues for the ways in which exiled Palestinians, denied the right of return, keep their heritage alive—in memories passed down through generations, transferred and imagined and mediated, holding place with fierce hope for the real thing.