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Three features by Elia Suleiman

Posted by keith1942 on January 5, 2018

He is an important Palestinian filmmaker. Born in 1960 in Nazareth he has a Christian background [Greek Orthodox] which feeds into his films, though centrally they reflect both his identity as a Palestinian under occupation and, for much of his life, also an exile. He commenced filmmaking whilst living in New York with two critical documentaries. In 1994 he returned to Palestine to teach at the Birzeit University, close to Ramallah. His main task was to develop a Film and Media Department with funding provided by the European Community. Here he wrote and directed several films including two features. In 2008 he took up a University post in Switzerland. Since then he has made another feature set in the occupied territories.

Suleiman appears to have taught himself about filming, starting with video pieces   . His work in the USA provided him with a grasp of the medium which at that time was not available in Palestine. His early films, whilst they followed on from the arrival of the Palestinian Authorities administration of the occupied West Bank, were made before there was any infrastructure for Palestinian filmmaking. And his films have all, to a greater or less er extent, relied on overseas funding.

Since 2000 an infrastructure for various arts, including film, has developed in the territories administered by the Palestinian Authority. It is now possible to write of an indigenous Palestinian cinema. There have been a series of films by Palestinian filmmakers produced within the partial Palestinian territories and circulated in other territories as ‘Palestinian Films’. Two titles, Paradise Now (2005) and Omar (2013) has even been allowed to be submitted in the category of ‘foreign-language film’ at the Hollywood Academy. Titles have won awards at major Film Festivals, including Cannes.

There are a range of films addressing the issue of Palestine, both features and documentaries, and produced both by Palestinians and by filmmakers from elsewhere. Recently quite a few of the titles have followed the conventions of international fiction features or documentaries. A few films have adhered more closely to the conventions of art cinema or modernist documentary. Suleiman’s work definitely falls into this area and feels quite distinct from many of the other Palestinian titles. His films are extremely ironic; he aims at a dispassionate tone with the occasional almost burlesque scenes. Some writers have drawn comparisons with the film work of Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati. He does tend to a ‘deadpan’ tone, but is really closer to a surrealist mode. It should be noted that surrealist art in Arab culture retains the political dimension of the original movement; not always the case with western examples.

Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996) was supported and funded by companies in Palestine, Israel, USA, Germany, France, and including the European Union Media Funds. The film was in colour and standard widescreen, with the soundtrack in Arabic, Hebrew, French and English. The film appeared at the Venice Film Festival where it was awarded the ‘Best First Film Prize’. It received fairly wide distribution in Europe and was released in the USA; but not seemingly in Britain.

The film has three segments: ‘Nazareth Personal Diary’, an intervening scene where Suleiman introduces his film to an audience, and then ‘Jerusalem Political Diary’. The first part of the film presents Suleiman’s return [as E.S.] to his home town after his exile in New York.. The opening shot is unsettling, an out-of-focus close-up which gradually comes into focus as the upper torso of  a man sleeping; [we realise later that this is E.S.’ father]. Initially we see the family home and also meet his mother and other relatives and neighbours There is one scene where his mother and women friends argue about the proper method to use in preparing garlic. The film then moves out into exteriors round Nazareth, the recurring settings are a bar, ‘The Holy Land’; a gift shop full of religious replicas; and, less frequently, men fishing in a boat [uncertain which waters]. Quite often what is occurring is unclear and not explained. We see other Palestinians passing the bar where Elia sits with friends and we hear the voices on an Israeli radio station. There are other sites including a garage/paint-shop and there is a journey by road. One gets a sense of people and place but not completely clarified or pinned down. Ellipses between scenes are signalled by captions on a computer screen, most frequently, ‘the day after’.

Following a caption , ‘I Moved to Jerusalem’ we see E.S. preparing to talk to an audience about his film. Then we move into the final segment, ‘Jerusalem Political Diary’.

This section is more overtly political and includes the control of Palestinians by the Israeli occupation. In a key scene E.S. observes three policemen stopping by a wall in order to urinate. There is a radio call and as they dash away to deal with the event one of the policemen drops his walkie-talkie. E.S. surreptitiously picks this up and we now regularly hear the conversation so the police. E.S. also uses the walkie-talkie to plant fake call-outs to the police resulting in their empty and confusing responses.

We visit an empty house which E.S. is renovating as his accommodation but we also return to the setting from part 1, including the bar and the family home. In the empty house E.S. watches a video of a Palestinian troupe performing a song of sadness. We see a small group who are either preparing violent acts or a drama about these. The film ends with a long shot as E.S.’s father and mother fall asleep watching Israeli television followed by a dedication

“To My Mother and Father and My Homeland’.

The portrait presented by the film is idiosyncratic and fairly subjective. This is very much the dominant mode in which Suleiman works. And his character, E.S. treats most events with a dead-pan response. But the subjective stance is deceptive because as we follow this selection of experiences and impressions there is a strong representation of the experience of Palestinians a as a community and as suffering under occupation. There is an absence of any representation of either the formal Israeli institutions of occupation or of the formal institutions of the Palestinian community. But the absence seems to suggest that neither really offer support to Palestinians: and in the period following the ‘Oslo Accords’ this can be read as a very critical standpoint.

Divine Intervention / Yadon ilaheyya , France, Morocco, Germany, Palestine, 2002.

In colour and widescreen and in Arabic, Hebrew and English.

The film had a wide international release including in Britain. It won several awards including the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. There was controversy overt the film and the Hollywood Academy Awards. according to some sources the film was barred from consideration in the Category of the Best Foreign Language Film because,

“Palestine is not a state we recognize in our rules”.

A spokesperson for the Academy denied that the film had ever been submitted for consideration. However, the claims would fit with the long-standing pro-Zionist stance of many Academy members.

The central character is again E.S. [played by Suleiman]. He is the central characters in a series of vignettes in what was now the ‘Occupied West Bank’. A frequent setting is an Israeli checkpoint where E.S., living in Nazareth;’, meets his girl friend {Manal Khader) who lives in Ramallah. Thus the Israeli occupation is more prominent in this film. The assignations provide opportunities for the observation of the Israelis. As in the earlier film events are frequent surreal and humorous. The best is when E.S. launches a red balloon carrying the portrait of Yasser Arafat. The balloon proceeds to ‘buzz’ the checkpoint to the consternation of the Israeli soldiers.

The finale of the film combines action with computer game techniques. A squad of Israeli military squad use a model Palestinian woman as a target. This turn into an actual female mujahidin and she proceeds to supernaturally neutralize the Israeli fire and then to eliminate the squad and a helicopter sent to their rescue.

The Time That Remains, Britain, Italy, Belgium, France, 2009.

The film is in colour, standard widescreen and uses Arabic, English and Hebrew.

This film takes a rather different approach from the two earlier features; it presents a series of historical episodes charting the occupation of Palestinian lands from Al Nakba in 1948. Suleiman does retains his biographical approach as the key characters are his father, mother and his younger selves.

The four episodes are 1948, 1970, 1980 and the present (2009)/ The film opens in the present. E.S. (Suleiman) returns to his homeland. He takes a taxi from the airport heading [presumably] for Nazareth. However, as storm threatens, the gloomy night closes in and suddenly we are in some never-land. The film’s title interrupts the sequence and we are in a flashback to 1948. This opens in the same café seen in the earlier features and a group of armed Palestinians are sitting and waiting. A place circles, the Zionist radio calls on Palestinians to surrender.

In a hillside house the Major of Nazareth surrenders to officers of the Hagannah. We see the Zionists military attacking civilians and looting houses. In a small workshop Fuad (Suleiman elder – Saleh Bakri) works at a lathe: it emerges that he is a skilled maker of weapons. A car carrying a family, including Fuad’s girlfriend, leaves. Fuad is taken into custody by Zionists and marched to an orchard where Palestinian fighters are tied and laid on the ground.

These dramatic scenes are intercut with more surreal, slightly humorous moments: a short Zionist soldier has to stand on a stone to fix a blindfold on Fuad, who is taller. The sequence ends when Fuad is thrown over a wall and the screen fades to black.

The following section is set in 1970. Fuad is now married and lives in a modern flat in Nazareth. Their young son Elia attends a Palestinian school which is under the domination of the Israeli state. We see a sequence were Israeli dignitaries visit the school and a choir of pupils sing the Israeli anthem surrounded by bunting of Israeli flags. However, the young Elia follows his father’s mould and we see him lectured by the head teacher for using the word ‘colonialist’. Later he is again lectured when he describes the USA as ‘imperialist’. In another scene the pupils watch a 16mm print of Spartacus. Presumably they are supposed to draw parallels between the slave army and Israel. However, in the intimate scene in which Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) and Varinia (Jean Simmonds] declare their love , dishabille, in  a pool the female teacher tries to block the ‘suggestive ‘ sequence by standing in front of the projector.

There are scenes with the family and their neighbours. One of whom, clearly damaged by events, is constantly trying to set himself on fire. And there are fishing trips by Fuad and his friends. Here Suleiman’s laconic observation repeats a sequence where an Israeli military jeep keeps stopping to inspect the fisherman. At another point Fuad rescues an Israeli driver from a burning truck and we then see the paid side by side in the hospital. Fuad’s humanity here reminded me of a poetry by Mahmoud Darwish.

Late in the episode the tone moves from ironic to tragic and the announcements are made of the death of Gamel Abdel Nasser. The episode ends when Fuad is arrested and once more taken off to an Israeli jail.

The film moves forward to 1980. Fuad’s wife writes to her sister. Fuad has had a heart operation, she has diabetes. Elia is now a young man and we see him with his friends at the ‘Holy land’ café. We see Elia with his father on another fishing trip. Then a ‘friendly’ policeman calls. Elia has 24 hours to leave Israel or he will be arrested. That night there are demonstrations and Israeli Defence Force fire at Palestinians. There is a typical Suleiman sequence as we watch a tussle between medics and Israeli soldiers over a wounded man on a trolley; filmed in long shot and a long take. This is the point at which Elia commences his exile in New York.

The final section return sup to the present. Elia arrives at the family flat. it would appear that his father has died in his absence, though the film omits Elia’s return to the territory in 1996. Part of the section presents his relationship with his increasingly ill mother, a relationship that is mainly unspoken. We visit some of the familiar settings and the pattern of life appears little changed. There is long sequence in a hospital which mainly involves waiting. And Elia at another point watches a confrontation between Israeli troops an Palestinian protesters. The section and the film end with Elia in his room, framed against a widows of in the background Nazareth.

Elia Suleiman’s film offer a distinctive take on the Palestinian experience. They are unlike all of the other films that I have seen from this quarter. There are however connections to other examples of Arab cinema. At times one is reminded of Youssef Chahine and the films have parallels with some of the surreal approaches in Arab cinema.

His films tend to the long shot and the long take. This offers a sense of the observational but they are not documentaries. The narratives are elliptical; quite often the relationship between segments is unclear or only achieves clarity well after the commencement. The films emphasise repetition in settings, incidents and characters. There is the sense that the pattern of life frames people’s experience. At the same time that experience includes frequent events that are not in any sense normal. The contrast contributes to the surreal sense. And in the centre of this is the character of E.S., as deadpan as the more famous Keaton. And that tone is as subversive here as it was in the silent comedies.

Little in the film is overly political in the usual sense of the term. Yet both in its representations and in its comparisons and contrasts there emerges a powerful critique of the way that occupation limits and oppresses Palestinian ,life. It is interesting that the most recent film, which is closer to a history than a personal portrait, offers the most explicit representation of Israeli violence. Al Nakba has been a constant in Palestinian life and culture since 1948. But there is a sense in which the unfulfilled hopes from the 1990s have made that memory more potent for Palestinians. Whilst it is only implied, that sense is as critical of Palestinian leadership as it is of the settler occupier.

There are a number of interviews with Elia Suleiman online, including quite an extensive one at the Sarajevo Film Festival. He lists among his influence Ozu Yasujiro, Robert Bresson and Hou Hsiao-hsien; not really any surprises but interesting, He also mentions John Berger, an influence and a personal friend; and the parallels re clear here as well.

He talks about his preparation of the films. He starts with observations, often the tableaux’s which appear in the film. In shooting the films he admits to be obsessive about every frame and image and the placement of the camera. And he takes equal care over the foreground, middle ground and background. He remarks that the sound is frequently ‘outside the image’, i.e. off-screen; a technique that constantly reminds viewers of a more complex world being presented. This is interesting because the films tend to suggest that the filmmakers have captured events as they happen but it is most carefully produced. I suspect partly that this is because of the parallels and connections that Suleiman wants to develop across a film. One becomes aware that small detail is very important, like the recurring settings.

Suleiman uses both professional performers and non-professional. The non-professional tend to improvise. He recalled one shot from The Time That Remains, a discussion by his mother and her friends regarding the preparation of garlic for cooking, where he just set up a fixed camera and left the participants to their talk and argument.

Since The Time That Remains Suleiman contributed a segment to 7 Days in Havana (2012) a portmanteau film set in the Cuban capital. His own film work, relying on varied international funding, develops slowly. We wait to see if he will produce another film and what will be his next contribution to the Palestinian struggle.

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