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Elia Suleiman's Time

[Still from Elia Suleiman's film [Still from Elia Suleiman's film "The Time that Remains"

The Time that Remains [Al-Zaman Al-Baqi]. Written and directed by Elia Suleiman. UK/Italy/Belgium/France, 2009.

An early scene in The Time that Remains [Al-Zaman Al-Baqi], Elia Suleiman’s latest film, reveals a great deal. The scene begins with a shot of the harried-looking mayor of Nazareth banging open a door at the end of a long hallway. We have some sense of why he is so harried: we have just watched the car that was driving him to the meeting being repeatedly menaced by a low-flying propeller plane. The airplane sequence has a recognizably Suleimanian feel, racing along somewhere between physical comedy and horror: at one point, the white flag of surrender being frantically waved by the mayor nearly causes his car to crash, as the wind plasters it across the car’s windshield.

After his dramatic entrance, the mayor finds himself in a room divided neatly in half: against one wall, behind a wooden table, a large group of Haganah military authorities, in khaki uniforms; against the other wall, looking much less comfortable, a smaller group of Palestinian men in suits, flanked by two religious leaders, one Christian and one Muslim. The camera lingers on these two tableaux. An empty chair sits in the space between the two groups, awaiting the mayor, although he waits to receive his summons from the Israeli side. Once he is seated, the terms of his surrender are dictated to him: Nazareth surrenders unconditionally to the Israeli Army. All weapons will be handed over to the Army, as will the combatants from any Arab states. The area will henceforth be placed under military rule, with Israeli military commanders empowered to impose the death penalty at will. Then come the nice legal distinctions: “The mayor will stay in charge of civil affairs. However, the Army is the only jurisdiction to determine what is military or civil.” And then, finally: “Israel recognizes the civil and equal rights of Nazarenes, regardless of race, language, or religion.” Since this is all delivered in rapid Hebrew, it is not clear how much of it is grasped by the mayor; easier to understand is what is being demanded of him when the Israeli commander plunks down a pen and asks him to sign.

After a moment’s hesitation, the mayor obliges, then calls back over his shoulder: “What’s the date?” “July 16,” comes the answer, in Arabic, from the Israeli side, and then, from the same Israeli voice, the year: 1948. The mayor, with a sick look on his face, finishes, replaces the cap on the pen, and sags back into his chair.

His ordeal is not yet over, however. Having duly surrendered, he’s then invited behind the desk for a photo to commemorate “this historic occasion.” His chair is deftly carried away by an Israeli solider, and a photographer takes his place in the middle of the room while the mayor is awkwardly maneuvered into the middle of the Israeli ranks. As the photographer bends forward with his camera to take in the historic scene, Suleiman's camera shifts suddenly to take up the Palestinian point of view, and thus at the moment just before the snapshot is taken, we see what they see: the photographer’s khaki-clad ass pointed directly at them, his camera pointed away from them. After the click and flash of the camera, Suleiman ends the scene with a still photo. However, it’s not the picture taken by the photographer; somehow, it’s the other side of that photo, the image of the Palestinians, their eyes pointed downwards, watching.

What has Suleiman given us here? I’d suggest that in a sequence of less than two minutes, he’s provided a visual catalogue of the elements most commonly associated with what is called “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”: the two “sides” sitting across the wooden table; “negotiations,” in which all the terms are dictated from one side; a “negotiating partner,” that is, a Palestinian leader whose sole task is to sign the terms of surrender and pose for the photo afterwards; the brutal reality of military occupation swaddled in the rhetoric of equality and civil rights; and, once the papers are signed, the Palestinians’ reward for their good behavior, in the form of a buttocks aimed directly at their faces while they are left outside the frame of history. Admirers of Suleiman’s films will find here a particularly virtuosic example of something familiar: from the time of his first short films Introduction to the End of an Argument (1990, co-directed with Jayce Salloum) and Homage by Assassination (1993), Suleiman has been a master at these sorts of quiet but revealing tableaux.

But there is something else at work here as well, on a different level than this iconic cataloguing. For in this sequence, Suleiman is also providing us, in the most straightforward way, with a realistic documentation of the events that occurred on July 16, 1948, the official start of the occupation of the city of Nazareth.

This scene thus reveals the ways in which The Time that Remains represents simultaneously a form of continuity within Suleiman’s body of work and also a radical departure; indeed, it’s not too strong to say that the first reaction to his latest film, for those familiar with his previous films, is a sense of shock. For just minutes into the film, after a brief framing sequence, we realize that it is Suleiman’s intention to do no less than attempt to represent the nakba — or, at the very least, the story of how the events of 1948 affected a portion of the Palestinian community in Nazareth. The film as a whole is divided into four sections, following the same basic group of characters and set in Nazareth during four particular moments: 1948, 1970, 1980, and the present. Each section of the film comes complete with period settings, costumes, and music. What Suleiman has given us, in other words, is what we would ordinarily think of as a historical epic.

“Epic” is not a word one would associate with Suleiman’s previous films, Chronicle of a Disappearance [Segell Ikhtifa] (1996) and Divine Intervention [Yadon Ilaheyya] (2002), with their use of tableaux and still images, silence and repetition, claustrophobic settings and lack of narrative continuity. In The Time that Remains, he manages to approach the problem of how to make a historical epic in a way that is consistent with his aesthetic; his goal, as he put it in an interview, was “to absolutely un-epic it. To make it un-epic-al.” An easy way to have achieved the desired effect might have been to simply go in the opposite direction — that is, to make a mock epic. Indeed, some of the film’s early moments suggest this possibility. For example, in one of the film’s first scenes, we watch a soldier from Iraq, a member of the “Arab armies” who would supposedly liberate Palestine, hopelessly lost as he tries to make his way towards battles that have already been lost (later, we see other members of the Arab armies in a panicked retreat, throwing down their weapons and desperately tearing off their uniforms). To his great credit, however, Suleiman resists the temptation of mock epic. What he has given us is something much braver and ultimately much more satisfying.

This is achieved partly by giving us a story distanced from his usual narrative framework. The previous films have revolved around the not-quite-linear adventures of E.S., the character who both is and is not Suleiman himself. Here, we begin with E.S., in a brief framing sequence, but for much of the film, the story being told is that of E.S.’s family, and particularly his father. This is a figure who is presented in an unambiguously heroic light, whether what is being portrayed is his role in the resistance of 1948, or the everyday heroism that he brings to his later life as a husband and father (in one particularly dramatic sequence, he is shown rescuing an Israeli solider whose munitions truck has crashed on a bridge). 

Embodied with a combination of physical beauty and immense dignity by the actor Saleh Bakri, this is a character unlike any we have seen in Suleiman’s previous films. The narrative technique is also different, at least in part because Suleiman puts himself at the service of a story that is not entirely his own: as he has noted, the first half of the film is based upon his father’s actual narrative, both the stories his father told him as a child and the diaries kept by his father. In this sense, as Suleiman puts it, these sections of the film are a form of adaptation — albeit an adaptation of a story to which he bears a most intimate relationship.

Suleiman is thus left to deal with several different levels of constraints: the constraint of adapting someone else’s story, the constraint of narrative continuity, and, perhaps most daunting of all, the constraint of representing actual historical events. All this has had a very productive effect upon Suleiman’s aesthetic. In the early sections of the film, he departs from his patented distancing techniques, allowing his camera to move into the story at key moments. The result is a lightness of touch that is new for him, as well as moments of extreme visual beauty, such as a long scenic shot viewed from the top of a hill. At the same time, Suleiman finds ways to bring his own style to bear upon the narrative: for example, the beautiful landscape shot is rendered ironic by the fact that we see it from the point of view of E.S.’s father, who has been arrested by Israeli forces and subsequently bound and blindfolded — thus, we see what he, blindfolded, cannot. Seconds later, he literally disappears into the landscape, as his captors throw him over a ledge (he survives, though not without damage, both physical and otherwise); the camera remains still, looking into the now-empty scenery. With these silent images, Suleiman renders the trauma of the nakba, in which the Palestinian presence is forcibly erased from a landscape that can then be produced as “empty” and thus open to colonization, the famous “land without people.” The Time that Remains should be recognized as, among the many things that it may be, part of the effort to restore this lost history (it’s not for nothing that the film is subtitled “Chronicle of a Present Absentee”).

Although there are occasional moments of awkwardness as Suleiman works within and against the constraints he has imposed upon himself, the overall effect of bringing these sorts of unconventional cinematic techniques to bear on a more conventionally-told linear narrative is to provide a freshness of approach to a history that, for many viewers, is all too familiar (although for a different segment of the audience, the side of the story represented here may well be completely unknown). As with the scene of the mayor’s surrender, Suleiman presents us with iconic images of the nakba, but manages to frame them for us in new and unfamiliar ways. For example, at one point his camera lingers on a scene often used to represent the trauma of Palestinian dislocation in 1948: the interior of a Palestinian house, whose residents have fled, apparently with the hope that their absence would be temporary (nothing has been packed or taken, and the table is still set for a meal). But Suleiman gives us this moment of complete stillness in the midst of an action-packed sequence, which rescues the scene from the danger of sentimentality, rendering it all the more poignant in the process. Similarly, Suleiman comes at the question of resistance in 1948 in several different ways. There is the black comedy of the Arab armies’ ineptness, but also the episode in which a Palestinian fighter, with great dignity, chooses death over surrender, reading a carefully worded letter explaining his actions before taking his own life.  

The letter concludes with lines taken from Abd al-Raheem Mahmoud’s poem “The Martyr”:

I shall carry my soul on the palm of my hand,
tossing it into the cavern of death!
Either a life to gladden the hearts of friends
or a death to torture the hearts of foes!

The romanticized vision of this poem could not be further from Suleiman’s aesthetic, and yet he manages to honor it here in what seems to be a largely unironized way, while simultaneously offering us a framework within which to question this form of romanticized martyrdom (the martyr’s death, sadly, appears to do little in the way of torturing the hearts of his foes, based on the available evidence).

The subsequent sections of the film take us to two specific moments, each carefully marked by historical events (in the first case, the death of Nasser in September 1970; in the second case, the Land Day protests of March 1980, commemorating the original Land Day events of 1976), but also by E.S.’s particular family history (his father’s health problems, his mother’s letters to relatives in Beirut, his eccentric aunt’s failing vision, and E.S.’s own struggles with authority, first with school officials, and later with the state itself, which will ultimately lead to his expulsion from the country). In these sections of the film, we encounter E.S. first as a child (played by Zuhair Abu Hanna) and then as a teenager (played by Ayman Espanioli), but the narrative belongs primarily to his father and mother (the latter played by Samar Qudha Tanus, with beauty and dignity to match Bakri’s, along with a quiet knowingness). As we watch these largely domestic scenes, we realize that we know these places and these people quite well from Suleiman’s previous films, although more often than not Suleiman had cast his family members as themselves (in the later scenes of the film, E.S.’s mother is played by Suleiman’s real-life aunt, since his mother passed away shortly before shooting began).

This sense of familiarity, with an uncanniness lingering just in the background, increases as we move into the final section of the film, set in the present day. It is here that we finally encounter the E.S. with whom we are familiar from the earlier films, played by Suleiman with the character’s trademark streak of white hair and dark suit. In a sense, his presence here makes The Time that Remains into the third film of what can now be seen as a trilogy. In fact, as the film goes on, Suleiman reproduces almost exactly key shots from the earlier films, with identical camera angles and settings: a scene of E.S. and his father in a hospital room from Divine Intervention, for example, or a scene of E.S.’s mother sitting in the kitchen from Chronicle of a Disappearance. But even here, the moments of discontinuity from the earlier films become more and more apparent. For one thing, E.S. seems startled to discover that his mother’s house now contains some new residents, in the form of a caretaking couple: a policeman who dons pink plastic gloves with his uniform so he can double as a housecleaner (he startles E.S. only moments after his arrival by banging on the door, bearing not an arrest warrant but a tabouli salad, “the way you like it, light on the bulgar”) and a Filipino health care aid who checks his mother’s blood pressure and administers her insulin shots and scolds her for sneaking into the kitchen to eat ice cream at night.

In fact, E.S., and those of us who have followed his previous adventures, find that much has changed in Nazareth. He is reunited with his two unnamed companions, back drinking coffee at the same table outside the Holy Land souvenir shop where we first met them in Chronicle of a Disappearance. But these days, they look rather more like Nazarene patriarchs than like the young wiseguys that they once were, and indeed, they find themselves dissed by the new generation, in the form of one young man loudly whistling the theme from The Godfather and another who appears to be practicing waving to his adoring fans. E.S., who has always been a stranger, seems more estranged here than ever. He also is shown to be, in every sense, stranger than ever, somewhat less of the charmer that we seem to remember. At one point, the camera cuts suddenly from a wide shot of E.S.’s mother with her new domestic companions to a shot of the standing figure of E.S., watching from his room, looming forward in the frame against a black background. I felt myself recoiling slightly; E.S. had suddenly become eerily like Murnau’s Nosferatu, lurching towards the camera, all pale face and dark suit.

All this is to say that in making a film about time, Suleiman has addressed himself not just to the question of historical time, but also personal time: that is, youth and old age. We see this enacted through the figure of E.S.’s father, who is transformed in the course of the film from a dashing young fighter to a sickly middle aged man, but also in the implicit contrast between the E.S. we have seen before and the older version represented here. For one thing, in the previous films E.S. has typically been paired with a beautiful young woman, most notably the unnamed woman played by Manal Khader in Divine Intervention; in that film, the two gazed deeply into each others eyes in a car parked before the Qalandiya checkpoint. The applicable scene in The Time that Remains, by way of contrast, represents one of Suleiman’s bravest departures. Here, we find E.S., during a visit to Ramallah, seated inside a crowded shared taxi. A beautiful young woman duly enters, and winds up pressed closely against E.S. We watch his sidelong glances and her own gaze, directed studiously away from his. Just at the moment when it seems that their eyes might meet, the taxi hits a bump, they both look straight ahead, and in the next shot, we see what they see: the bump has caused the driver’s sun visor to drop against the front windshield, revealing a naked pin-up photo of Marilyn Monroe (the whole business is repeated three times, for good measure). With the sort of visual economy that only silent comedy can provide, Suleiman shows us the way in which time can turn the young man’s seductive gaze into the older man’s creepy leer.

Perhaps as a result of all this, what we see here is an E.S. whose imaginative life seems to have a slightly more limited scope than we might remember. In previous films, he was capable of imagining that a well-aimed apricot pit could destroy a tank, or that his own steely gaze could hypnotize a settler; he fantasized about his female counterparts destroying a checkpoint with nothing more than their clicking heels and flashing eyes, sowing chaos among the Israeli police with a bit of walkie-talkie trickery, and transforming into ninja superheroines who could destroy whole battalions. The only fantasy sequence of this sort in The Time that Remains features E.S. pole-vaulting over a section of the apartheid wall in Ramallah. When I first saw the film, at the “Dreams of a Nation” film festival at Columbia University earlier this year, this scene got a smattering of applause, but we must admit that it represents a much more humble fantasy than those found in Divine Intervention: rather than wreaking havoc upon the occupying forces with a piece of fruit, we watch E.S., with a great deal of effort, manage to pass from one part of occupied Ramallah to another.

And yet the emphasis on time also allows for a particular sort of optimism to emerge by the end of The Time that Remains. Suleiman has been a hugely misunderstood artist, and one of the primary misunderstandings has been the suggestion that his films are works of pessimism. “Your films focus on a loss of hope and on melancholy resignation,” one recent interviewer matter-of-factly informs Suleiman, forcing him to respond: “I think de facto that the very act of the making of a film is an act emerging from hope. So questions that surround hopelessness are in contradiction to the actual fact that there is a film.” This reading of Suleiman as a pessimist (not even a pessoptimist) has everything to do with the demand placed upon Palestinian filmmakers, which is to make films that represent, in the words of the same interviewer, “an efficient form of resistance.” In contrast to this demand, Suleiman’s body of work represents an eloquent defense of the role played by the act of aesthetic creation as a form of resistance in and of itself. This has been a difficult stance to maintain, especially as a Palestinian filmmaker, with the political expectations and demands entailed by such a position. Despite this, Suleiman has consistently disavowed both nationalist and explicitly programmatic interpretations of cinema as “resistance”: when asked by another interviewer whether he considered cinema to be a form of resistance, he replied: “Yes, like love is.” (His full response is worth quoting: “Yes, like love is, or art. Any expression or aesthetic domain that’s exemplifying spaces of freedom is definitely a form of resistance. Laughter is, too. And poetry. That’s why authorities hate both.”)

For this reason, I’ve attempted to resist the temptation to place The Time that Remains too explicitly into the context of our current political moment, specifically the context of the popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes of recent months (including, it should be noted, demonstrations in both the West Bank and Gaza). For one thing, the film itself precedes these events by quite some time; first released in 2009, after playing the festival circuit and a successful run in Europe (it was a top-ten grossing film in France), it finally received its limited release in a few American cities in January 2011. (It’s currently available for viewing on-demand, although Marc-André Batigne’s remarkable cinematography deserves to be viewed on the large screen.)  The mere passage of historical time has, however, made certain kinds of connections unavoidable. The most startling of these comes in the middle section of the film. E.S.’s family has a neighbor who, thanks to the combination of a job at a gas station, a serious drinking habit, and the lot of living as a Palestinian in Nazareth, periodically stands outside his house, douses himself with gasoline, and threatens to immolate himself. E.S.’s father then has the appointed duty of taking the matches out of the old man’s trembling hands and leading him back inside. In the film, this is played as black comedy: we never expect him to actually go through with it (although the suffering that leads to his threatened suicide is all too real). Less than six months ago, these scenes would have appeared unremarkable. Since Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia (along with many others in many other places), they cannot help but look quite different.

But I think there is a deeper connection to be made, one that is more organic to the film itself. For among the many other things it may be, The Time that Remains is also a celebration of youth. From the opening moments of the film, we see that the violence of the Israeli state is a constant presence in the lives of Nazarenes. But the other constant is resistance, particularly the resistance of young people. This resistance takes many forms, most of them of an everyday nature, from E.S.’s father making guns in his workshop as a young man, to the young E.S. maintaining his position that the United States is an imperialist country in the face of constant scoldings by his principal. There are no ninja heroines here, but there is the matter-of-fact bravery of a young mother with a squeaky baby carriage facing down Israeli soldiers in Ramallah.  

And then there is music, which plays a major role throughout the film. Laila Mahmoud’s song “Ana Albi Dalili” features in several key scenes, as does the music of Mohamed Abdel Wahab and Nagat El Saghira, part of the film’s tribute to the importance of Egyptian pop culture in the Nazareth of Suleiman’s youth; this is succeeded, in the latter half of the film, by a soundtrack featuring contemporary artists such as YAS/Yasmine Hamdan. It is in music that the power of art and the power of youth as forms of resistance meet in this film. We see it at “The Stones,” a club in Ramallah, whose name simultaneously evokes pop culture (British, in this case) and also the stone-throwing resistance of the intifada. Outside is the Israeli army, attempting to impose curfew, using essentially the same words as those we heard coming from the occupying army in Nazareth at the beginning of the film. E.S.’s father and his young comrades resisted curfew, as did the young E.S. and his friends; the partiers at The Stones offer their own form of resistance, a resistance that even the Israeli soldiers are shown to understand, albeit subliminally.

The film’s final scene takes us back to Nazareth, where E.S. sits outside a hospital, having come from visiting his mother, whose condition has worsened. As with so much of the film, E.S. becomes increasingly periperhal to us in the course of the scene, as the other stories passing across the frame take our attention. As our attention shifts, we pass from old age (E.S. and his mother) to youth. The final moments of the film focus upon a group of three young men, recognizable partisans of hip-hop culture, who seat themselves on a bench at the upper right hand corner of the frame. Eventually, another young man walks into the frame and moves towards them, handcuffed to a much smaller and slighter Israeli policeman. His friends stand to greet him, and when he gets alongside them, he yanks on the handcuff, forcing his captor to come to a halt while all four youths exchange pounds and hugs. Finally, after flashing a final V for Victory, he gives the policeman another yank to move him along, leading him as if the handcuff was a leash.

A recurring image from the recent popular uprisings has been that of upraised arms breaking free of chains. Suleiman leaves us with a similar but slightly different image of resistance. If you find yourself chained to an authoritarian government, grab hold of the handcuffs and pull. It may turn out that you’re stronger than you thought.

 

1 comment for "Elia Suleiman's Time"

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A sensitive and insightful review. Made me want to acquire the DVD without delay, and also go back to read other articles by Anthony Alessandrini.

Basem Khader wrote on March 29, 2011 at 05:39 PM

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