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on Jan 5, 2011

Award-winning Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention) makes idiosyncratic films about the endless conflict between Arabs and Israelis, stitching together wryly humorous tableaux that speak to the absurdity of life under occupation. Suleiman himself is often a character in these tragicomic dramas, a mute witness quietly observing the agitations of the Middle East at ground level, with lidded eyes and a mournful face that commentators have repeatedly likened to Buster Keaton’s. As a youth infatuated with socialism, Suleiman (now 50) fled a pending arrest warrant in Nazareth (the authorities were under the impression he was a gang member) and moved to London, where he met author John Berger, an important mentor and lifelong friend whose Ways of Seeing literally opened his eyes to the world. Later, in New York City, he befriended the late critic Edward Said (Orientalism) and producer James Schamus, both of whom exerted an equally powerful influence on Suleiman’s intellectual development and future film art.

Suleiman’s latest effort, The Time That Remains, continues the semi-autobiographical explorations of his previous features, 1997’s Chronicle of a Disappearance and 2002’s critically acclaimed Divine Intervention, winner of a Jury Prize and a FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes. Drawing more heavily on his own diaries and family history than before, Suleiman focuses on a series of small, obliquely linked episodes over several decades, first involving his father Fuad (Saleh Bakri), a resistance fighter who (as in real life) is nearly beaten to death by Israeli soldiers after the 1948 surrender of Nazareth in the Arab-Israeli war, and then his on-screen counterpart, Elia, who we see grow from childhood (where he’s scolded in school for tarnishing the U.S. as “imperialist”) to adolescence and finally middle age, when he returns from abroad to care for his frail mother (Samar Qudha Tanus). As ever, Suleiman’s stylized, precisely composed set pieces alternate between deadpan farce (one recurrent gag involves Fuad’s crazed, potty-mouthed neighbor, who intermittently douses himself with gasoline to express his indignation at Israel) and vignettes of melancholic resignation (the most affecting being Elia’s return from exile and silent communion with his mother), all forming a trace pattern of collected anecdotes, photo-album memories, and the long personal experience of occupation, filmed at the actual locations where his family lived. Allergic to facile notions of identity and statehood, Suleiman layers anger into The Time That Remains without wringing his hands, fashioning a kind of laconic political burlesque from the rhythms of Palestinian life, then and now.

Filmmaker spoke with Suleiman about self-portraits, humor, national identity, and his fraught meeting with PLO leader Yasser Arafat. The Time That Remains opens at the IFC Center on Friday.

Filmmaker: Since you’re drawing on your diaries and other autobiographical elements for The Time That Remains, did that make it easier or harder for you to establish some kind of objective distance?

Suleiman: Harder, much harder. I’ve thought about doing this period film before even Divine Intervention, but I was not really mature enough to deal with it personally, cinematically. Structurally, with an epic, you cannot have free-floating tableaux in a kind of subconscious montage. You cannot be in the space of the poetic in exactly the same fashion than if you do a nonepic film. It’s quite difficult to do a period film and not lose yourself in the genre. That was my biggest challenge.

Filmmaker: In what ways do you feel you’ve matured over the past three features?

Suleiman: When you’re doing a personal film, you have to dare to be there, throwing yourself in front of yourself. In Chronicle of a Disappearance, for instance, there were many precious moments that I could not [stage], because either I was insecure or I had not a grip on that poetic space. When you gain maturity, you can lose yourself a lot more. You start to realize that this is what benefits the film and makes it simple, not simplistic. To make a simple film, you have to risk a lot. It can be transcendental, it can elevate you to euphoric states, but it makes you tired. Until today, I feel exhausted.

Filmmaker: Do you think of your films as self-portraits?

Suleiman: Yes. But The Time That Remains is also a family portrait, and a social portrait. I am there but sometimes in a larger tableaux. I’m not always frontal, just appearing in a sketch, but still it’s a self-portrait. It’s a departure point, it’s not always that this is where the concentration of the pigmentation is. That’s why in my films I am static, and so far, silent. I operate as a referential, translucent guide of some kind. I feel I am there not for you to look at me, per se, but to spread the vision elsewhere.

Filmmaker: I think of your on-screen persona as a witness and a moral presence in the way, for instance, that the angels in Wings of Desire are.

Suleiman: It’s a neutralized angel, in my case, wingless.

Filmmaker: More Keaton-like.

Suleiman: Yes, much more that. We shouldn’t give too much importance to that character. I don’t know how interesting it is to have a helpless angel, but it’s interesting to have a neutral gaze and let you decide.

Filmmaker: However, the gaze is not always neutral. There’s a moment in Divine Intervention where your character pulls up to a traffic light and there’s an Israeli in the car beside him. And a staring contest ensues.

Suleiman: Behind sunglasses. [Laughs] It’s important to note that. But I can also say I’m not always a cartoon drawing. For instance, in The Time That Remains, the character’s involved. He looks at his mother, who’s ailing, he’s more emotionally involved than in Chronicle of a Disappearance, and that was deliberate. When I looked at [my role] in this script and what I was trying to convey, I thought it would be terribly false to exhume a neutrality. This is a personal situation with very dramatic overtones—and not exaggerated, I hope. Generally, I try to maintain a little subtlety in the expression. I remember during the shooting trying to see how I could best hint at my interiority.

Filmmaker: We really do get this rich sense of interiority in your films that I think establishes an intimacy with the spectator, who fills in the blanks.

Suleiman: Yes. Otherwise, I’d just be imposing my own drama on you, and this is not my intention or desire. What I want is to share other people’s solitary moments or emotions. When we eat or make love, the second it starts to become imposed, we stop wanting to do it. We need that space, we need it in order to become generous. Without that space of generosity, we don’t give, and we start to take. At the heart of all that is the space of freedom. That’s our being in nature, when we all become participants according to our absolute, abstract will.

Filmmaker: I love the idea that this body of work you’ve created—which speaks to the efforts of people struggling to find freedom in a place where they’re oppressed and under occupation—is actually expressed formally, in the way you create a relationship with a viewer. What is your relationship to the role that Palestinian filmmakers are sometimes forced into, of having to speak for an entire people?

Suleiman: Sometimes a spectator tries to provoke you by saying Why didn’t you show this or that in Gaza, rather than [something else]? If you want to touch on a moment that exists in the question but has not been asked, you either fail or succeed. It’s totally justifiable for me to look for that which could be participated with the audience and not necessarily with that speaker. People who impose on you a position of authority – they might do it out of tenderness – you thank them for flattering you and then reduce that position of authority. I think the most important thing is to deviate from any kind of linearity, whether it’s in film narrative or the question. So it doesn’t bother me.

Filmmaker: You’re adept at creating a rhythm between very emotional and poignant scenes and absurd, deadpan moments.

Suleiman: I had a very funny family, My father was a humorous person, talented, he sang and listened to music all the time. I learned from him all the classical Arabic singers. When I was young, I was a drummer, playing Led Zeppelin, so you can imagine [his disapproval]. I think my background has a lot to do with that. But then, humor is not sufficient. When I look at my family and I see the melancholy, it has to do not only with my character, it has to do with everyone.

Filmmaker: You mean melancholy was a constitutive element of your upbringing?

Suleiman: Yes, but not a heavy one. My mother loved us, but she never came and hugged us. She was a peasant, rough but at the same time filled with love. And my father was more like a friend. I think this has to do a lot with who you end up being. And then New York. I think one of the reasons my films [were made] is because I saw Ozu, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Bresson, and Cassavetes. I had a lot of guidance from friends. I had also a mentor, not for choosing what to see, but who was an inspiration himself. I started reading in my mid-twenties—I had never read a book before.

Filmmaker: Is that right?

Suleiman: Yeah. I met [author/novelist] John Berger by accident and we became very close friends. I think he was the source of my energy to get up whenever I was [mimics a head blow]. I knocked on so many doors, but nobody would help because I had no background, no class connections, no money, and really, no education—I dropped out of school. And he’s the same, really.

Filmmaker: You started a media department at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank before you even made your first feature. How did that happen and what did it entail?

Suleiman: I was commissioned by the European community to do that. I guess I was the only one around. It was to be a film department but then the Oslo accords came along – the postcolonials arrived – and they wanted technicians. They don’t want people to think in the Middle East, they want them to have jobs, so they trained them to be cameramen, to film wars and intifadas and earn $400 a day from ABC and BBC. It’s easier to send the natives into the jungle. So I did some experimental course to see how a student who’d never seen a film in their lives—who had no introduction to what cinema was, commercial or noncommercial—[would respond]. It was just cinema. I started one course with Opening Night. From there we went to Wenders’s The State of Things and works by Trinh T. Minh-Ha. It was a free space because no one had preconceptions. Another course was on Zionist films from the silent era until now, an archive I took from Tel Aviv University. I gave a couple of lectures in exchange for the cassettes, because I had the intuition that Palestinians, in those Oslo times, were heading into some form of Zionization themselves. There was too much love of the land and too much nationalism. And it was all false, because there was no homeland left for them and there was no real peace process. So I was anti-Olso and tried to learn something from ideological filmmaking, from the want of border, that kind of inclusion and exclusion. I said, “You’ll just become another entity in this world that’s corrupt and racist.” Of course I got a lot of shit from the Palestinians. Arafat even called me once to come to Gaza and explain what I was doing.

Filmmaker: Really?

Suleiman: Yeah, Fatah threatened me, and I was being protected by Hamas. [Laughs] In fact, Arafat was very frustrated because I gave a lecture at an international conference really coming down on Oslo and the idiotic state that was going to happen, so it really irritated them. I ended my talk with an anthem by Leonard Cohen.

Filmmaker: Which one?

Suleiman: The one that says, “There is a hole in the world, but that’s where the light comes through.” I was just trying to say, maybe through the cracks something can be done. Then Arafat started to call me his favorite terrorist. [Laughs] I had no desire to become his friend, but at the moment I saw him he was in such a pathetic state, it was just before all of this ended.

Filmmaker: Well, you gave him a funny sendoff with the red balloon in Divine Intervention.

Suleiman: This is why, when he asked to see me, I asked for a dark-glass car emptied of press. That was my condition. I told them, “I don’t want the connection, I’m not promoting Arafat.” I didn’t want people to think I was flying that balloon because of him.

Filmmaker: I’ve heard you say the idea of a national or Palestinian cinema is a bogus idea because it recreates the very thing it’s attempting to topple. Do you see film itself in any way, then, as a form of resistance?

Suleiman: 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. Film transgresses borders and checkpoints, so how come we need to have a national cinema?

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