After spending more than a decade in New York, Palestinian director Elia Suleiman returned to his homeland in 1992 to make his first feature film. Expectations of what he could do were high: he left the U.S. with an ITVS grant to develop his project and soon won a prize at Locarno for his script. With further backing from a French co-producer, Suleiman was able to complete his film just in time to win the award for best first feature at the 1996 Venice Film Festival.
Chronicle of a Disappearance is an extended meditation of the contemporary life of Palestinians in "the Holy Land." Elders recount absurdly funny tales and jokes; Russian emigres talk about tourism's ravaging of the country; tourists pontificate about Israeli politics; and a young Palestinian actress struggles to find an apartment, while Suleiman, himself a character, tries to figure out what kind of film he should make. Suleiman weaves these narratives together with extraordinary irony and grace.
Filmmaker: You arrived in Palestine several years ago with an idea of what you wanted to make. How did living there affect your story?
Suleiman: When I wrote the synopsis for Chronicle of a Disappearance, I said I wanted to return here to finish the search begun in my previous films. Introduction to the End of an Argument dealt with representation of the Other, and Homage By Assassination dealt with identity and exile. And in Chronicle, I wanted to deal with questions of the return--of searching geographic, political and personal memory. I also wanted to come back and settle here because I had had enough of wandering from place to place. I wanted a real home. When I was offered a job teaching, I took it immediately. I ran to Jerusalem. I wasn't born in Jerusalem, but I'd lived here, and it was familiar. And the idea of coming here seemed quite romantic. I wanted a garden with an olive tree, and I wanted to sit and drink coffee outside. The comfort of a home, however, is hard to sustain. I do seem to live in a place for a certain amount of time and then start thinking that home is somewhere else. So this kind of nomadic life seems to be inevitable for me now... What disappointed me was that somehow, as I dug into my sense of belonging here, I did lose that sense of rootedness.
Filmmaker: Don't you think that's sort of logically inevitable? In order to evaluate your connection to a place, you have to step back from it.
Suleiman: I wonder. Was it my intention, conscious or unconscious, to assume that distance? On one level I do want to belong, on the other hand I'm totally amazed by someone who wants to raise the question about belonging. Obviously, I remain ambivalent.
Filmmaker: One of the things I find completely astonishing about the film is how you are able to convey the sense that we are getting a glimpse of real life. You worked with your family and with people you knew before you began to film. How much did you have to shoot to get people to reveal themselves with that kind of candor?
Suleiman: The ratio was high because, in fact, none of them are full-time professional actors. A couple of them are amateur actors. But since people were doing things that were familiar to them, I simply told them, "Do what you do normally." There were a few places where there was improvisation, but I had to plot the scene first. In the kitchen scene, for example, those are all my aunts and my cousins. Every time they get together they actually quarrel about food recipes. I knew that garlic was a very hot issue between my mother and my aunt. All I had to do was ask my aunt to raise the issue of garlic. I had the crew leave the house and let the camera roll. It was a blind shoot, so to speak. I had to shoot, let's say, a ratio of 30:1, just like a documentary.
Filmmaker: You shot the same scene over and over again?
Suleiman: No. They just kept talking and I didn't know what came out until I saw the rushes.
Filmmaker: So how did you create the film? You had a script in so far as you knew where you wanted to be, what you wanted to do?
Suleiman: Except for the kitchen scene, everything was extremely precise, extremely calculated. Every word that the aunt in the beginning speaks is actually pre-scripted. Not a word changed.
Filmmaker: What about the guy with the car in front of the restaurant?
Suleiman: All this is calculated. Every single move. These people had never posed in their lives. I had to calculate all the steps. The man went to dig for the rubber pipe to beat his son. I had to mark the place. Nothing was documentary at all. Everything was completely scripted.
Filmmaker: How did you know they were going to be able to perform in such an engaging and effective manner?
Suleiman: You know what? It was a major risk. Everything I've done in this film was a major risk.
Filmmaker: One of the most common weaknesses of low-budget independent film is the acting, particularly when the director relies on non-professionals. This didn't seem to get in your way at all.
Suleiman: Many people who have never been in front of a camera have a talent for acting.We also rehearsed extensively. Those who worked with us accepted the fact that they were acting, and they were not just being themselves.
Filmmaker: How did you get non-professionals to be patient enough to repeat scenes over and over?
Suleiman: Encouragement. Support. Sometimes it was difficult to get an actor to come back again because he was busy or just didn't feel like it. We'd have to beg. It was not an easy shoot to say the least. In Palestine there's no such thing as infrastructure or industry. A lot of time people didn't know what they were doing. Many of the Palestine crew members had never been on a set before. We made many mistakes. And there were so many locations--this film was shot in 50 locations in five major cities. The crew got tired of moving from place to place. And then I did postproduction in Paris, which is such an expensive place. I had to do that because it was a French coproduction. About 40% of the budget went to postproduction, which is quite unheard of.
Filmmaker: Let's talk about the style of the film. You shoot through windows, doors, from the balcony, as if to make us more aware of your status as an outsider. You also use mostly stationary camera shots that create a sense of the film as a series of tableaux.
Suleiman: I'm quite literal. I'm not exactly an inspired man. You know, usually when I decide the position of a camera it's not exactly for any other reason than that is where I'm standing to look at something. Then I am also trying to work with the idea of a frame within a frame to emphasize my distance.
Filmmaker: There is another level of commentary I see running through the film. At the Holy Land Tourist Shop there are many shots of the postcard holders going around and around, displaying a series of standardized, commercialized images of the Holy Land. This marketing of the image of Jerusalem or of Palestine and your focus on tourists points to another sense of what that place signifies.
Suleiman: On the one hand, there is a man sitting in front of the Holy Land. I am there, as part of the scene, as part of the place, but I'm there with a sense of alienation. I'm stagnating. For me this is what it is like to be in a ghetto. I wanted to convey that sense that nothing is happening, nothing is moving. Nazareth has that air.
Now on the other hand there is the Biblical sense of the place, which I chose to represent as a commodity. According to this view we are not a nation or people, we are simply products to buy and take home, and we exist in the midst of something ancient. When Israel took this country, they made a minority out of the Palestinians, they ghettoized them. And they took their image as a product for consumer consumption.
Filmmaker: One of your main characters is a member of a political theater group who stumbles on a police radio and uses it to scramble the system of maintaining order in Jerusalem. What kind of political commentary should one read from the parallel you're drawing between symbolic representation and political action?
Suleiman: I never want to project violence. Let's say the violence of the Israelis--if you do put it on that screen you're simply reducing it to what you show and what you depict. What I wanted to do is actually indicate the potential violence.
I don't think there's anything correct in politics, but I think any political proposition that carries, let's say, moral values, will never be a political proposal that will have the answer to anything. What you can do is hint. What you can do is simply raise the question. I use another layer of representation. I use the theater inside the film to perform the potentiality of violence.The potentiality of rebellion, in fact.
Filmmaker: Chronicle is a complex film, in that you have to read the visuals in a very subtle manner to understand the levels of irony, the levels of interpretation. It's not a film that articulates its position verbally, it's a film that speaks visually. It builds a commentary on, as you say in the synopsis, what it means to be Palestinian, but you don't sit on the couch and say, "This is what I think."
Suleiman: This was an intention on my part, but not exactly a strategy since I'm also a sucker for accessible humor and simply read images. And I kept thinking that, O.K., if people don't understand the complexity of the film's structure, all the political discourse, all the metaphors, then at least they can enjoy --
Filmmaker: The humor. The characters.
Suleiman: Exactly. And they can get emotionally involved in ways they don't understand. I had a few people telling me they cried, but they didn't understand why.
Filmmaker: Did the film defy audience expectations abroad?
Suleiman: There is always an Orientalist expectation from audiences in places like Europe and the States. They come expecting to learn a little history of the place. When these people see the film they are quite shocked that they have to exert mental energy and become emotionally involved. They enjoy the film instead of looking at it from an elitist point of view. I hope people are enchanted and that a few stereotypes are broken.