Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Palestine Lived in and Observed: The Films of Elia Suleiman

Director Elia Suleiman at the Toronto International Film Festival
 screening of It Must Be Heaven - 9/14/19 - Photo by Mark Pfeiffer

A year ago if one would have asked me what I know about Palestine, I probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with much. As I suspect is true for most Americans, I have been aware of the longtime tensions in the Middle East, but the best I could have likely mustered for an answer would have amounted to stumbling through some general statements defining Palestine in terms of the conflict with Israel. Frankly, I don’t know that I’d fare much better now if put on the spot, although I have been reading up on things more, particularly after the events of the last couple weeks. I’m certainly not anyone who could be characterized as possessing any deep understanding of the issues but I’m learning.

Why? I could say it’s to be a better citizen of the world, but it comes down to wanting to be a better friend. At work I made a terrific friend, and as we’ve come to know one another better,  I’ve enjoyed what she’s shared with me about her Palestinian heritage and culture. Assuming COVID-related obstacles or other unknown issues didn’t interfere, my hopes and intentions have been to attend her wedding in the West Bank this summer. I’ve never traveled outside of North America, so in anticipation of making such a trip, I’ve been acquainting myself with practical matters for visiting this region. Then the incidents at the Al-Aqsa mosque and Sheikh Jarrah happened, followed by Hamas firing rockets at Jerusalem and Israel bombing Gaza for days. My concerns surged for my friend, her family, and her cousin, who I’ve also befriended and who flew to Palestine this week. I’m ashamed it took having personal connections, that worrying about people I care for and how they are affected, is what pushed me to become better educated. And where do I even begin? 

Talking with my friends and keeping a closer eye on the news are certainly important, but art can also be a valuable lens for broadening understanding. My familiarity with Palestinian films, or ones that foreground the Palestinian perspective,is pretty limited, though. I saw Paradise Now, which I liked, and Miral, which I didn’t, but remember little about either since watching them during their theatrical runs. At last year’s True/False Film Festival I was quite impressed with Mayor, a documentary about the mayor of Ramallah. The Viewing Booth, another film I saw at the 2020 True/False, has lingered with me the last year-plus as it questions the limits of active, critical viewing and the power of images to persuade. In it a perceived ideal viewer, someone whose beliefs would seem open to change, is shown Israeli occupation YouTube videos, and yet director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz seems to land at the discouraging conclusion that media literacy isn’t a cure-all in the Information Age. It may prove to be an essential document of this particular point in time.

If I associate anyone with Palestinian cinema, it is the Nazareth-born filmmaker Elia Suleiman. I saw Divine Intervention in Columbus and, unless my memory is faulty, recall protesters at 15th and High Street outside the Wexner Center when it screened. I saw his most recent feature, It Must Be Heaven, at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival with him in attendance. I liked both of those films, so when a retrospective of his four features, plus a virtual Q&A, were made available for pay-what-you-want streaming on demand from May 21-May 30 by the Arab American National Museum, Arab Film and Media Institute, and ArteEast, in partnership with Doha Film Institute, I felt compelled to dive in.  (Viewers in the United States, Canada, and Palestine can watch through May 30.)

In considering these works, I want to make it clear upfront that I don’t know what I don’t know. These films surely contain nuances that slip by me. I can say for certain that there are parts in the films I had seen previously that I missed and that, in being marginally better informed, I understand better now. 

Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996)

Suleiman begins and ends his first feature with a shot of his father sleeping while sitting up. To me the film is one rooted in resignation, and those images reinforce the notion that rest is not something engaged in to energize and restore but rather something submitted to, the weary capitulation to the state of being. 

Suleiman’s style uses a series of vignettes, rather than a traditional narrative, to create the sense of the people and place that mean so much to him. The technique is perhaps most poignant in this of all his features because it can seem more documentary-like, at least in the opening personal diary section. Suleiman plays “himself,” the non-speaking ES, and he uses family members and other non-actors to portray the daily life that feels like it is vanishing for Arabs amid Israel’s dominance in the land. While Chronicle of a Disappearance bears no similarity in form to Martin Scorsese’s Italianamerican--Robert Bresson’s inspiration seems more apt in creative choices--both capture tales and images that are fading or will eventually disappear. Suleiman’s film is more mournful, even as it is laced with caustic humor, and it leaves one feeling the weight of decades of a people’s erasure.

Having watched Suleiman’s four feature films in less than twenty-four hours, I think there are benefits to viewing them in chronological order. This is not a Boyhood-like experiment, but each film builds on the last. In using real people from one film to the next and telling their stories, most notably those dealing with his parents, he taps into an emotional power from observing the effects on people aging and dying while the struggle suspends them in stasis. Chronicle of a Disappearance is the one that feels like it has the most I’m unable to pick up on, but revisiting this after completing the retrospective could also help to unlock it more.

Divine Intervention (Yadon ilaheyya) (2002)

Where Chronicle of a Disappearance felt suffused with sadness of what has been lost and is in the process of going away, Divine Intervention, subtitled A Chronicle of Love and Pain, is marked by defiance. The recurring characters of Suleiman’s ES and a woman played by Manal Khader are lovers divided and kept apart by the districts where they live in the West Bank. The only way for them to meet is for each to park at the Al-Ram checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Their one opportunity to go away together comes when ES inflates a red balloon adorned with the face of Yasser Arafat and sets it on a path toward the guard tower, which initiates panicked calls from soldiers about how to engage and allows them to slip by without notice.

That balloon floats all the way to the Dome of the Rock before coming to rest. Divine Intervention employs other loaded images to provoke. The film begins with children chasing a man dressed as Santa up a hill, and we come to find that he has a knife plunged into his chest. In the most memorable scene, a shooting range uses a cutout featuring a Palestinian woman as a target for Israelis to aim at and hit. Unlike his more grounded previous film, Suleiman indulges in fantasy in a few other spots and here, as the woman on that target manifests as a Palestinian ninja wielding a shield in the shape of the West Bank, using it as a boomerang to fell a helicopter, and rearranging the bullets fired at her into a a halo.

As the images are often charged, the humor is similarly blunt. A man throws his garbage into his neighbor’s yard. The neighbor throws it back, and the man complains about the mess she has made. You don’t need to be a scholar on the region to get the underlying message. That’s comparatively light against some other scenes. A long shot shows men cursing and beating something with a stick as a crowd watches. Eventually another man brings a gun and shoots to kill. It’s horrific based on what we expect is happening, with the nervous laughter and relief coming upon discovering they were smashing a snake. A scene with a tourist asking an Israeli policeman for directions to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre lands its punches with the clueless officer bringing a blindfolded Palestinian prisoner out of the back of the wagon to provide the assistance he cannot. While more overtly political, Suleiman’s dry sense of humor is reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch’s films, and the disenfranchised Palestinians he gives prominence share an affinity with the stuck, existentially frustrated protagonists in the Ohio-born filmmaker’s works. To winning comedic effect he even inserts the song “I Put a Spell On You,” which is strongly associated with Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, and cues it up again in It Must Be Heaven.

Suleiman’s style feels more refined here in linking the pieces, and the expressive boldness of this film provides a bracing counter to how the Palestinian experience is often depicted, if it is at all, in American media. The emotional journey from sadness and resignation in Chronicle of a Disappearance to anger and defiance in Divine Intervention makes sense. Divine Intervention ends with ES and his mother watching a pressure cooker and her saying, “That’s enough. Stop it now.” One wishes the simple, direct sentiment were easy to honor.

The Time That Remains (2009)

Again, if I’m to make a case for watching these chronologically, there is an emotional logic that reflection and grief are next in the flow. The Time That Remains has scenes set the earliest in any of Suleiman’s four features and unfolds the most like a regular story. He looks back to the 1948 creation of the state of Israel and how his family has been affected in the sixty years since. Subtitled Chronicle of a Present Absentee, as he would become an expatriate as a young man, the history is conveyed with a cutting wit and recognition of the common tragedies endured in this occupation. 

If you’re turning to this for a history lesson, you’re looking in the wrong place. This is history as familial and personal experience than as textbook recitations of events. If I were to concoct a straw man argument for a dissenter unmoved by Suleiman’s work, perhaps this one in particular, my imagined opponent might declare these films to be emotionally detached. Suleiman constructs his history of pain and loss as a slow, steady accretion rather than as a series of significant happenings that can be memorialized on a calendar, even if a couple dates do stand out in The Time That Remains. Instead of relying on big swells and dips in emotions, he attunes us to the steady hum of what this kind of existence is like. The emotions are instinctively felt. They’re like breathing rather than like riding waves.

Suleiman as a screen performer invites comparisons to Buster Keaton, in part because he is not demonstrative in reacting. Those less inclined to give him credit as an actor might attribute Suleiman’s success to the Kuleshov effect. I’m not suggesting he’s Keaton’s equal, as he certainly is not at all that kind of physical performer, but by underplaying how his character responds, he invites us to see through his eyes. Except for a few words uttered in It Must Be Heaven, he doesn’t speak on camera, and it doesn’t reduce our ability to comprehend what he’s thinking.

Toward the end Suleiman includes more absurdist touches, like a tank’s main gun following a man at point blank range as he takes out the trash and paces back and forth while talking on the phone. This exaggerated and blistering commentary on military presence and excessive force seems like a hard shift from what has preceded, but it gets to the point that the intervening years have made such actions common to the point where the Palestinian unfortunately knows this to be the status quo and tries to carry on.

It Must Be Heaven (2019)

Suleiman’s most recent feature finds his protagonist ES in Nazareth, Paris, and New York City and makes him a more central character than he has been in the other films. I’ve seen Jacques Tati referenced in regard to Suleiman, which applies superficially to ES as a basically nonverbal character and justifiably as someone navigating the modern world (and as a director placing emphasis on movement through space). If I’m to make an assumption--and I’ll leave it to my friends to set me straight if I’m wrong--a major issue for Palestinians is restriction of movement within--or even into--their homeland. So Tati is a natural fit when it comes to being mindful of where people can go and how the physical environment limits them.

It Must Be Heaven is steeped in amused alienation and even cautious optimism. The unspoken reason for his return to Palestine--but one that can be assumed, particularly from seeing the three prior films--is his mother’s death. While he retains his parents’ home, one senses how the meaning of it has changed as he has lived abroad, and he may have lost some connections by being away. His neighbor has a better idea how to tend to his lemon trees than he does.

Yet Suleiman suggests that if some of his links have diminished, he remains firmly Palestinian in worldview. He can spot the clear differences between what tanks on the streets of Paris mean to those who see them versus tanks rolling around downtown Ramallah. Military jet flyovers and fireworks viewed from a distance in Nazareth at the end of The Time That Remains are not cause for celebration, but in Paris they connote something less fearsome, although perhaps still carrying a stigma for those with other experiences in their homelands. Suleiman wrly assesses the American obsession with guns and what type of protest merits strong police response and grants us the ability to think how those things must look to an outsider.

This plays as the lightest of the four films in the retrospective because hope is alive. The reasons for that aren’t clear, but the man who made Chronicle of a Disappearance, released twenty-three years earlier, strikes me as believing in Palestine’s future, whenever that may be fully realized. Maybe it’s all one can do to keep from collapsing in a depression after the last sixty-plus years of history, or perhaps it’s a reflection of when this was made. Whatever the case, guarded confidence at least reserves room for a potential solution.

It Must Be Heaven has yet to receive commercial distribution in the United States, and based on scenes of him struggling to find funding for the film in the film itself, I wonder if he expected it for the reason he puts in a French producer’s mouth. ES is told his film isn’t Palestinian enough, and while the production company is sympathetic to the plight of the people and doesn’t expect the film to make money, they’re looking for something that fits into a preconceived notion of art emanating from the occupied territories. It Must Be Heaven definitely spends the least of any of his in Palestine, although the literate viewer would be foolish to think the lens changes because the settings vary. 

I also think that scene attacks the notion of how art should represent certain parts of the world, something Suleiman’s films have resisted. It is easy, and perhaps comforting, to wallow in miserabilism or engage in cinematic poverty tourism by seeing depictions of suffering largely unimaginable to those of us viewers wealthy by global standards even if we are not by our own country’s. That despairing imagery can yield strong reactions, but it tends to remain foreign and can ultimately be held at a distance as not anything that touches us. Suleiman isn’t showing us refugees in Gaza or the worst abuses of police power. Instead he welcomes us to see people we may know--the sharp-tongued gossiping aunt, the diabetic elderly mother sneaking ice cream from the refrigerator at night, the buddies we can silently hang out with--and the people we are. Then he has us consider their humanity amid the conditions they live in that are different from ours and empathize with them. 

My compressed time with these films won’t fill in the large gaps in my knowledge, and it would be imprudent of me to suggest that what I’ve taken away from Suleiman’s work is representative of the experiences of my friends who have spent time in Palestine and are there now. I’m also not looking for any sort of credit from them or with anyone else for attempting to raise my consciousness. Who knows how many times I’ve put my foot in my mouth across these nearly 2900 words? I’m not even really sure if there was much point in grinding out all of this other than to get it out of my head. But I’m glad I spent time with these films, two of which were new to me and gave me lots to ponder and two of which I had seen and hit me harder this time. It Must Be Heaven holds hope for a free Palestine but not necessarily in our lifetime. I pray that such hope can help bring it about as soon as possible.