Director Elia Suleiman’s new film, “The Time That Remains,” details Arab Israelis’ shattered dreams — and plays it for laughs.
Suleiman is a Palestinian filmmaker whose personal take on being a foreigner on his own soil often tickles the funny bone while sparking political consciousness.
“There is sometimes a pleasure to make a film under occupation, because you feel like you are a hero, but you don’t want to sound cliché,” he confessed at the recent Cannes International Film Festival, where the movie premiered.
His 2002 film, “Divine Intervention,” a poignant love story of two Palestinians separated by a checkpoint, won the Cannes Jury Prize. This time, the 48-year-old Nazareth native arrived on the French Riviera with a four-chaptered feature chronicling his family’s daily life following the statehood of Israel. It begins in 1948 and catches up to the director in middle age (where he plays himself). We see Suleiman as a schoolboy rebel, exile and soldier of resistance through his art.
Suleiman crafted “The Time That Remains” mostly from notes and diary entries by his late father and from the letters his mother frequently sent to her family in exile. Moments of levity defy the overall gravity.
Visual gags provoke sighs and giggles. One scene features an Israeli tank trying to remain locked on a Palestinian walking back and forth as he chats nonchalantly on his cell phone. The man is clearly no enemy of the state, and the absurdity of the heavy artillery trying to keep pace with him elicits a knowing chuckle. Throughout “The Time That Remains,” Suleiman keeps a steady eye, wryly observing the bitter and the sweet. When he trains the camera on himself later in the movie, he remains still, his eyes conveying that he is helpless to change the outcome.
“The camera doesn’t move, so you have the opportunity as an actor to do whatever you want,” commented Saleh Bakri, who plays Suleiman’s father, Fuad.
Other touches of restraint amplify the tragicomic impact. As with classical drama, the violence takes place off-camera, leaving viewers to their own imaginations. The beautiful music and songs ratchet up the pathos. Bouts of silence punctuate the storytelling. Suleiman says he uses the quiet as moments of truth for the audience to meditate upon. In effect, the intervals allow the viewer to mine tears from the laughter.
“I did a cinematic film with a universal message,” Suleiman said. “We do face challenges in telling a story without giving historical information. History is debatable, and historic events are argumentative.”
The “history” he refers to is, of course, the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel. It isn’t exactly an obvious source of comedy, but Suleiman has a knack for immersing viewers in ridiculous moments, determined to let them in on the joke.
He is a coy provocateur who must walk a tightrope in his work and when talking about his work. He steers clear of discussing the political pressure he faces. He says he tires of the attention the Middle East receives, pointing out that artists in some African nations are confronted with far more obstacles.
“People are under occupation in all parts of the world,” he said. “Israel is an old story already. Look around. Lack of freedom, lack of democracy.”
Suleiman had to appreciate the irony of shooting a movie about military tension while fighting erupted in Gaza in January, adding an off-screen chapter to the director’s saga.
“I might face more pressure than a director that doesn’t live in any kind of occupation,” he said, “but you meditate and come back with more tools.”
Shades of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati are often said to shadow the filmmaker’s tragicomic approach. No matter what the references, the result in “The Time That Remains” is powerful and poetic.
Suleiman isn’t beyond adopting the style that many perceive to be an enemy for a little comic relief. He has always claimed admiration for Jewish writers, once speaking of his “conceptually Jewish” humor at the 2002 New York Film Festival. He mentioned in this interview that he is more influenced by Primo Levi, the Italian-Jewish writer who survived Auschwitz, than by any filmmaker.
It also should be noted that the co-producer of “The Time That Remains” and “Divine Intervention,” Avi Kleinberger, is an Israeli Jew, and one of the cast, Menashe Noy, is a well-known Israeli actor who, for the sake of his career, is counting on the probability that the movie will not open in Israeli theaters.
Among Arabs, Suleiman’s films often polarize opinion. After receiving a few negative comments, mostly from Arabic-speaking journalists at a Cannes press conference, he snapped back in English:
“How come that the only people who react violently and check the catalog and want to know where the money comes from, etc., are always the Arabs? Every time something succeeds and it is an Arab person or an Arab film, the first persons to attack it are the Arabs.”
The distribution of his movies reflects commercial limitations on all sides. “Divine Intervention” rode the momentum of its Cannes award to a limited run in the United States and several other countries. As of today, “The Time That Remains” is scheduled to open only in France. It conceivably could play in the West Bank, though there is only one screen left in Ramallah (where the film was mostly shot) and Jenin. None of those engagements could possibly make up for the film’s $6.5 million production cost, which, for the record, was underwritten by backers from France, Italy, Belgium, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Kleinberger told a French newspaper he was hopeful that “The Time That Remains” would screen in Israel. Suleiman has written and directed several full-length features since 1996, none of which has ever made it into an Israeli theater except for film festivals.
The popularity of his movies is perhaps shackled by his highlighting of regular people partaking in such mundane activities as sipping coffee and dealing with everyday problems, instead of extreme characters, such as the disenfranchised friends who become suicide bombers in “Paradise Now” by Hany Abu-Hassad.
Suleiman’s films reflect a quieter resistance. He insisted that he is not making movies about Palestinians per se. The problem is that his works are always labeled along with other “minorities,” he said. While shrinking from a role as a spokesman for Palestinian cinema, he still sees a brighter future for Palestinian films. The more Palestinian exiles, the more films they will create, because they “find themselves in other spaces since they couldn’t in their own country.”
Presenting the lighter side of oppression isn’t for everyone, but he remains confident that he can reach different audiences. “There is always a possibility to change the world,” he said. “Not only for Palestine.”
The film, suggestively, shares its title with a book by Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher who has written about film. However, when asked about his title, Suleiman was vague. It’s linked to the “global situation we are living in,” he said and called “The Time That Remains” a term that represents Absentees — the rootless Arab Israelis to whom he has dedicated his art.
“There is nothing too hopeful in the title,” he said. “It is hopeful by defect.”
For a politically charged filmmaker who strives to generate smiles through the outrage, that is no laughing matter.
Karine Cohen-Dicker is a French journalist who currently lives in New York.