LONDON — Elia Suleiman is something of a contradiction. The 49-year-old is, along with “Paradise Now” director Hany Abu-Assad, the most prominent of Palestinian directors working today, yet he has only made three features. In person, he is famously loquacious and mischievous, while onscreen he has studiously developed a near-silent persona, his deadpan gaze at events before him a subtle testament to the frequent absurdity of the plights of Palestinians. It is a dichotomy about which the director is all too aware.
“Without wanting to sound pompous, someone once told me that I was an intellectual who happens to make movies, and I think there is a bit of truth in that,” Suleiman says. “Silence is a model of living. I happen to have these two extremes. I am not just an artist who is hypersensitive and timid; I am also somebody who is fascinated with politics, philosophy and both the intellectual and conceptual strata. I am a very verbal person, just not in my films.”
Suleiman has unquestionably made his masterpiece with “The Time That Remains.” With a lean running time of 110 minutes, the film skillfully veers between absurdist sketches and scenes of emotional poignancy. The third part of a trilogy that began with “Chronicle of a Disappearance” and “Divine Intervention,” each of which charts the story of Palestinian dispossession and displacement over the past 60 years, “The Time That Remains” is Suleiman’s most ambitious effort to date. Beginning in 1948 on the day his hometown of Nazareth officially surrendered to the Israeli army and continuing through to the most recent intifada, the film skilfully interweaves the personal and the political. Suleiman even used his own parents’ diaries for inspiration while writing the screenplay.
Not that the pic, which received a rapturous critical reception following its world preem at Cannes earlier this year, doesn’t include Suleiman’s trademark surreal humor. In one moment, a Palestinian youth leaves his house, oblivious to the Israeli tank stationed directly outside his door. As the youth talks on his cell phone, aimlessly moving from side to side, the tank’s oversized gun barrel tries to keep up with his every moment. The mechanical wheezing of the tank becomes comically overexaggerated as the youth continues his mundane conversation before returning inside.
Elsewhere, scenes of Suleiman visiting Nazareth to look after his aging mother — their encounters played out without any dialogue — are almost unbearably moving.
“This was the most challenging thing about making this because even though it is an epic film, I did not want to fall into the pit of the classic epic genre,” says Suleiman. “I did not want to (resort to) sensationalism and bombastic, predictable scenes. I wanted to see if I could succeed in maintaining a very static, tense frame with a tableaulike theatricality and choreography while still maintaining the historic feel of the film.”
Though Suleiman eventually walked away from Cannes empty-handed, the fact that the film exists at all is something of a triumph. Raising independent financing for any project, particularly one dealing with as contentious a political subject as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is never easy, but Suleiman had to contend with an unusual amount of obstacles this time. In 2007, with production only weeks away, Suleiman saw the original financing for his project collapse at the last minute. He spent the next few months trying to raise the necessary money to no avail before salvation came in the form of London-based Saudi entrepreneur and film enthusiast Hani Farsi, as well as respected French film sales company Wild Bunch.
It’s a measure of Suleiman’s steely determination that he got his film made despite the often tortuous struggles. As importantly, it has allowed him to deliver his own impassioned reading of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and he doesn’t duck from pointing the finger at both Arabs and Israelis for their culpability in the situation.
“People say I’m a subversive filmmaker, but this is only a term which has stuck to me because I am Palestinian. It is not subversive to show history,” says Suleiman. “If we’re still debating what Israel did to Palestine, then something is wrong. Sixty years after the fact, we’re still saying they did not destroy Palestine, they did not expel people, they did not execute, rape and massacre Palestinians. I cannot believe that we still have to debate such an issue. Similarly, what the Arab countries did at that moment, making deals with the colonial powers including the Zionist entity as some of them still call it today, is not up for debate. They make a lot of noise, but in the end all they have done is maintain the status quo.”