Elia Suleiman: Of Fixed Frames And Fictive Biography
September 18, 2013
The most lauded Arab filmmaker of his generation has been compared to Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, even though his work is concerned with occupation and dispossession. Now Artistic Advisor to Doha Film Institute, he meditates here on self-evaluation, memory and the 'metamorphosis into the aesthetic'. Written by Jim Quilty
A man has come to Havana for an interview with revolutionary president Fidel Castro. While a functionary at the Palestinian embassy confirms the details by phone, the man stands, his back to the official’s desk. He sips Turkish coffee and gazes at the portrait of a fida’i (Palestinian freedom fighter) on the wall.
“Elia Suleiman,” the functionary says into the phone, then spells out the interviewer’s name. “Egypt. Libya. Israel. America.
Startled, the man turns to glance at the camera, which stands in for the functionary’s perspective. The official commences to spell his family name and the man’s eyes return to the wall art.
“South Africa. Uganda – ‘u’, like ‘USSR’. Liberty. Espania. Israel – ‘i’, like ‘independence’…”
When the “i” in his family name is associated with “Israel”, then “independence”, the man turns around fully, eyebrows high above the rims of his spectacles.
The most lauded Arab filmmaker of his generation, Elia Suleiman was born in 1960, one of five children in a 48 Palestinian family – shorthand for those who did not leave during the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, as Palestinians term the creation of Israel.
A native of Nazareth, Suleiman has not lived there for many years, residing in New York from 1981 to 1993, moving the following year to Jerusalem, where he was invited to set up the audiovisual department of Birzeit University, and nowadays based in Paris.
Despite his success, Suleiman routinely remarks that he has no formal film training, and says the extent of his university film studies was a few sessions in an NYU continuing education class.
“When I started to have an interest in filmmaking,” he recalls, “everyone told me: ‘You have to study.’ But how? I couldn’t get into university. I didn’t have the money. I tried to sit in on some university classes a couple of times but no one would allow you to sit for free.
“A friend of mine used to sneak me into screenings for New York University’s film studies class after the lights went down, from the fire escape.
“I was giving a masterclass there a few years back,” he laughs, “and one of the students asked me: ‘You never studied. Now you’re here in an academic environment. Why should we be studying?’
“At that moment a revelation came over me. I looked up at the auditorium’s fire exit and I realised that it was exactly the place that I used to be smuggled through.
“I was quiet for a few moments, not knowing what to say. Then I looked at the students and said: ‘I have to tell you something.’ I told them about the fire escape.”
Suleiman laughs again.
“Basically, it comes down to your will to remain sincere, to self-educate, to always be in a process of self-evaluation as to what it is you’re looking for, and whether it’s strong enough for you to want to express it.”
Earlier this year, Elia Suleiman was appointed Artistic Advisor to Doha Film Institute (DFI), the non-profit organization that channels Qatar’s film funding, filmmaking and exhibition endeavors. This follows a long-standing relationship with DFI, dating back to when he was invited to attend the inaugural edition of Doha Tribeca Film Festival (DTFF) in 2009.
Suleiman describes his new role at DFI as conceptual. “It’s about giving ideas,” he says, connected to what Doha’s film festival might become. At the same time, DFI announced it would retool its festival profile, dissolving DTFF and replacing it with the Ajyal Film Festival for the Young, scheduled for late November, and the Qumra Film Festival, set to launch in March 2014.
The latter will be an international competitive platform for first and second-time filmmakers, following the tradition of such progressive international film festivals as that at Rotterdam and the Semaine de la Critique, which screens in parallel to Cannes’ main competition.
“Becoming an international film festival rather than an Arab film festival is definitely the big change,” Suleiman says. “The idea of making the festival for first and second-time filmmakers opens the door to everyone. It will definitely be interesting for the Arab filmmakers because it will become more competitive, more dialogue oriented, so they’ll be exposed to what’s happening in the world in their own region, which is exciting.
“Arab filmmakers will be given the privilege of a quota system, just as Cannes is obliged to put a certain number of French films in its competition. It could present some new notions, rather than the ghettoization of Arabs just meeting themselves.”
Qumra’s function, he continues, is “to bring all these people to meet each other, to listen to interesting international filmmakers and to become somehow connected, then go home to further build some of their ideas.”
Suleiman has made nine films, and is generally recognised in critical circles for three distinguished features. His debut, Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996), won the Venice Film Festival’s Luigi De Laurentiis Award for best first work. Divine Intervention (2002) took a fistful of awards, most notably the Jury Prize and the FIPRESCI (International Film Critics) Prize at Cannes that year, where it was also nominated for the Palme d’Or.
His third feature, The Time That Remains (2009), was also nominated for the Palme and picked up several international festival awards, among them the top prize at Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
The three features are unified by the figure of ES – played by Suleiman – who stands against the landscape of all his principal works. Less a character than a sort of unspeaking narrator, ES interacts with other characters, but his main function is to witness, a stylistic prism through which experience (here a Palestinian one) can be perceived and refracted.
They are also united by being festooned with vignettes, delivered with such a deadpan sense of humor that Suleiman’s silent onscreen persona has been compared to that of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. Rather than the elaborate simulacra of French modernism that Tati constructed for his 1967 Play Time, however, Suleiman’s is a stylised version of occupation.
At one point in Chronicle, for instance, ES looks on as a paddy wagon roars to a stop and disgorges half a dozen Israeli policemen. They leap from the back of the vehicle and charge past him in as if to foil a bank robbery. Then they stop, undo their trousers and relieve themselves against a wall. Finishing in unison, they rush back to the van and tear off again.
Much of Divine is set alongside Hajis Al Ram, the Israeli army checkpoint on the road between Ramallah and Jerusalem. One evening ES sits, alone, gazing at a megalomaniacal, megaphone toting soldier who demands that all the Palestinian drivers in the queue hold their papers up in the air. Then he forces individuals from their cars, ordering them to climb into the vehicles of total strangers. Only then are they allowed to drive off.
His films are strikingly bereft of conventional plotting. Unlike some of his younger colleagues in the region, who have experimented with genre, the writer-director has pursued other narrative strategies.
When he commenced the Chronicle shoot, Suleiman was still without a plot. He tells the story of how he had his cameraman shoot the policemen sequence repeatedly, despite the fact that he’d captured the scene on the first take. At the end of one such take – the last – the actor-director looked down and found one of his actors had dropped his police walkie-talkie. Standing in frame, ES bends over and picks it up. The police radio then became the narrative leitmotif holding Chronicle together. ES uses the radio to monitor security service banter – including a raid on his house that unfolds while he listens in.
The closest Divine comes to a narrative motif is the Israeli checkpoint where ES and his lover (Manal Khader) – who apparently live on opposite sides of the impassable barrier – meet for silent rendezvous. During one meeting, ES fills a red balloon with helium, revealing it to be emblazoned with the face of late PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, and releases it through a car sunroof. The soldiers are so distracted by Arafat’s face as it blows past that the couple manage to get through the checkpoint together.
The first half of Remains is an adaptation of the memoir the filmmaker asked his father, Fuad Suleiman, to compose about his involvement in the Palestinian resistance in 1948 and his life in the decades of occupation that followed, thus veering closer to conventional plotting than any of Suleiman’s other films. More consistent in his work are tableaux, beautifully framed by fixed-camera cinematography. Increasingly, he has restaged particular tableaux in succession, emphasizing the absurdity and heartbreak of gestures repeated long after they have been emptied of meaning.
The filmmaker has never depicted his work as autobiographical, yet the ubiquitous presence of ES, and the singular lack of conventional narrative arcs, does make it tempting to assume as much. “I’ll start from the most extreme,” Suleiman says. “I try to think I can make something other than this kind of film ... Desire comes into it, not only the question of what makes sense but what has essence. Where can I expose myself the most when I tell the story. Because when you fake it, it’s obvious. So an artist naturally has to search for that place where he isn’t faking, unless faking is done – and quite a lot of artists do that – for the sake of commerce.
“So yes, there are tons of biographical details in my work. But I think memory is ultimately a fiction. It’s just the way we interpret that moment, the way we imagine it now. It’s not exact documentation. Again, it has its own metamorphosis into the aesthetic.”
There are points in these films in which the needs of fiction take precedence, such as the story of young ES’s deportation in Remains. “I did at one point escape the country but not because of burning the Israeli flag,” as is discussed in the film. “I was accused of burning the flag when I was young and was expelled, then brought back. But I don’t remember that I did. I wasn’t a militant.”
Ultimately, he remains uninterested in inventing suspense or love stories. “There was a period where I thought I might be interested in doing something in another way,” he says, “but when I start to write, what draws me is stuff that I have either witnessed or closely overheard.”
The name-spelling scene that commences this essay is not taken from one of Suleiman’s three features but his most recent finished work, Diary of a Beginner. One of seven shorts that comprise the omnibus feature 7 Days in Havana, which premiered at Cannes last year, the 17-minute film is also his least autobiographical. Again, Diary is without much of a narrative. The Palestinian embassy functionary tells ES his interview with Castro is scheduled to follow a televised speech Fidel is giving that day. El Comandante is renowned for addressing the public for hours on end, so ES takes a proscribed stroll around Havana as he waits for Fidel to finish. The camera awaits ES as he arrives at various locations, observing him as he observes the city and its inhabitants. There is considerable wry humor here, hinging on ES’s out-of-placedness.
Suleiman has no personal connection to Cuba, but Diary is of a piece with his oeuvre. If the idea of 'Cuba' does have some affinity with that of “Palestine”, it may reside in their shared post-revolutionary stasis. What remains of that revolutionary confidence in a brighter future are ES’s mute encounters with a few tokens of past promise – larger-than-life statues of Yasser Arafat and Ernest Hemingway, incongruous in an unfamiliar landscape. This may be the source of the unspoken melancholy that pervades Diary in the spaces between the moments of straight-faced burlesque. Here, ES’s solitude against a landscape can better be seen for what it is, less a political gesture than an existential one. The same can be said of Suleiman’s cinematic decisions generally – apparently political, certainly aesthetic, but ultimately existential.
Jim Quilty is the Arts and Culture Editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. Since 2000, he has written about cultural and political production in a range of publications, including Variety, ArtReview, Bidoun, Middle East Report and Middle East International.
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