Whilst researching Chronicle of a Disappearance (Suleiman, 1996) I came across and article titled Palestinian anti-narratives in the films of Elia Suleiman (Abu-Remaileh, 2008). In it, Refqa Abu-Remaileh discusses how Suleiman focuses on cinematic negative space to represent the situation that Palestine has found itself in since the creation of Israel in 1948. She writes that “[The] idea of overt and psychological occupation inform [Suleiman’s] film style and structure (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)”. In her analysis of Chronicle of a Disappearance she finds that “Suleiman chooses to represent the cracks in the story – the negative space – rather than the story itself. He uses visual puns to challenge the absurd idea of the “present-absentees” and “a land without a people”(Abu-Remaileh, 2008)” and she suggests that this viewers of Suleiman’s work “need to fill the gap between the image, the content of what is recounted, and shuffle through possible meanings”.
Abu-Remaileh is a scholar of “modern Arabic literature and film (EUME, 2014)” and she writes that “as the youngest of the art forms to treat the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict, the medium of film raises a number of questions on art and politics (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)”. Analysing Suleiman’s work, she finds that they “defy telling the linear, chronological story of Palestine. [They highlight] a unique aspect of film – the possibility of representing the non-verbal story (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)”. She goes on to identify three devices that Suleiman uses to explore the displaced nature of the Palestinian people: a fusion of documentary and fantasy; a non-linear narrative structure; and a focus on cinematic negative space to highlight that which isn’t actively represented.
Abu-Remaileh discusses the strong tradition of realism in Palestinian cinema, relating it to an urge to document, which is common to many oppressed and marginalised groups:
[…] filmmakers, especially those working in the West Bank, have based their films on their own stories, often tracing family history and interviewing their friends, parents and grandparents. The need for these films is made more urgent by the limited and biased media coverage of the conflict. In the West Bank and Gaza, where the Israeli occupation is more visible, there is a strong inclination to relay a clear message, often in reportage-style films, to expose Palestinian suffering at the hands of the occupation. (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)
She suggests that Suleiman is less concerned with the physical occupation suffered by Palestinian’s at the hands of the Israelis, and more with a psychological occupation. As such his work doesn’t fit within the more established documentary tradition exhibited in much Palestinian cinema, but it has made his films more visible to an international audience. She writes that “with their modernist aesthetic, Suleiman’s films are seen as very much part of the foreign film circuit, making the rounds at international film festivals (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)”. Yet she believes that Suleiman’s films cannot be divorced from their reportage-style counterparts:
Suleiman’s films speak to other Palestinian films – the plethora of overt images of the occupation in documentary and other films act as invisible footnotes to Suleiman’s politically-subtle images, creating space for experimentation and meditation. (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)
(This concept that the presence of an idea can be highlighted by its absence, a kind of negative space, is key to Suleiman’s exploration of what it means to be Palestinian, and I’ll come back to it in a moment.)
Suleiman’s focus on psychological rather than physical occupation leads him to the realm of fantasy. In her analysis of Divine Intervention (Suleiman, 2002) Abu-Remaileh writes that “the way the checkpoint is represented is markedly different from the documentary representations of checkpoints viewers of Palestinian films often see (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)” because it uses sweeping camerawork and stylised editing to create a fantastical moment. And he further heightens the surrealism by shooting this sequence with hardly any dialogue; making the non-verbal language key to its understanding.
Suleiman also subverts documentary traditions, particularly that of the interview, in Chronicle of a Disappearance. Here Suleiman features four scenes which appear at first glance to be traditional interviews in which the subject either speaks with a director off camera or addresses the audience directly. Yet all is not as it seems, “the interview, the staple of many documentary films, is given a bit of a twist, with the effect of challenging viewers’ preconceptions of the kind of information the interviews may be present them with (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)”. Indeed Abu-Remaileh suggests that these scenes are so far removed from what we would expect from a traditional documentary interview that they are “actually what I would call an ‘anti-interview’ (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)”. Suleiman seems completely aware of this; his first “anti-interview” (with his mother) finishes when she concludes that “it’s better if one stays silent and doesn’t say anything (Suleiman, 1996)”.
Abu-Remaileh writes that “From the very beginning, we encounter a resistance to traditional storytelling techniques. Suleiman is less interested in excavating the past and more interested in interrogating the present (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)”. And indeed each of the three “anti-interviews” set in Nazareth speak to a preoccupation with time. In the second interview, a priest speaks of “the idea that the land is being stripped of its holiness, and hence stripped of its title, The Holyland, […] We discover that the The Holyland is but a souvenir shop, not even visited by the tourists (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)”. And in the final Nazareth based interview, Suleiman introduces us to a writer and asks him to tell the audience a story. We perhaps expect a such a literate subject to “make pointed comments on the situation, history, politics, poetry and literature. Instead, he tells a very repetitive story, based on his grandfather’s memory (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)”. This mimics the audiences experience of Suleiman’s film, the expected linear documentary is replaced by a fragmented, repetitive impressionist piece of cinema.
In analyzing the interview with the writer in Chronicle of a Disappearance, Abu-Remaileh suggests that:
One interpretation would be the idea of returning to the same story despite the passage of time – the idea of “return” and cyclical time are integrated into Suleiman’s film structure. If we pursue this interpretation a little further, the scene emphasizes the non-literal nature of these interviews, and the disjunction between their content and their intended meaning, a gap which the viewer is prompted to fill in. (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)
And she links this cyclical, repetitive structure to his tendency to shoot non-verbal scenes, in contrast to many Palestinian filmmakers:
Suleiman’s hallmarks are non-linear episodic narratives that rely less on plot and characterization and more on the combination of film structure, editing and soundtrack to create meaning. The emphasis on form and the non-verbal is in stark contrast to many other Palestinian films where the spoken word plays an important role, and understandably so. The oral tradition surrounding the conflict is brimming with stories waiting to be told, documented or covered. In fact, the ongoing occupation of Palestinians is like a story-factory, with countless stories being produced every day. (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)
Yet this non-linear narrative is more than just a rejection of more traditional methods of storytelling. Abu-Remaileh believes that it relates back to the psychological occupation that Suleiman so clearly wishes to investigate; for Palestinians subject to this mental oppression “time passes, but, paradoxically, does not move (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)”. Abu-Remaileh expands on this idea of an ever repeating cycle of time, and how Suleiman uses it as a metaphor for Palestinian oppression:
With the conflict not yet the sole property of history, the past merges into the present, creating a new tense, an ongoing “eternal present,” while a sense of the future or even a vision of the future remains absent […] This tension of a present that is bearing all the weight of history and the past, as well as under pressure to produce a future, is mirrored in Suleiman’s non-linear structure and the perpetual layering of repetitive scenes […] The repetitions and the cyclical time mostly return to the same scenes or a deterioration of those scenes, especially in the Nazareth sections, and do not lead to a return to a pre-1948 Palestine. It seems that the concept of return is suspended in time, just as time itself seems to have become suspended in an ongoing present […] The idea of “return” that most Palestinian refugees hold on to dearly creates a sense of cyclical time as opposed to linear time. (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)
Suleiman’s films often focus on transient spaces, a clear reflection of the neither-here-nor-there status of Palestinians living in Israel. But just as he is more interested in psychological rather than physical occupation, so too he is more interested in negative space rather than simply non-place. Abu-Remaileh writes:
Suleiman’s films crack open the Palestinian story, directing the camera at the spaces between the cracks, and thus accessing what can be called the ‘negative space’ around the more commonly narrated moments of Palestinian life. Negative space is the idea in art that a shape can take on its form by shading around it rather than drawing or painting the shape itself. [Suleiman’s films] do not aim to ‘fill us in’ on the conflict, but are more concerned with an existential and psychological excavation of the present. The intense focus on the present, including the very mundane present, creates a series of ‘anti-moments’ that do not usually make it into the narratives on the lives of the Palestinians, mainly because they are overpowered by other moments that are considered more urgent subjects for representation. These strings of anti-moments skirt around the story of the conflict, which is, in many ways, told by not being told in the conventional narrative style […] the story of the Palestinians is present by virtue of its narrative absence. (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)
This piece of writing is key to why I’m so fascinated by this essay, Elia Suleiman’s films and Palestinian cinema in general. The way in which Suleiman uses this negative space to highlight “the presence of something by recording its supposed absence (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)” is a crucial concept which is particularly pertinent to Palestine (as oppose to the wider Middle East) because Palestinians “are considered by an Israeli law as “present-absentees” (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)”.
Suleiman layers this concept so heavily into his films that it doesn’t just appear in their structure, but in the content itself. In Chronicle of a Disappearance, Suleiman writes a scene in which Israeli security break into his house, but act like he doesn’t exist. The audience is unsure whether Suleiman is really there or if it’s another surrealist nod to his role as creator and director of this cinematic world. It’s only later, when we hear the police discussing the raid over the walkie-talkie that we realise that he was there, he just wasn’t of any importance to the Israelis:
Crow to One: two front doors, four doors, four windows, a balcony, a fan, a phone, a picture with a hen, four seats…old wooden chairs, a computer, a stereo, a desk, two wicker armchairs, a Japanese textbook, a painting with tulips, a white painting, Sonallah Ibrahim…Carver, Karl Kraus, a fishing kit, Mustapha Qamar, Samira Said, Raghib Alama, nylon curtains, a guy in pyjamas. Over. (Suleiman, 1996)
Writing about this scene, Abu-Remaileh notes its irony:
Suleiman sets up the equivalent of a visual pun on the Zionist slogan of “a land without a people for a people without a land” in the comic raid scene, where Israeli policemen break into [Suleiman’s] Jerusalem flat but do not seem to notice him. In their assignment report the Israeli policemen seem more interested in [his] property than him. (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)
Despite this highly political viewpoint, Abu-Remaileh finds that Suleiman is not interested in creating a national identity for Palestine through his films:
Suleiman’s films seek a return in terms of filmmaking to a fresh canvas where characters, images and scenes of Palestinian and the Palestinians do not carry the burden of national representation. The representation of the nation or ideas of nationhood are not character-based in Suleiman’s films. There are no obvious correlations between characters and national tropes they might represent. (Abu-Remaileh, 2008)
Just as he declines to explore past and future, instead focusing rigidly on the present, Suleiman refuses to turn his characters into ciphers for Palestinian nationalism, instead presenting them as being as varied, unique and mundane as all of us. In this way he allows the reality of Palestinian life speak for itself. Suleiman uses fantasy, non-linearity and negative space to create something surreal; and in turn shows us a more realistic expression of Palestinian inner life than any documentary could.
Abu-Remaileh, R., (2008), Palestinian anti-narratives in the films of Elia Suleiman [online], Arab Media & Society, Available from: http://www.arabmediasociety.com/?article=670 [Accessed on 21 August 2016]
EUME, (2014), Refqa Abu-Remaileh [online], Europe in the Middle East – The Middle East in Europe, Available from: http://www.eume-berlin.de/en/fellows/vita/article/refqa-abu-remaileh.html [Accessed on 21 August 2016]
Suleiman, E., (1996), Chronicle of a Disappearance, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC)
Suleiman, E., (2002), Divine Intervention, Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen