Smoke Without Fire

The Time That Remains (Suleiman, 2009) is the most powerful Palestinian film that I’ve watched thus far. It’s a semi-biographical film about Suleiman’s father’s experience of the Nakba, his own early childhood and his mother’s final days.

Such is Suleiman’s secret: he makes smoke without fire—calm, acrid, almost noiseless films on a subject that is never less than inflammatory. His method finds order in the madness. Not that you will ever mistake the slant of his sympathies. It’s just that his vision of suffering is so scrupulous, and so mercifully free of histrionics, that it crosses the battle line of the argument. (Guibert, 2011)

Suleiman uses a very specific visual style reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s work, a focus on symmetry and colour that embellishes his film’s surreal tone. There are also similarities between Suleiman’s and Anderson’s use of quirky humour to describe tragedy; Suleiman’s visual wit allows him to find “comedy in cruelty, and also the reverse (Scott, 2010)”. And to create “the joke that saddens (Guibert, 2011)”.

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But the surrealism serves a deeper purpose than simply allowing the director to explore tragic history without alienating his audience. It also, all to painfully, represents the bizarre alternate reality of Palestinian life:

The use of such imagery can be used to note the surreality of the “real world” where Palestinians regularly use simple instruments to conquer walls. The surreal can be juxtaposed against the political imagery of a massive and imposing concrete barrier and Suleiman’s pole vault triumphs over both the wall itself, as well as the idea of the wall. (Johnson, 2011)

The day to day life of Palestinians is suffused with a sense of surreality, an unspoken question of how can this even be happening to them, that the surrealism of Suleiman’s film seems less of an exaggeration and more like an allegory.

Another great, surreal scene finds the young Suleiman’s Nazareth primary school given an award for “first prize in the Hebrew singing competition.” This is proof, we are told, of Israel’s “willingness to pass on the values of democracy and equality to all our pupils.” The scene illustrates the “equality” that Palestinian citizens can aspire to, to gain favor for imitating Israeli Jews. Rather than the surreal being something unusual, it is the norm. The scene is of something that shouldn’t be but is, while the pole vaulting is something that isn’t but should be. These kinds of juxtapositions create surrealist film of the highest order. (Johnson, 2011)

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Despite Suleiman’s use of comedy and surrealism, the film is still very much grounded in reality. As with his previous work, he appears as himself, as a kind of silent witness to the events that he observes. And the element of truth is referenced in the film’s subtitle, Chronicles of a Present Absentee. (A present absentee is “a category of social sorting imposed on Palestinians who fled or were expelled from historic Palestine during the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 […] but remained within Israel’s boundaries after the 1949 armistice agreements were signed (Johnson, 2011)”.)

The passage of time and the idealisation of memory is referenced subtly through the slight change of style when the film reaches the apparent present. The colour grading becomes less obvious and the visuals lose some of their carefully choreographed symmetry. But time is more obviously rendered in the repetition that Suleiman creates in his narrative.

[Suleiman] is often linked with that of Jacques Tati, and the comparison is just, because what he borrows from Tati is a love of repetition and rite: Fuad and a friend, aging survivors, night-fishing on the coast, and swapping regular greetings with Israeli patrols; the loopy neighbor who keeps dousing his body in kerosene and failing, typically, to set himself alight; the street corner where, over sixty years, lounging locals hail a succession of passersby. (Guibert, 2011)

This cyclical nature is highlighted through Suleiman’s repeated use of specific camera setups; we’re shown several different scenes from the same point of view which adds to this sense of repetition. And as with Chronicle of a Disappearance (Suleiman, 1996) and Divine Intervention (Suleiman, 2002) there is also another layer of repetition, between his films. The most obvious example is his use of the same souvenir shop as a backdrop for scenes in The Time That Remains as he used 13 years earlier in Chronicle of a Disappearance.

A third type of repetition appears in Suleiman’s use of wide shots, especially in moments of conflict, which removes the personal and reminds the audience of the seemingly inexorable cycle of human conflict. These scenes could be happening in any number of places, at any number of times:

Take the great sequence in an olive grove, where a blindfolded Fuad kneels with other prisoners while a nun scuttles among them with a jug of water; we see him briefly, in closeup, with an Israeli gun to his head, but then we retreat to a long shot, staring past the trunks of trees, as he is kicked and slung over a wall. The only music is the whisper of leaves. At that distance, we could be watching a Jewish resistance fighter being interrogated by Arabs; it could be an Anthony Mann Western, with Jimmy Stewart hurt and humbled by surly ranchers; it could almost be a Brueghel, with one man in a throng of many, lost in a landscape, taking the pain. (Guibert, 2011)

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References

Guibert, E., (2011), Unhappy Days, The New Yorker, Available from: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/01/17/unhappy-days [Accessed on 10 December 2016]

Johnson, J., (2011), Elia Suleiman’s sublime “The Time That Remains” [online], The Electronic Intifada, Available from: electronicintifada.net/content/elia-suleimans-sublime-time-remains/9924 [Accessed on 10 December 2016]

Scott, A. O., (2010), The Time That Remains: Chronicles of a Present Absentee [online], New York Times, Available from: www.nytimes.com/movies/movie/450893/The-Time-That-Remains-Chronicles-of-a-Present-Absentee/overview [Accessed on 10 December 2016]

Suleiman, E., (1996), Chronicle of a Disappearance, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC)

Suleiman, E., (2002), Divine Intervention, Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen

Suleiman, E., (2009), The Time That Remains, France 3 Cinéma,

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