Elia Suleiman: The Power of Ridicule
Sitting in the Manhattan apartment and looking through the floor-to-ceiling window, I could clearly see the residential building across the street. It was lined from top to bottom and right to left in a symmetry of bricks and windows—a typical New York cityscape. As I gazed outward, I thought of cinematic framing. The night before, I had watched Homage by Assassination (1992) and Cyber Palestine (1999), two of director Elia Suleiman’s earlier films, and cinematic framing was on my mind. The windows across from me slowly transformed into dozens of individual cinema screens full of imagined static camera shots, the kind that literally border the action inside the frame. A father paced frame right to frame left and back again, cradling a sleeping child in his arms; an elderly woman turned toward her window and moved the curtains slightly to observe the street down below. I could easily imagine a backstory, a plotline, a character development, for each of the two figures framed in those windows. I broke out of my trance when Suleiman settled into the seat across from me to begin our interview.
It was a rainy Wednesday in spring when I sat down with Elia Suleiman for a two-hour conversation. We covered a broad range of topics—the financial woes of making a film, the Palestinian political and social scene, his artistic process, and his early inspiration. Suleiman and I also talked about his vision and evolution as a filmmaker, particularly the choices that inform how he structures his films, how his philosophy around image-making changes with each film, and how he develops his characters.
In his signature style, Suleiman choreographs action within static frames, giving the audience a sense that we are inside the scene, even though we are passively watching the action in the same way that his recurring semi autobiographical character, ES, does. Typically, the narrative of a Suleiman film is woven of a series of vignettes or tableaux, often slow-moving and mostly devoid of dialogue, rather than a linear plot. This was less true of his last feature-length film, The Time That Remains (2009), which tells the story of Nazareth in the wake of the 1948 Nakba and its aftermath. In his review for the New York Times, A.O. Scott called the film “a historical epic with none of the expected heaviness.” Truly, even as Suleiman recreates the events of Nazareth’s fall to Zionist forces in 1948, the violence he depicts is bloodless, an irony that is emblematic of his films. Sometimes, sharp sociopolitical critiques are cloaked in absurdist comedy, as in the scene where Nazareth’s mayor speeds through the Palestinian hillside on his way to sign a truce agreement with the Zionists. He and his passenger, who is holding the white flag of surrender out of the window, are momentarily blinded when the wind forces the flag against the windshield as they simultaneously dodge a menacing warplane swooping dangerously close to their car. Even on the path to surrender, Suleiman seems to say, those in authority accommodate the colonizer’s violence.
The Journal of Palestine Studies has conducted two interviews with Elia Suleiman in the past (see JPS 114 and 126) with the latter coming on the heels of his highly celebrated and acclaimed film, Divine Intervention, which garnered the Jury Prize and the International Critics’ Week Prize at the 55th Cannes Film Festival (2002). Since then, Suleiman has released The Time That Remains and Diary of a Beginner (2012), a short film set in Cuba. Part of the anthology film 7 Days in Havana, the stunning short depicts Suleiman’s own perspective on the island nation. In addition to talking about his past filmmaking, I inquired about his next project. Although he offered very little concrete information on the subject, he did give me a small glimpse into the process of its preparation. We also discussed Palestinian issues, because Suleiman’s films, after all, explore Palestine’s history, social dynamics, and political landscape.