By Roger Sheety
In just three years the Toronto Palestine Film Festival, which was originally created in 2008 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Al-Nakba, has become a major cultural happening in a city bustling with such events. That it has succeeded so quickly is due entirely to the festival’s tireless organizers and volunteers, their vision and their determination to present films of the highest quality possible.
One such film is Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains: Chronicle of a Present Absentee which opened to a sold-out audience of over 800 at the October 2010 edition of the festival. Like few directors before him, the Nazareth-born Suleiman has been able to capture not just the tragedy but also the comedy and outright absurdity of Palestinians who were dispossessed while still living in their own homeland. Partly inspired by the private diaries of Suleiman’s father Fouad and his mother’s letters to family members who were forced to leave their own homes, The Time That Remains traces his own family history in four separate but interwoven episodes from the Nakba of 1948 to the present day.
The opening scene with Suleiman stepping into a taxi cab with his Israeli driver in the modern day is crucial as it subtly sets up both the nature of the conflict as well as the dialectic between the colonized and colonizer. Late at night on the way to Suleiman’s destination (presumably his home in Nazareth) the driver quickly gets lost as a rainstorm soon begins. Stricken with panic, the disoriented driver continually complains out loud to himself that he has never before seen these roads. Although at one point he asks the silent Suleiman behind him as to their whereabouts, he does not really ask him but rather speaks at him and through him as if he were not really there.
His panic increasing, the driver finally stops the car in the middle of the storm and calls the dispatcher for help. As his repeated attempts to reach the dispatcher fail, he keeps asking “Where am I? What is this place? How do I get home? Where am I?” This last question is repeated until it becomes an existential plea as the lost driver stares straight ahead with haunted eyes. All the while Suleiman sits in the back silently, partially hidden by shadows, calmly watching and waiting. For all their insistence on “Eretz Israel” as their homeland, Suleiman shows us that Israelis often seem out of place, unable to even negotiate the streets they drive on and unwilling or unable to ask directions or advice from the indigenous people they have conquered and pushed aside.
This theme of the displaced and confused colonizer is repeated much later and all throughout the film as Israeli soldiers are seen imprisoned within their own tanks and heavily armoured jeeps while Palestinians go about their business making plans on their cell phones and dancing in night clubs in Ramallah, comically ignoring the apparent threats and calls for curfew. Driving this point home is an often repeated scene with Fouad and his friend fishing at night while a jeep full of Israeli soldiers drive by time and again asking the same questions. Fouad, older and by now a former resistance fighter, is obviously being followed by the paranoid soldiers but he simply goes on with his daily life, raising a family and enjoying the things he loves most. As the soldiers ask the same banal questions about identification cards over and over again, Fouad and his friend, still facing the water and holding their fishing rods, look at each other in silent and smiling deadpan humour: they both know what the insecure soldiers refuse to believe—that Fouad’s days as a resistance fighter are long gone. Since nothing they can say will convince the soldiers otherwise, Fouad and his friend say nothing. Besides, why ruin such amusement?
A similar and even funnier moment reflecting the out-of-place mentality of the foreign conqueror occurs when Israeli authorities barge into Fouad’s home in the middle of the night. Betrayed by one of his friends who has joined the Israeli police, Fouad, his wife and young son calmly sit and wait as the authorities search his home looking for weapons, smashing his valuables in the process. Apparently discovering some incriminating evidence, an Israeli policeman brings back a plate full of “gunpowder” which, after merely glancing at it, Fouad’s former friend says in a completely straight-faced comic tone: “That’s burghul” (a whole grain common in much Arabic food).
This ironic and understated deadpan comedy is key to understanding Suleiman’s films. For instance, even when showing Zionist militias and gangs looting Palestinians’ homes in 1948, he moves the camera further back and carefully structures the scene. Thus the soldiers are seen calmly walking out of a recently emptied home with its various stolen treasures: furniture, paintings and clothes. One soldier then turns on a looted record player as his friends show him paintings and model clothes for his approval. As the camera pulls slowly back on this increasingly disturbing scene, this creates both an emotional distance and an objective horror with which anyone can empathize. The sheer awfulness of what is happening is all the more shocking as we realize that this admittedly dark comedy comes not from any positive human qualities at all but rather from some of the worst.
Equally as effective is Suleiman’s remarkable use of silence as both theme and metaphor. I have noticed that the silences in Suleiman’s films are often viewed negatively by western reviewers and are read as being symbolic of a kind of failure on the part of Palestinians. It is in fact quite the opposite. As with his use of dry, deadpan comedy, Suleiman’s silences are purposefully ironic and often stand for something else.
So in the death scene with Suleiman’s mother Nadia, one of the most moving I have ever seen, not a word is exchanged between them. As the dying Nadia lies in bed, she clutches in her hands a photo of her now long dead husband Fouad as he was (and as we knew him) in his younger days. As Suleiman reaches to see the photo, mother and son look at each other. Within that picture of his father, within that almost unbearably silent and seemingly timeless moment that passes between mother and son is encapsulated the whole history of Palestine and her people. Denied their land, their identity, their history, this silence alludes to that truth which is not spoken but is nevertheless understood: that living fully in the present moment, Palestinians know their land, their identity and their history.
Silence among Suleiman’s characters (including his own) also points to a knowledge which as yet is still beyond the understanding of most Israelis whose attitudes and ideological mindset tragically remains that of occupiers and colonizers; that despite everything, here Palestinians will stay. Beyond all else, however, Suleiman’s characters are fully fleshed human beings who despair at their dispossession, feel fear and yearning, tell outrageously funny jokes, and who sometimes betray each other but also forgive each other.
– Roger Sheety contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.