Elia Suleiman’s sublime “The Time That Remains”

9 May 2011

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A scene from The Time That Remains

The Time That Remains: Chronicle of a Present Absentee is a beautiful, poetic and intimate look at the experience of Palestinians in Israel through the passionate and surrealist lens of writer-director-co-star Elia Suleiman.

Suleiman’s best work to date, the autobiographical film explores both the conquering of Palestine by the Zionist army and the development of Palestinians and Israelis into what former Jerusalem Deputy Mayor and author Meron Benvenisti called “intimate enemies.”

The Time That Remains opens at Ben Gurion International Airport with a frame looking backwards from a taxi’s trunk. The driver, picking Suleiman up to take him home to Nazareth, is framed by two posters stating “eretz acheret” — a different land. The “different land” has a few meanings throughout the film, especially the markedly divergent narratives of how Israelis and Palestinians view the changes to the country.

The taxi driver — noted Israeli actor Menashe Roy in a small but terrific role — laments the passing of “the old Israel.” “Where are the kibbutzim, the moshavim?” he asks. In leaving the infrastructure of Jewish Israel for that of Palestinian citizens, the driver becomes confused.

“We lost our way,” he says, “How do I get home?” Is he referring to the exchange of collectivism and solidarity (and ethnic cleansing) for neoliberalism and individualism (and apartheid) in Israeli society? Or does he mean that most Israeli Jews are unfamiliar with the areas of Israel where Palestinians are the majority? Likely both.

From that first scene, Suleiman declares himself a passenger in his own autobiography. But he’s not an impartial, detached observer. Suleiman imbues the film with the warmth of the family narrative, partially achieved through the suffusion of almost every scene with bright, vibrant colors. Through the stories told of his father Fuad (Saleh Bakri in a terrific minimalist performance) and mother and his own life, he is able to explore Palestinian life and society.

Present absentee

The “present absentee” was 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 — what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe — but remained within Israel’s boundaries after the 1949 armistice agreements were signed.

They were deprived of their lands and belongings and prevented from returning to their homes and villages. In the film the term is played with and developed in several ways. The present absentee is missing those parts from life — friends and family — that died or fled in 1948. One of Fuad’s friends, with whom he has a regular “spot” to drink tea and observe the city, is seen to take leave for Jordan “until things calm down.”

Another friend takes a different exit after reading a reworked verse from Abdelrahim Mahmud’s 1937 poem “Shaheed,” or martyr. The latter moment is especially indicative of Sulieman’s creation here. Only 15 minutes into the film, the combination of a brief, terrific performance, a memorable poem and Suleiman’s pitch perfect choreography and framing produce a moment that is incredibly moving, sad and inspiring without even getting to know the character involved. It’s a remarkable scene and one demonstrating a way in which Palestine became a “different land.”

Another “different land,” Sulieman observes, is the product of more than six decades of settler-colonial rule over Palestinian citizens of Israel. His family has a Filipina caregiver for his elderly mother, much like some Israeli Jewish families. She even calls his mother “Ima,” Hebrew for “mom.”

The caregiver’s relationship is one of deep intimacy and sympathy with both her Ima and with other Palestinians, including one from the West Bank town of Jenin, whom she defends (in both Arabic and English) against a Nazareth policeman who threatens to arrest the young man.

The scene illuminates a conscious similarity of status between migrants, non-Palestinian refugees and Palestinian citizens of Israel. They are all considered demographic threats by Israel, but not are so easily deported as the migrants and Palestinians from the occupied West Bank who cross into Israel for work.

The occupation’s legacy continues as Suleiman ventures into Ramallah. The Ramallah bourgeoisie chat away about nonsense while the occupation’s cannons keep them targeted. Here the colonial rule is accepted as part of the normal context. In another scene, Ramallah club-goers dance obliviously while an Israeli jeep calls for curfew outside the door and the soldiers bob their heads to the music. Israel’s colonial rule has become part of the everyday life.

Surrealism and sumoud

But Suleiman demonstrates Palestinian steadfastness (sumoud) whereby social and cultural action and resistance continue despite the harshness of the occupation. This is best illustrated in the repeated fishing scenes. Israeli security forces interrupt Fuad and a friend’s night fishing in a ritual of identification and power that eventually becomes unspoken entirely.

In his acclaimed 2002 film Divine Intervention, Suleiman memorably showed a young Palestinian boy using a peach pit to blow up a tank. In The Time That Remains, Suleiman’s surrealist imagery finds him pole vaulting over Israel’s wall in the West Bank.

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.

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.

The Time That Remains is, with the exception of one short rolling steadicam shot, entirely filmed in still frames through which action moves, rather than a camera following the action. Each frame is a set piece and the action is intricately choreographed. The choreography is used to amazing effect such as in a scene where the mayor of Nazareth signs the document of the 1949 surrender.

His entry, physical placement in each frame and movement throughout the scene are fascinating to watch, as are the positions of the other performers and how they interact with his space. It leads to a bitterly funny scene in which a military photographer thrusts his rear in the faces of the gathered Nazarene dignitaries while bending over to take a picture of the Israelis who captured Nazareth.

The Time That Remains is a deeply funny, deeply heartfelt and deeply outraged film that is nothing short of a masterpiece. Suleiman has built upon and surpassed Divine Intervention’s surrealist, poetic and light-on-dialogue style that is sure to be a staple of Palestinian cinema and contemporary film more widely.

Each scene is finely crafted, from the way a blindfolded Fuad looks around and takes in the beautiful Galilee scenery to the very funny and surprisingly moving and intimate karaoke version of the theme song from Titanic. Housekeepers and raiding police, both at the same time and decades apart, criss-cross the Suleiman house in identical patterns. In English, Hebrew and Arabic, Suleiman plays with language and identity to create an amalgamated humanity that struggles brilliantly in trying circumstances. It simply must be seen, and experienced.

Jimmy Johnson is the founder of Neged Neshek, a project documenting the Israeli arms trade and militarism. He lives in Detroit and can be reached at jimmy [at] negedneshek [dot] org.