“A different kind of occupation”: an interview with Elia Suleiman

Elia Suleiman (Sabah Haider)

Nazareth-born filmmaker Elia Suleiman is one of the darlings of Cannes and stands out from the pack of contemporary Palestinian filmmakers for his unique style of filmmaking based on sewing together a series vignettes, silence — an emphasis on visual storytelling versus dialogue, and deadpan comedy found in often grim humor in the lives of everyday people living under the tyranny of what he calls a “pathetic occupation.”

Suleiman’s latest film, The Time That Remains (2009), which premiered at the last Cannes Film Festival, marks the end of what has been described as his “Palestinian film trilogy,” beginning with Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996); the much-acclaimed Divine Intervention (2002) which was Palestine’s official submission to the Academy Awards that year (but denied entry because “Palestine is not a country” — although the following year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences reneged and accepted it as a submission from the “Palestinian Authority”); and concluding with The Time That Remains. The Time That Remains broke the French box office’s top ten list last summer and has garnered much acclaim on the festival circuit. The Electronic Intifada contributor Sabah Haider interviewed Elia Suleiman and discussed a broad range of topics from his new film to the human experience and the quest for justice in this world.

Sabah Haider: The title of your new film is The Time That Remains. How would you explain the title; time is running out for what?

Elia Suleiman: I would say that the title is a warning sign. I cannot say that the time is running out — I don’t have authority over time. I can say that it’s a warning sign about a certain feel of the experience that we, whoever we are, might be living. The Time That Remains is a sense of my feeling, I feel it might be the feelings of others — it’s a warning sign regarding a global situation.

SH: What warning are you communicating?

ES: Of things running out. Of time running out. Of the fact that maybe it’s already too late. From the melting ice to the cleansing of any form of justice.

SH: Is the Arab-Israeli conflict is a microcosm of this?

ES: Yes, I used to use exactly that saying. Yes you could, if you want, definitely one keeps on rephrasing. Now I see that we have gone a step further. In my opinion I think that this microcosm is everywhere, so I don’t know if the microcosm of the Arab-Israeli conflict is a reflection of the world, or if the world is a microcosm of Palestine.

There is a microcosm everywhere of every conflict, every centimeter that we are now traveling. I do not believe that there is one microcosm to reflect the world, because every place in the world has become a microcosm of its own conflict.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is the world’s conflict and vice-versa, so I don’t know what is a microcosm of what anymore, because globally, Palestine has multiplied and generated into so many Palestines. Because I feel if you go to Peru, you will find Palestine in a grave state there too.

SH: Are you referring to the fragmented Diaspora?

ES: I’m not talking about Palestinians. I’m talking about all conflicts and all regressions and all pollutions and the [global economic] crash, and globalization. In fact, The Time That Remains is not at all a metaphor of Palestine. Not at all.

SH: Is the Arab-Israeli conflict a symbol of the degeneration of society?

ES: I’m not saying anything about the Arab-Israeli conflict, see what I mean? I do not make a film in order to talk about the Arab-Israeli conflict. In fact, the phrase the Arab-Israeli conflict does not even belong in my dictionary — at all. I only reflect and sponge and experience, and that happens to be as a Palestinian Diasporic — or everyday reality. An occupation of some sorts. A different kind of an occupation. An occupation of the geography of Palestine, and an occupation of the souls of those who live there.

This is a reality that is being experienced everywhere in the world, and not necessarily just Palestinians. I’m saying it’s an experience that can be identified with everywhere in the world. We live in a place called “the globe” today that has a multiplicity of experiences in it. My films do not talk about Palestine necessarily. They are Palestine because I am from that place — I reflect my experience, but in identification with all the Palestines that exist. The word “Arab-Israeli conflict” is alien to me in terms of the poetics of the word. I don’t think my film is about that altogether.

SH: Can you explain your view that Palestine represents all of the conflicts of the world?

ES: I think there is an identification. Look, when you are an artist, you should have faith that first of all your experience is not local; it is a universal experience. That’s one. When you compose an image you should never think about the boundaries of that image. But should this image exist in one locale, it should transgress the boundaries of that locale. So that means that if an Uruguayan is watching my film, and has an identification with the story of Fouad in the film, then this is where I believe I have traveled an experience, a universality of some sort, which I think cinema is up for. So this is not about molding or summing up an experience located in Palestine. This is about all the experiences that can be conceptually, Palestinian-ally, called so.

When I make a film, I do not have any impulse, when I’m composing an image, of raising the consciousness of the world about Palestine. If, by de facto, the spectator feels an identification to the story of Palestine, that is when I’ll be achieving something. And if they go home and change a certain something to the better of the world, in their own locale, then they have been in my opinion, I would say, very pro-Palestinian.

If they took pleasure when watching the film, and went home and had a kind of positivity or an intuition or desire to aestheticize their dinner table, they have, as far as I’m concerned, went a step further to becoming pro-Palestinian. I will not even believe that if they went and started to demonstrate, that this would be an achievement for me. I think each individual, when they watch a film of mine, that when it will be flattering me is when they have certain impulses of a positive construction, of a better life of their own. As individuals, and as communities, and that is for me then, a pro-Palestinian experience.

SH: The term “Palestinian cinema” is not just used to describe the films made by Palestinian filmmakers, but it’s now used describe films that represent a Palestinian perspective.

ES: I don’t know what that is. What is a Palestinian perspective?

SH: Contemporary films that tell of Palestinian experiences — would you say these films construct a national identity for the fragmented Diaspora?

ES: Certainly not mine. Personally, I do not adhere to Palestinian national identity. I may adhere to an identification, but not an identity. The experience of my films do not construct or adhere to what an identity can be defined as. Expulsion? Expulsion is shared by so many histories. A kuffiyeh? A kuffiyeh became a political symbol in intifada times. Some cynics might have been right in defining a counter-effect to an occupation.

Look at who actually constructs national identities in the world — not necessarily those who are under occupation, but those who are into occupation. Take for example, Israel, who even goes to steal the falafel to make that part of their national identity. What is the force behind that sort of pathetic, obsessive search for any form of a national identity in Israel? More occupation? Definitely. More expansion. Definitely. First it was the falafel, then it became the hummus. I think they’re absolutely pathetic.

Why do we have to run after what is by de facto part of our culture — food or embroidery or kuffiyehs — and why do we have to overemphasize dancing dabke as if this symbolizes that the land is ours, but simply beating it? I do not believe in those things. If there was to be any such thing as a national identity with an identification of that, I think then I would say it has to be so elastic it would never have to be within any static borders.

Because if we start to say that “this is us, until here, and the rest is them or other” that means we have put ourselves into our own ghetto and nailed ourselves to the ground, while if our national identity is expansive in terms of the seduction and pleasure of being others, then our national identity can enhance so much of the world’s experience.

I said it a long time ago — if, for the sake of strategy, and only if, I would be fighting today in sympathy of the Palestinian people to have an independent state, what does that mean? Am I such a lover of any kind of statehood? Do I so much admire any kind of police force, government and institutionalized powers? It is only so that the Israeli tank leaves the doorsteps of the school where the children are entering. Why a state, then? Why raise a flag? Only because it’s a symbol of the freedom that the Palestinians are trying to attain.

Lets say that the Palestinian state raised the flag, it built the borders, and we had a certain amount of freedom, a certain amount of less oppression — what if this state is not necessarily the kind of state we’d adhere to, in terms of justice and democracy, even though it achieved a liberation of some sort? Will I still be supporting a Palestinian state? No I will not. If it becomes another oppressive authority, I will be fighting it nonetheless. I will be fighting to lower the flag. In fact I said once, if this is one strategy, I will be fighting until the flag has risen. But then I will be fighting to lower that flag again, because I do not believe — nor in flags, nor in linear identities. I believe in multiplicities of and diversities of cultures. So I am not for a two state solution. I never had compassion for this sort of idea. Not only that, but the fact that politically, socially, humanly, morally, it’s not just.

SH: Your films focus on a loss of hope and of melancholy resignation. Do they represent a loss of hope that exists within the Palestinian community, both under occupation and in the Diaspora?

ES: I think by de facto, that the very act of the making of a film, is an act emerging from hope. So questions that surround hopelessness are in contradiction to the actual fact that there is a film. If I was hopeless, I would not have made a film entitled The Time That Remains, so I don’t think that this question applies to my being, because I think that there is hope. There is only hope. Otherwise I wouldn’t be making films. I’m not in a post-apocalypse ambience. We’re not sitting with … gas masks.

The Time That Remains is a kind of warning about the regression of the status quo, or the regression of the state of things. You warn because there is hope. And when you compose an aesthetic image, the pleasure is not morbid. I’m not living in a ghostly ambience. It is based in only hope. I can tell you at the same time that the space of this form of reflexivity, of meditation of pleasure, of the positivity to destabilize the authorities that are aggressing [against] us; those who want any form of a better life is shrinking. We are not necessarily winning. We are only trying to arrest the regression, unfortunately. And the powers that are trying to shrink our aspiration for democracy are greater than our imagination.

SH: Of the films being made today that propel a counter Israeli perspective, do you feel they construct an efficient form of resistance?

ES: Are there works of art that form this form of resistance? Like my films? I think Palestinians are included, at the forefront, having to face the everyday reality of occupation and oppression. And still be able to, actually, with so little space and so little possibility, to express themselves aesthetically, they are definitely at the forefront. I don’t think they’re so particularly special in the aesthetic department. I think the total sum of aesthetic attempts everywhere, participate in the liberation of Palestine as well as the liberation of all occupations.

SH: So do you believe Palestinian cinema is a form of resistance?

ES: Not necessarily just Palestinian, but I think that cinema, a certain cinema, is a form of resistance. Especially when it is the habitat of a certain moral questioning; of a certain place and pleasure and inspiration of a certain democratic framing, it becomes a form of resistance evidently. The fact that we are trying, we are crossing the boundaries and transgressing these boundaries, we are also trying to communicate to others a form of resistance to stop the regression by itself — by de facto. Palestinian cinema, the term must be used precisely — because it can be used by our adversaries in order to lock us in. What’s the use? We know we are Palestinians.

SH: What is your opinion on cultural boycott? Do you support the academic and cultural boycott of Israel?

ES: I really started to have a process of self-evaluation and of defining and redefining this word … I see a lot of justice in the academic boycott in the historic moment that it is happening vis-a-vis what Israel has been doing lately. I think this is definitely an interesting move and an interesting [course of] action … It has destabilized the institution of Zionist practice somewhere, because really they are so obnoxious, the Israelis — the Israeli institution and the government. … I [do] have a problem with boycotts of anything, any time, when it starts to kill the good, the bad and the ugly. And this is the problem that I have been facing with some of these boycotts — not the academic one, by the way, because for some reason I have felt there is a lot more thought and strategy [in it] — and I have been in dialogue with some of the pioneers of this boycott, and I have discussed with them, what I would consider my reservations about it.

Sabah Haider is a Canadian journalist and filmmaker based in Beirut. She can be reached at sabafhaider A T gmail D O T com.