Light Comes Through a Hole in the World: Palestinian film director Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains
The image transgresses the boundaries of its locale
The Time That Remains
Written and directed by Elia Suleiman
Production Designer Sharif Waked
Cinematographer Marc-Andre Batigne
Editor Veronique Lange
(Made in 2009), IFC, 2011
“Praise, praise be to life! You only asked belatedly: How many times did I die without noticing? Whenever you did notice, you devoured life like a peach, because there is not much time to fear the unknown as long as life, a feminine form, is too busy for the dead, always renewing its youth, depravation, and piety, in full view of the deprived.”
Mahmoud Darwish, In the Presence of Absence (Archipelago Books, New York; 47)
In Elia Suleiman’s film The Time That Remains, a work of succinct episodes, a brave and intelligent young man, Fuad Suleiman, an active part of the Palestinian resistance to Zionist invasion and occupation, is arrested and beaten, becomes a husband and father, and a machinist and nighttime fisherman, whose young son Elia begins to learn of the travails of local and international politics—young Palestinian children are rewarded for singing Hebrew songs of peace, transformation, and nationalism; and the boy Elia learns to attach words such as colonialist and imperialist to Israel’s great ally, America—and the boy sees his now pacifist father arrested for no reason, only suspicion, before he himself as a very young man runs afoul of authority (he is someone rumored to have torn the Israeli flag during a holiday commemorating the land; someone with socialist sympathies and thought to be part of a gang), and he is told to leave the country in twenty-four hours. There are elements of the life of writer-filmmaker and actor Elia Suleiman and his family in the motion picture. Elia Suleiman, the director of Divine Intervention (2002), Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996) and Homage by Assassination (1992), has made Palestinian existence a primary object of consideration in his expansive films, winning commendations for his distinctive work. Suleiman, who has lived in New York and Paris, is a film professor in the European Graduate School, and has taught in various colleges in different countries. Elia Suleiman, like Jesus Christ, was born in Nazareth, where The Time That Remains takes place. His film The Time That Remains is many things: a biography and a fiction, an absurd comedy and a political tragedy, an expression of imagination and a meditation on history. It is probably as conscious and as transcendent as any film with a political subject can be.
Yet it is possible to watch The Time That Remains and to feel as if one has received a true picture of Palestine. (What and where is Palestine? Geography, memory, dream?) In the film’s Nazareth the land and the homes are genuine, vivid, and evoke an eerie nostalgia even for someone who has not put his own foot down there. Its story is not predictable, not full of the usual calculations, and it is compelling. The sun-bleached, dry land with its groves of trees and hills, and the clean, cramped neighborhoods, and stony homes with simple but elegant furniture form a distinct and persuasive portrait. The colors of walls, furnishings, and clothes are usually simple, solid—blue, pink, brown, black, white, green. The people are alive there, on the land and in the streets and their homes, defending themselves against force and insult; and the people—whom we are not told are brave, intelligent, weak or mad as the case may be, though what they are is proven by their own acts—are often placed at the center of the film screen, a framing that might have seemed dull and static but does not. The motion picture, which moves from 1948, with the destruction of Palestine and the creation of Israel, through the 1970s and then picks up in more recent times, offers a lesson in how—through accuracy of detail and an accepting, knowing sensibility—to bring an alien theme close to a film viewer. In The Time That Remains, the film director returns to his first home, Nazareth, and is received by a driver who gets lost in a storm of lightning and rain, a natural event with metaphorical implication: low on gas, mystified by the blinding rain, the driver asks, “Where am I?” Elia Suleiman, the director himself, is in the backseat, silent: the Elia or ES character never speaks in the film—his consciousness is the entire film, so his speech is not necessary.
“Where am I?” Palestine was inhabited as the ancient land of Canaan, in the third millennium before the existence of Christ, and the people of Canaan are claimed as ancestors by today’s Palestinians; and the ancient Canaanites found violent opposition from Egyptians, and then the Hebrews, who first came from Mesopotamia. The Hebrew king David established his people there, but Palestine has been fought over and sometimes controlled by Philistines, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Muslims—and with Muslim control, beginning about six-hundred and thirty-eight years after Christ, there was a great deal of liberal prosperity. Muslim rule—from Damascus, Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey—lasted for thirteen centuries but for the brutal intervention of the Christian crusades, until things began to change with the 1897 Basle conference in Switzerland that advanced a plan for creating a Jewish nation in Palestine, where Jews were less than ten percent of the population. The Ottoman empire, which had incorporated Palestine—land that had come to include what is now Israel and Jordan—since the early sixteenth century, resisted that plan, but the Ottomans were defeated in the twentieth-century’s first world war, and the British took over Palestine and began to allow Jewish migration. Tel Aviv was founded in 1909. A 1922 British census found that the population in Palestine was 78 percent Muslim Arab, 9.6 percent Christian Arab, and 11 percent Jewish, for a grand total of 757, 182 people. The Palestinians tried petitions and economic boycotts to resist the Zionist movement. In 1937, a congress of Arabs from different countries was held in Syria in protest of the transformation of Palestine. Some of the Jews armed themselves and used terrorism to achieve their goals, claiming Palestine as theirs in 1948, calling it Israel. The Palestinian situation resonates with others whose sympathies are touched by the facts of disinheritance and injustice: in the Elia Suleiman film The Time That Remains, armed Palestinians sit outside a small café, while a single Iraqi soldier, apparently a volunteer in the Arab Liberation Army, goes back and forth—comically—looking for some place to liberate. The Israelis have a plane drop printed flyers on which the area’s defenders are called criminals. The victor begins to dictate the terms and texts of history.
In The Time That Remains, when in 1948 Nazareth’s mayor, one of Fuad Suleiman’s male elders, races through the dusty roads in a black car waving a white flag of peace and signs an agreement of surrender with an Israeli commander, the mayor is asked to participate in a confirming photograph and the photographer’s bottom fills the screen, a kiss-my-ass moment, the first but not the last. One Palestinian man—a handsome, scholarly type, someone who had been a fighter too—goes to where the Israeli soldiers are located and makes a speech about freedom and integrity before shooting himself in the head; an embodiment of Palestinian nobility and despair.
Experience can be brutal: accidents and incidents of nature, cruelty of word and deed, dispossession of property and money and life, and violence and war; and experience can leave us full of pain, anger, and vengeance, but it is more rare—and triumphant—when, through self-conscious effort and historical understanding, our response is one of humor and pleasure and even compassion. It is hard to think of a more absurd, treacherous, and painful situation than that of a people whose land has been stolen and history forgotten, but rather than a diminished mind and sensibility, the Palestinian film director Elia Suleiman has an expanded vision, a comprehensive, honest, and humorous vision, an intelligent and radical vision, a vision of genuine humanity. Suleiman has insisted, “The Time That Remains is not at all a metaphor of Palestine…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” (speaking to interviewer Sabah Haider for The Electronic Intifada, year 2010).
Elia Suleiman has spoken of how a film image should move beyond boundaries, and not be limited by locale: it should suggest what is beyond its borders, and it should resonate. Suleiman, resisting the small view, resisting clichés of linear narrative and sentiment, resisting rhetoric and sanctimony, gives the viewer a story of pain and power that could appear tedious but instead appears modern, fresh. Watching Suleiman’s work, I think of Jean-Luc Godard for its intellectual range and political topicality, but Suleiman—who has been influenced by John Berger, author of Ways of Seeing, and Edward Said, author of Orientalism, and the films of Robert Bresson, John Cassavetes, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Yasujiro Ozu—has been compared to Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton for his comedy and its rituals. Suleiman’s humor is dark and has depth and dignity but it is also contemporary and quick and one still laughs out loud. Hamid Dabashi, the editor of the book Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema (2006), has argued against a linear sense of history and affirmed the power of dreams, finding Elia Suleiman an artist-dreamer whose joyous and defiant cinema uses laughter and disbelief as tools with the potential to dismantle a master’s house of lies. The cinema of Elia Suleiman has received acclaim from prominent voices. Elia Suleiman “has an exquisite eye for the conflicts and contradictions that bedevil his native city, but he examines them without polemics or sentimentality. The Time That Remains has the scope of a historical epic with none of the expected heaviness. It presents a half-century of tragedy and turmoil as a series of mordant comic vignettes,” wrote Anthony Scott in The New York Times (January 6, 2011). Anthony Lane in The New Yorker picked up as well on the director’s “dangerously sane, Tolstoyan grasp of those points at which a small world intersects with the wider one” (January 17, 2011). It is sad to think that a film such as The Time That Remains is more likely to be seen by people of privilege rather than those—young, deprived Native Americans, African-Americans, and Hispanic-Americans, as well as Arabs; and other people in different parts of the world who have felt the disfiguring hand of power—who might need most to see its liberating, truthful example.
Following the war of 1948, in The Time That Remains Fuad Suleiman (Saleh Bakri, a slim, subtle, thoughtful actor, first worried-looking then beautiful), whose mechanical skills have been used to make guns for local Palestinians, considers leaving town, as many—among them Fuad’s girlfriend—are packing up to leave for Jordan. Fuad and his cousin help a wounded man lying in the street to find shelter in an abandoned home, placing him on a bed, and the man describes traveling and finding the Israeli army in each town in which he arrives; a direct, efficient way for the audience, as well as the two cousins, to learn of the overwhelming Israeli victory. Unfortunately, Fuad’s cousin is captured and through him the soldiers find Fuad; and, while a nearby nun brings water to captured, bound, and kneeling men, Fuad is blindfolded and threatened with being shot but refuses to disclose the location of the local gun stash, a refusal for which Fuad is beaten viciously within a beautiful copse of trees, the hills in the distance.
Time passes; and Fuad is married, and his wife (first played by Samar Qudha Tanus, then by Shafika Bajjali) writes to relatives about their lives—including her husband’s recovery from the beating, her son Elia’s daydreaming, and an aunt, Fuad’s sister Olga, who is losing her vision (Olga imagines she sees their sister Nadia on television at prestigious events in Jordan, an illusion inspired by loss as much as bad eyesight). Regularly, Fuad is asked to attend to a drunken neighbor who moans about his circumscribed life and conjures far-fetched political responses and douses himself with kerosene with the articulated intention of lighting himself on fire. It is a comic moment, but suggests the anxiety of a Palestinian mind. Fuad seems better adjusted: Fuad, after hearing a report of Abdel Nasser’s comment about Israeli occupation of Arab lands and refusal to negotiate, is on his way to Tel Aviv to buy lathe shop parts, and Fuad is stopped at a bridge where an Israeli soldier has had an immobilizing accident—and Fuad helps the soldier, possibly saving his life.
Anwar Sadat announces Nasser’s death in 1970, and a funeral procession is televised, watched by Fuad and listened to by his wife, with tears in her eyes, as she washes dishes: history occurs, and the brave Fuad is more an observer than a maker of history. Fuad and his chubby friend fish at night in Israeli territory, and are regularly interrupted by Israeli guards, who first welcome them after asking about their papers, then become suspicious: apparently pleasure is suspect too. The charge is raised that Fuad may be smuggling arms from Lebanon by sea. Some of the film’s comedy is quite idiosyncratic, and not particularly political: young Elia’s Aunt Olga (Isabelle Ramadan), a teacher, shows her class Spartacus, a film story of rebellion and love. After a scene of Spartacus encouraging his people to battle, Spartacus has a romantic scene in which he declares his interest in “knowing” a woman, and touches and kisses that woman; and the teaching aunt tells the children that Spartacus is like the woman’s brother—which seems a confusing moral absurdity. Elsewhere and later, one Palestinian man is erotically excited by Israel’s female soldiers and gets his wife to dress as one, with his wife waiting to be picked up by him at a bus stop, a sexual fantasy—but his uniformed wife goes off with another man. However, in a scene in which a boy walks through town offering newspapers—“The Nation for one shekel, All the Arabs for free”—the boy’s loud announcement could be metaphorical, especially when he realizes there is no more of The Nation.
The filmmaker Elia Suleiman’s comic sensibility may have been shaped by the comedy and sadness he found in his own family, and the surrounding community. “I had a very funny family. My father was a humorous person, talented, he sang and listened to music all the time. I learned from him all the classical Arabic singers,” Elia Suleiman told Filmmaker magazine’s Damon Smith (January 5, 2011), recounting that while his peasant mother was loving but rough, his father was more of a friend, which may be why the presentation of Fuad is very attractive. Elia Suleiman admitted that he had wanted to make a film like The Time That Remains sooner, but did not feel mature enough and that such a film, both family and social portrait, a balance of the real and the imagined, requires more of the self than usual and is exhausting to make.
Suleiman’s style does not ask for pity or rage. It is more likely to inspire contemplation, amusement, and great dismay. The lack of predictable emotional calculation and insistence may be confusing for some. “Perhaps Suleiman’s experiences were too painful for him to depict with full emotion, but his reticence has the effect of never truly involving the viewer,” surmises writer David Noh, after finding the film’s perspective—its humor and the camera long shots—too distancing (Film Journal International, January 7, 2011). One might wonder of what use emotion and rhetoric and war have been; or if director Suleiman is sparing the film viewer, rather than himself, intolerable pain? One can conclude that Elia Suleiman is trying a different strategy. “Bakri is a handsome, virile presence, but we never really see what makes him tick,” asserts David Noh of the lead character Fuad as played by Saleh Bakri. Noh seems to have expected manifesto and melodrama, complaining that no explanation is given for the lead character’s transformation from revolutionary to fisherman, as if being subjected to political oppression and physical brutality were not enough.
In The Time That Remains, Fuad fought when he thought victory was possible; and he, apparently, maintains his political consciousness—where else would his very young son learn to call America a colonial power? The father is idealistic but intelligent and pragmatic. Other film viewers (Filmmaker, New Yorker) have commented on the film’s sense of ritual; and ES traveling in the film is one repeated thing, as are the scenes of the boy Elia (Zuhair Abu Hanna) throwing out his Aunt Olga’s offering of cooked lentils or being reprimanded for calling America imperialist, or his father Fuad’s stopping the mad neighbor from igniting himself or the father’s own night-fishing with a friend. Those suggest life patterns, patterns of meaning: exile and return, gratitude for kindness checked by personal taste, guileless awareness, social concern, and the seeking of pleasure. History, and the politics at its center, is only one part of life.
Ideologues may not see where politics stop, but others do. Near the end of the film, an ambulance arrives at a hospital with an injured man. Following behind is a vehicle of soldiers, who go into the hospital to retrieve the injured man—and when a medical worker intervenes, we see the gurney moving back and forth—and a soldier shoots the healer. The forces of killing and healing and their opposition are clear, and comic for the relentless absurdity. Elia, as a young man (Ayman Espanioli), picks up his father Fuad from that same hospital, and drives to a pharmacy to fill a prescription—and inside the pharmacy, Elia looks at his father in the car, his father listening to the music on the radio and falling asleep, and it is clear that Elia has a premonition of his father’s death.
The middle-age ES returns from exile, dressed in dark clothes with a white scarf around his neck and white streak in his hair, weary, fey, sophisticated. The film director as ES is a silent witness, an angel of conscience, a fool of history: “He is a hole, a void, an absence, a vacancy, a subtraction, a negation a nullity. Very strange—very strangely, he makes sense: in Palestine, now standing for the world that all Arabs and all Muslims inhabit, a world frozen at all the moments of its incredulities,” asserts film professor Hamid Dabashi in Al Jazeera, April 17, 2012. In the film, presumably after the rain storm and stalled taxi, ES arrives during an evening, and takes a key from beneath a potted plant and enters the family apartment, where a Christmas tree’s lights are blinking. A man in uniform knocks on the apartment door—and ES, wary of policemen, hesitates to answer; and when ES does open the door, the uniformed man hands him a bowl of tabbouleh, made the way ES likes it, a welcome home offering.
The uniformed man is someone who helps an Asian woman health-care aide take care of ES’s old, diabetic mother and her apartment: and, a man, with a gun and hand cuffs, mopping the floor and washing dishes and talking about local drug wars and stolen sheep is an unexpected hoot. ES’s mother seems quiet, either watching television or the street, or reflecting on her memories; and she has a dangerous taste for ice cream, which raises her blood sugar. ES plays a dodge and touch game with his mother’s arm, and plays recorded rhythmic music that she enjoys. ES meets his old male friends—who slap then kiss him: are the slaps for leaving, and the kisses for returning? A walking young man passes the group of friends outside a café, and waves at them and at absent presences on the street, seeming a mockery of supposed fellowship (or maybe an acknowledgment of those who have not returned). The film contains a great deal of information, partly because it does not stop to explain: for instance, we—the film audience—are not told these Palestinians are Christians, but the nun giving water, the apartment Christmas tree, and a clay painted figure of Jesus’s mother indicate that. Nor are we told of what relationship the mother’s male and female caregivers bear to each other—friends, lovers, or mere coworkers?—though we can hear and see how well they work together, and his devotion, and her acceptable bossiness.
We, the film audience, see a little of the surrounding life, such as the livery vans that pick up people along a route from Nazareth to Ramallah, each rider contributing a small fare to make one significant fare for the driver. In the vehicle is a confident, long-haired young woman who looks quite interesting, a modern presence; and there is a story of Palestinian women that this film does not tell, though that story is suggested at the beginning of the motion picture with a Nazareth woman who welcomes what she mistakenly supposes are a group Palestinian soldiers, and before the film’s close, in Ramallah, a woman who tells Israeli soldiers to go home. We do see military fighting in the streets and young people dancing, joyfully, sensuously, in a Ramallah nightclub, defying an imposed curfew. One soldier issuing a warning about the curfew begins to move to the music’s rhythm.
The pleasure of the young dancers is an affirmation of the free moment, of musical art and youth and sensuality and self and living in the present; and proof that pleasure can exist on the same plane as pain and power, as balance and refutation. It suggests that impulse and pleasure and personal preference can lead to one form of freedom. Our preferences have different roots and branches and do not always lead to freedom or self-affirmation, of course: some prefer institutional power to individual liberty, and obligation to choice. Our preferences can be absolute or partial, inspired by thought or feeling, spoken or silent in courage or cowardice. I may prefer solitude to company, friendship to romance, civilization to barbarism, and knowledge to ignorance, but who knows all that means to me? Who knows that I prefer the solidarity of ideas and virtues, rather than the associations of class, gender, sexuality, skin color, and religion? Who knows that I may like film, music, and literature, but that I prefer films to music, and books to film? It is the individual mind and spirit that power—institutional power, communal power—is forever trying to disguise and dismiss. “You check all your body parts and say: I am myself. They say: Where is the proof? You say: I am. They say: We need lack. So you say: I am at once perfection and lack,” observed the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, In the Presence of Absence (Archipelago Books; 13).
The pleasure of the young dancers in The Time That Remains is theirs—they could have been at home or work, mosque or church, but they chose dance. Our preferences can be a form of resistance: and thus, out of pleasure and self-affirmation and truth, I can assert a preference of city over country and multiculturalism over any monoculture, and a preference for Plato rather than Jesus and an appreciation of Buddhism above Christianity. I prefer speculative philosophy to rigid doctrine and ideology, and complexity and elegance to simplicity. I can appreciate both Henry James and Mark Twain, but I prefer Henry James to Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway, and Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin to Amiri Baraka and Ishmael Reed. My preferences may matter to no one but me, but they are mine—the observations of experience, the residue of contemplation: and thus, though I admire both Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde I prefer Rich to Lorde, and Toni Morrison to Don DeLillo, Albert Murray, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, John Updike, and Alice Walker; and I like wine rather than beer, and tea more than coffee, and prefer New York to New Orleans, walking to driving, and W. E. B. DuBois to Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey. My preferences are part of my sensibility, what I take with me into the cinema, the library, the store, the office, the voting booth, the club, and the street. I respect the attempt to put ideals into practice above the achievement of power, popularity, and profit. I prefer Lyndon B. Johnson to John F. Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama to all of them. I prefer enlightenment touched by delight. I like painting and sculpture, French film, Afghan and Indian food. I prefer Garbo to Dietrich and Hepburn, and Clift to Brando and Dean; and Terrence Malick to Steven Spielberg, and Julie Dash and Kasi Lemmons to Spike Lee and John Singleton. I prefer Pauline Kael to Andrew Sarris and my own perceptions to both. I prefer the Rolling Stones to the Beatles, and Diana Ross to Aretha Franklin. I prefer jazz and rock, as well as the traditional music of Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America, to hip-hop. I prefer today to yesterday, and tomorrow to today; and I prefer the difficult facts of Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains to a happier ignorance.
The pleasure of the young dancers in The Time That Remains is an interlude, as pleasure often is—for them, for us. When in the film ES visits his mother in the hospital, a statue of the Virgin Mary near the window and a photograph of her husband in her hand, we catch additional glimpses of ordinary life—of men fighting and getting in trouble, of a pregnant woman, of two men who mediated a quarrel between two families only to resolve the dispute and have those families turn on the mediators, and of an arrested man who compels a policeman’s obedience by virtue of attitude, strength, and their shared hand cuffs. Those scenes of strangers return us to a larger, mundane world. Elia Suleiman has evolved a form that allows for consciousness and memory and the sometimes elusive experiences of the present, for the personal and the historical: focused on what people think, feel, and do, The Time That Remains is an intimate film with epic resonance, beyond the particulars of the Palestinian situation. It is beautiful, thoughtful, invigorating.
Elia Suleiman has created beauty and order—the aesthetic—within the chaos of the real, against cruelty, against ignorance, against ugliness, bringing forth experience and ideas; and it may be knowledge many of us can get in no other way. The morality of The Time That Remains is not imposed on the film viewer but found by him or her within the details (one of the most striking scenes is of Fuad in 1948 observing Israeli soldiers going through the contents of an abandoned Palestinian home, and coming out with things—a music player, furniture, linen—they want to keep: stealing). For much of the world, for the longest time, religion—not art, not science—has been the source of education and morality, the source of identity and ways of living, a fact that gives ideas and values established in primitive times great power. The competition and contrast among religions have affected the development of societies, the history of the world. There is no doubt that Jews, a desert people, a cosmopolitan people, a people of the book and the gun, have suffered: the centuries are full of stories of the disparagement, exclusion, persecution, and violence with which Jews were treated in England, Europe, Russia, and even America. Yet, rather than widen the doors of knowledge and tolerance in different countries, in Christian countries, working to eliminate ignorance and prejudice, western powers chose to send the Jews outside their borders: to Palestine, a catastrophe for Palestinians. With the transformation of Palestine into Israel, claims began to be made that there had been no Palestine, and no Palestinian people. Is The Time That Remains a miracle: a work of art about invisible people, made by someone who does not exist?
Where there was a myth, Elia Suleiman has placed a life, and where there was a lie he has placed a truth. “Do not search for the Canaanite in you to prove that you exist. Grasp your own reality and grasp your name and learn how to spell out the evidence,” advised the distinguished Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in his prose poem In the Presence of Absence (Archipelago Books; 31). Elia Suleiman, giving evidence as a series of images, has told a personal and unique story in The Time That Remains, a work that sees the whole beyond the parts and encourages independent thought. Suleiman, who has described art and laughter and love as forces and forms of resistance, has not made a work that speaks of freedom as much as one that embodies it. He has surmounted a significant challenge and fulfilled a great purpose. “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,” observed The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane (January 17, 2011). Elia Suleiman is an artist of Palestine and a citizen of the world; and his work belongs to anyone sensitive enough to claim it. “Film transgresses borders and checkpoints, so how come we need to have a national cinema?” asked Suleiman when speaking with Damon Smith of Filmmaker magazine (January 5, 2011). In that conversation Suleiman mentioned a Leonard Cohen song that states, “There is a hole in the world, but that’s where the light comes through.”
(Essay submitted September 2012)