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about the writer

Yvette Biro is an essayist, screenwriter, and Professor Emeritus at New York University Graduate Film School. Her recent scripts include Delta (FIPRESCI Prize, Cannes 2008) and Tender Son (2010) by Kornél Mundruczó.

Tormenting Fragments, Mocking, Melancholy Whole:
Elia Suleiman's The Time That Remains
By Yvette Biro

The Time That Remains
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Half a century of unresolved conflicts and tensions have inspired this "chronicle of love and pain." Only Elia Suleiman's deeply personal and wry wisdom could have resulted in this overwhelmingly rich, multi-faceted film, dedicated to the memory of his mother and father. The Time That Remains (2009) speaks about the author's "absence-presence" — in Suleiman's own words — the constraint of meandering through enduring times, without the illusion of a settling end. Being nowhere, meaning elsewhere, as if he was there — or, on the contrary, being there but as if he wasn't.

Suleiman seems to need to reckon with the bewildering fluctuations, the physical and emotional weight of the historical times by which his family and people have been afflicted. During long decades, starting with the establishing of the Israeli state in 1948, till our recent days, he keeps wandering and observing — no wonder that this is not a simple sentimental journey. Facing the relentless alterations of a painful and incalculable course requires both temper and sobriety, a wry insight and sense for the absurd — a truly particular point of view, which fortunately, our director has sensibly found.

Elia Suleiman was born in Nazareth, twelve years after the new order, in 1960. Being an Israeli Palestinian has remained a lasting antinomy. As he obviously was a subversive young man, he soon decided to move away, first to London, New York, Paris, later to Jerusalem, and ever since, somewhere in one or another of these cities. This movie is based on his father's scattered notes, his mother's family letters to family members who moved away, and later, on some personal experiences as well. So much so that he doesn't recoil from entering into the film in person with his unique, weird, deliberately ghostlike personality. The last part shows him passing through various places in the "territory" like a ghost. He goes to the old house, watching, from a distance, unknown people looking after his ailing mother; then to his regular café to sit with his friends from before; and finally to the hospital in Ramallah. He doesn't speak, doesn't act, frames himself as a frozen pawn in the very middle of what is happening. He dares to present this life in its most mechanically chaotic orderliness, in the everyday routine, revealing the absurd, grotesque nature, making it laughable both with and despite the losses and ruined lives. It appears that the mundane existence is livable, although it provides moments of derisory, ludicrous sadness.

Suleiman has created an unparalleled tone for this evocation. Deadpan, varied, mixing tragedy and comical presentation, it leads us to understand that despite defeat and death, life remains to live. Suffering, compromising resignation, and resistance are parts of its flow. The more excessive and precise the chosen angle of the depiction, the more telling its ambivalence will be.

Repetitions only reinforce the humorous pettiness of the details — such as being called in by the headmaster three times, at different ages, in order to listen to his scolding. For what? For daring to say that America is an imperialist country. Are we in the former Soviet Union, where love and hatred were officially proscribed, and therefore only one kind of opinion could be acceptable? Did this child's words cause any harm? Humor, too, in showing a formal celebration in the primary school, where the Arab children get distinction for having performed a patriotic Israeli song so impeccably… Then again, after seeing them enjoy Kubrick's Spartacus, the real hero of a nation's liberation! Whose nation? The Israeli nation that couldn't be identical with theirs!?… Later we repeatedly meet a fishing pair (arm traffickers!) who are fishing! (his father is one of them) as they easily outwit the patrol car, and go on with their secret, dangerous business… We laugh — but what precisely do we laugh at? At the blindness of the military authorities, their blindness and infinite stupidity — or are we enjoying the escape of the astute resistants? In another series of episodes, in a burlesque-like, often-recurring scene, the film shows a crazy, drunk neighbor's obstinate decision to set himself on fire after having poured gasoline over his head, yet he is unable to light the match. These are, of course, playfully mocking gags, illuminating in an amusing way both the twisted situations and people's reactions to them.

Elia Suleiman doesn't refrain from sometimes showing cruel and humiliating actions as well. When the new power faces real fighters, they blindfold the victims and bring them to heel first before the final shot. Those are terrifying moments, eased a little with the good deed of an industrious nun who offers water for those doomed to death. On the other hand, when the soldiers capture the mayor of Nazareth, his sentence is amusingly short and ridiculous, since the point of the scene is getting to the great "photo-op" where he is to sign the surrender.

Following different decades from open opposition to wry acquiescence — chatting carelessly on the cell phone, dancing the Arab rock 'n' roll under the carefully observing gun-barrel — is it an overly exaggerated, Keatonian touch, as many critics interpreted the vision, or a shading light to a stunningly absurd reality in which people have learned to live?

Mingling disparate styles and surprisingly opposing ambiences is the very nature of this fractured, even jerky narrative. He realized — the author admits — that instead of the "horizontal" line of a usual tale, he had to choose a "vertical" one in the storytelling. A subtle decision. The unique personal connections, whether direct memories or the evocation of the closest relatives' lives, justified this construction. There is no room for temporal-factual logic if "love and pain" are at work. Only the intricate sentiments define the importance, the allotted length, and the suddenly surfacing, possibly disconnected, details. The shifting rhythm and volatile tempo correspond to the contradictory, complex emotions: instead of merely angry indignation, an irrepressible sense of humor colors the experience as well as giving real authenticity to the whole.

Though the film follows four distinct periods from the beginning of the war to contemporary daily existence, the building stones are emotionally bound. Jumping sometimes from the sad to the droll and funny, we have to move ahead with a "musical" undulation. Daring to apply a true slowness, a silent attention. Arriving at the current state, we have to physically perceive everything through the cloudily perturbed eyes of our hero.

Even if the opening sequence introduces the spectator too explicitly into an unworldly, soul-stirring storm in which he or she has to get lost, the sense of meeting an unknown, devastated world is staggering, and not only for the protagonist. However, in this case, the duration, the overfamiliar dramatic impact are not the best part of the film's refined, rich poetic vision. Symbolic happenings or gestures are efficient if they are not generic. A storm representing inner storm becomes direct, literal "translation," in particular when it spells out the words "I don't know where we are." Symbols ("standing for something" as the formal definition goes) must be "replacing something," not directly showing the meaning in images. Concrete means that it has to be palpable, yet surprising; only in this way can one avoid the simplistic reference to commonplace. Like the excellent, illuminating action when the hero, like a professional pole-jumper, suddenly swings his frail body across the high stone wall that separates the two worlds. Here we can FEEL his need to get away. The physical reality of the hostile concrete slab is huge and appalling and remains more telling of the prison state of the locked-up territory than any ghastly lighting, rushing rain and rumbling thunder.

There is a wise contrast in the style of representation regarding the military characters — whether Iraqi, Israeli, or Palestinian — and the family members. People in uniform, whichever they wear, because of the comic tone, are close to an almost caricatural delineation. Their severe discipline alludes to mechanical obedience. When they go about their business, they are following a superior order. Being basically not good or bad, rude or cruel, they are simply faceless and for this very reason, often ridiculous in their behavior.

The family, on the other hand — including the heroic father, the tender and pretty mother, and the growing child — are disciplined by their own wisdom. They are decidedly calm, quiet in a noble way — and silent. Suleiman is profoundly aware of the great power of restraint and the values of silence. He applies them with bold sensitivity. "Silence is very cinematic," he said in an interview; "a moment of sharing and participating. It is the spectator's privilege to put his silence in words." But it is also a way of commanding respect and deep emotional identification. If we compare his new film to the earlier ones, Suleiman has had the humility and touching sincerity to say his anger has vanished. After so many years of struggling not only with the historic situation but with the making of the film itself, he arrived at a kind of insight and inner detachment, creating the basis for the poetry of his vision.

Both aspects — the satirical-comical and the guarded approach — are beneficial, enriching the texture and making it more saturated. Not that the ridiculous is totally excluded from the family events. The visit to the mother's house is at once odd and playfully attentive, bringing her the once-beloved Arabic music and watching her mild but still lively reaction to it; or playing the childish game of touching and withdrawing hands. As to the "other side": the highly stylized sequences of the caretakers doing their cleaning job so arduously evokes Tati (as some critics have remarked) — weird in itself is that one is a Filipino nurse and the other one a policeman! Their actions are more than amusing. Apparently they enjoy their service and the comfortable home, so much so that once the young woman performs a popular American song for the pleasure of the policeman, or another time she cannot hide her ecstasy in seeing the colorful fireworks of a national holiday, and must include the old lady, as well… Naive goodwill is being offered.

It is no by accident that Suleiman's favorite filmmakers are precisely those who created their magic with the most minimalist means, Bresson's nude transparence, the simple warmth of Kiarostami, Ozu, Hou Hsiao-Hsien… He understood from these masters that if serious issues are at stake, there is no room for loud effects — let silence speak. Richness will be born from flexibility, from the different angles of approaching both sides of the queerness: balancing on the edge of the tragic and the comic.

There are times and circumstances when one cannot avoid troubled fragmentation in order to reach a more comprehensive understanding. If "time remains," as the suggestive title hints, then the inherent conflicts and open contradictions inevitably entail a larger, deeper vision. Elia Suleiman's film has succeeded in intimating a great deal about it.

Yvette Biro
© FIPRESCI 2011

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issue #7 (1.2011)


Contents

bullet. Blake Edwards
bullet. Pierre Léon
bullet. Film School
bullet. Takamine Hideko
bullet. Serbis
bullet. The Time That Remains
bullet. Viennale 2010
bullet. Punk Slash! Musicals