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Palestinian anti-narratives in the films of Elia Suleiman

Issue 5, Spring 2008

By Refqa Abu-Remaileh

Checkpoint scene in Divine Intervention, Dir. Elia Suleiman

Checkpoint scene in Divine Intervention, Dir. Elia Suleiman

Note: some images omitted from the web version of this article.   Download the PDF version of this article with  full image appendix here. 

May, 2008.  The ongoing nature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has had a marked effect on Palestinian literature and film. Palestine has been and continues to be an intensely political and politicized subject matter. As the youngest of the art forms to treat the conflict, the medium of film raises a number of questions on art and politics. With many claiming that wars are being fought as much on our TV screens and in the media as they are on the ground, documentaries and fiction films have played a vital role in challenging stereotyped media images of the conflict.

In this paper I will focus on the Palestinian-Israeli filmmaker Elia Suleiman, whose films have pioneered a reflective meditative cinematic language, introducing a new visual vocabulary to images of the conflict.  Born in Nazareth in 1960, Suleiman began by making short films in the early 1990s during his self-imposed exile in New York. He later resettled in Jerusalem, out of which emerged his two full-length fiction films, Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996) and Divine Intervention (2002). Suleiman’s hallmarks are non-linear episodic narratives that rely less on plot and characterization and more on the combination of film structure, editing and soundtrack to create meaning. The emphasis on form and the non-verbal is in stark contrast to many other Palestinian films where the spoken word plays an important role, and understandably so.  The oral tradition surrounding the conflict is brimming with stories waiting to be told, documented or covered. In fact, the ongoing occupation of Palestinians is like a story-factory, with countless stories being produced every day.

It is not surprising then that many Palestinian films are ‘issue-films.’ The majority of films are documentaries dealing with issues ranging from the wall, the checkpoints, the second Intifada, the siege of Ramallah, to exploring the echoes of the 1948 Nakba. Many of these documentaries are also very personal films – the filmmakers, especially those working in the West Bank, have based their films on their own stories, often tracing family history and interviewing their friends, parents and grandparents. The need for these films is made more urgent by the limited and biased media coverage of the conflict. In the West Bank and Gaza, where the Israeli occupation is more visible, there is a strong inclination to relay a clear message, often in reportage-style films, to expose Palestinian suffering at the hands of the occupation. This makes the films politically more overt with a clear structure that serves the purpose of exposing the issue at hand.

In an interview, Suleiman distinguishes between two kinds of occupation: a more “overt” occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and a “psychological” occupation in the Palestinian areas that were occupied in 1948 and are now part of Israel.

The occupation of 1948, is no longer militaristic, there’s no longer a military government with tanks and soldiers in the streets and all that. It’s become psychological, economic, denial of rights, humiliation in all its forms, and it’s manifested in the film [Divine Intervention] by the ghetto atmosphere. [...] In the 1967 territories, obviously, the occupation is overt. It’s as blunt and pornographic as it was for the 1948 Palestinians, but with the difference of time. So in 1967 that same process started in another border – expropriation and annexation of land, a large emigration of Palestinians right after the war, and so on.[1]


The overt occupation is more tangible, more visible, and the flurry of Palestinian documentaries since the second Intifada have documented many of its aspects. However, the “psychological occupation” Suleiman talks about is more difficult to represent – it is an occupation that has seeped into the mind and body and cannot be captured with the same immediacy as in an image of a checkpoint for example.

Set in Nazareth and Jerusalem, both Chronicle and Divine Intervention probe the psychological and the existential in a manner unfamiliar to Palestinian films up to that point. With their modernist aesthetic, Suleiman’s films are seen as very much part of the foreign film circuit, making the rounds at international film festivals. However, my research focuses on situating an analysis of Suleiman’s films in a Palestinian filmmaking, literary and intellectual context.  Suleiman’s films speak to other Palestinian films – the plethora of overt images of the occupation in documentary and other films act as invisible footnotes to Suleiman’s politically-subtle images, creating space for experimentation and meditation.

In this paper I will look at several aspects of Suleiman’s style and technique. First, I will take two examples of staple images and techniques used in Palestinian films, first the image of the checkpoint, followed by the prevalent use of the interview technique, and investigate Suleiman’s variations on these aspects. I will then move on to Suleiman’s exposition of ‘negative spaces,’ and the idea of presence by virtue of absence. Finally, I will look at Suleiman’s exploration of the notion of time, and the concept al-‘awda (return).

 Before moving on to discuss checkpoints, a brief outline of Divine Intervention and Chronicle is in order. It is difficult to give a summary of the plot of these two feature films because of the non-linear, episodic nature of the narrative, however, on a structural level, both films are divided in two parts. The first part is set in Nazareth, entitled “Part I: Nazareth, Personal Diary” in Chronicle and “Nazareth” in Divine Intervention. The second part is set in Jerusalem, entitled “Part II: Jerusalem: Political Diary” in Chronicles and “Jerusalem” in Divine Intervention.

The Nazareth sections are based on a series of vignettes of daily life, giving a sense of the ghetto-like existence of the Palestinians living in Nazareth. The Jerusalem sections are the less static sections, both in terms of camerawork and content. The link between the two sections in Chronicle is Suleiman’s character, ES, who decides to move into an East Jerusalem flat: “I moved to Jerusalem to be closer to the airport,” ES types on his computer screen. In Divine Intervention, ES presumably continues to live in Jerusalem. In addition, a third in-between space is introduced in Divine Intervention – the checkpoint, demarcating a space between Jerusalem and the West Bank, where ES meets his West Bank Palestinian girlfriend. Despite the similarities in film structure, there are marked differences, as well as a crucial time gap of six years, between the two films, which are interesting to investigate as the subject of a future paper.


1. Checkpoints

A number of scenes in Divine Intervention are set at hajiz al-Ram (al-Ram checkpoint). The first of these ‘checkpoint’ scenes is an establishing scene which introduces this new geography/place of checkpoints. Later checkpoint scenes revolve around the meetings of ES and his West Bank girlfriend at the checkpoint car park.

The first checkpoint sequence is in stark contrast to the claustrophobic Nazareth episodes that directly preceded it. As we move closer to the West Bank, we move closer to a more overt, visible form of occupation. This is also an external occupation, which has not managed to seep into the minds and bodies of the people. Unlike the static Nazareth space, this in-between space on the edge of the checkpoint offers some space for the imagination. As we can see from the clip of this scene, it is a space where there can be some experimentation and creativity with the film image, especially in relation to ideas of resistance and defiance. [Video: checkpoint scene from Divine Intervention]

The scene begins with the commotion, noise, and crowds we often see in checkpoint scenes. However, we soon realize this scene is not what we expected. First, and most

Fig. 1 Checkpoint scene in Divine Intervention, Dir. Elia Suleiman

striking, is the camera work. Unlike the static framing in the Nazareth scenes, here we get a beautiful crane shot, reaching as high as the tower and descending to ground level by the foot of the car. This is a highly deliberate and controlled image – not the unpredictable handheld camerawork of documentary footage of checkpoints. With the descent of the camera the soundtrack goes very silent, except for the sound of swishing – a kind of magical hush which is unusual in checkpoint scenes.  A woman emerges out of the car and the soundtrack is taken over by the first piece of non-diegetic music in the film as she begins her defiant walk. However, this is more of a glamorous catwalk compared to what we might expect defiance and resistance to look like.

What is most unusual about this scene is the way Suleiman integrates the fantastical into the narrative, let alone a checkpoint scene. There are none of the usual blurring or

Fig. 2 Checkpoint scene in Divine Intervention, Dir. Elia Suleiman

flashback techniques used to denote dream or fantasy sequences in Suleiman. Instead, it is through the fluid camerawork, combined with the catwalk performance, the improbability of the tower collapsing and the soldiers letting the woman pass that we get hints of the fantastical.  But, whose fantasy is this? As it turns out, Suleiman’s character, ES, is quite the day-dreamer and this scene may have been a figment of his imagination.

Even though the meeting scenes between ES and his West Bank girlfriend are set at the checkpoint, the way the checkpoint is represented is markedly different from the documentary representations of checkpoints viewers of Palestinian films often see. What we see as viewers is only what the characters see. The camerawork in these scenes focuses on the characters and the silent love story between ES and his girlfriend. Despite the fact that the lovers never say anything to each other, the camerawork focuses on the shot-reverse shot of an implied conversation, albeit a non-verbal one, through glances and facial expressions. Only when the characters look ahead at the checkpoint does the camera cut to a view of what they see from the car. Thus, as viewers we are twice removed from the checkpoint. Simultaneously, we become involved with the characters as witnesses of the injustices that take place before their eyes. This structural distance emphasizes the love story, and does not allow the image of the checkpoint to overpower the simple humanity of two lovers meeting, which in turn highlights the inhumanity of the checkpoint.  [Figures 1 and 2]

2. Anti-Interviews

 
Suleiman blurs the boundaries between documentary and fiction, especially in Chronicle of a Disappearance, where the interview, the staple of many documentary films, is given a bit of a twist, with the effect of challenging viewers’ preconceptions of the kind of information the interviews may be present them with. In the Nazareth scenes (Part I) there are three disconnected scenes set up as interviews and another in the Jerusalem, Part II scenes. Except for the first interview, all others are given the label of mi`ad (appointment with...).

a)  The Mother [Figure 3]

The first of the three, despite being set up as an interview, is actually what I would call

Fig. 3 Interview with The Mother, Chronicle, Dir. Elia Suleiman

an ‘anti-interview,’ especially if we are to look at it in a Palestinian film context. The shot opens with a still of a living room and at the centre of the frame, a couch. Enter ES’s mother. She sits on one side of the couch and proceeds to recount the towns’ gossip, peppered with her unforgiving comments - all this before heading out to pay her condolences to the very same people she verbally slaughtered. She ends her monologue ironically with, “It’s better if one stays silent and doesn’t say anything.”

What is interesting about this scene is that it is Suleiman’s interview-the-parents opportunity, which many Palestinian filmmakers have taken up.[2] Yet, Suleiman does not engage his mother in “telling” us a story – possibly her experiences of 1948, perhaps stories of dispossession, war, or even memories of pre-1948 Palestine. From the very beginning, we encounter a resistance to traditional storytelling techniques. Suleiman is less interested in excavating the past and more interested in interrogating the present. The recounting of town gossip is in fact a piercing insight into human relations, and paves the way for further psychological explorations of a people living in claustrophobic Nazareth.

b)  The Priest [Figure 4]

In the first mi`ad scenes, entitled “mi`ad ma` abouna” (appointment with the priest), ES takes a trip to Lake Tiberias, where he interviews a Greek orthodox priest in a

Fig. 4 The Priest, Chronicle of a Disappearance, Dir. Elia Suleiman

beautiful monastery overlooking the lake. The scene is set up like an interview, however, the content of what the priest says and his language are not what we might have expected. For example, his comments on tourism in the Holyland, he says (in Greek):

That’s where Jesus is said to have walked over water. Now it’s a gastronomic sewer, filled with excrement, shit of American and German tourists, who eat Chinese food. It forms a crust on the surface of the lake. Anyone can walk over water and make miracles now. 


The interview with the priest does not try to give us the information we might expect, for example, more pointed comments on the religious dimensions of the conflict, interfaith dialogue or something along these lines. Instead, it emphasizes a recurring idea in both films, the idea that the land is being stripped of its holiness, and hence stripped of its title, The Holyland.  In Chronicle, we discover that the The Holyland is but a souvenir shop, not even visited by the tourists. When a group of Japanese tourists walk past the shop and one of them decides to stop momentarily and take a snapshot of the souvenir shop with the owners (ES and his cousin) sitting at the doorstep, that is when we realize that ES and his cousin have themselves become Holyland relics, fit for a postcard picture.

c) The Writer [Figure 5]

Fig. 5 The Writer, Chronicle of a Disappearance, Dir. Elia Suleiman

The next mi`ad is entitled “Appointment with the Writer: a story that could be made into a film.” Similar to the set-up with the mother, here we get a static frame with an armchair. The writer walks in and sits on the chair and begins, “I visited Grandpa who was in the Turkish army for three years... ‘Grandpa, tell me a story about Istanbul,’” the young writer had asked his grandfather. His grandfather proceeds to tell him a story about how wonderful the food was in Istanbul, detailing the deliciously spiced lamb’s head that he would eat:

Here’s a story you’ll never forget. Istanbul is the flower of all cities, it is unique. There’s nothing like the food there anywhere else in the world. We were stationed 15 minutes away from Istanbul. At noon, we had lentils with worms which I couldn’t eat. I had 5 coins, and would cross the street, pass by the bookshop and the clothes shop until I reached the public garden. There, a man with sparking pans cooked lamb heads, nicely spiced, with saffron and all. He’d serve me a head in two hot loaves of bread. I’d sit on the nearest bench, eat, throw the remains in the bin and go home. The beauty of Istanbul is beyond comparison.

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[1] Elia Suleiman, “The Occupation (and Life) through an Absurdist Lens,” Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 32, no. 2 (Winter 2003): 70.

[2] A recent example is Enas Muthaffar’s East to West, 2005.

[3] Hamid Dabashi, “In Praise of Frivolty: On the Cinema of Elia Suleiman,” in Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema, ed Hamid Dabashi, (London, New York: Verso, 2006): 160.

[4] This law meant that Palestinians who fled their homes during the 1948 war but were able to come back after the war could not go back to their own homes and villages which became property of the new state of Israel. Thus, they were considered, paradoxically, present on the land but supposedly absent from their homes.