Suleiman follows the path laid by the great comic actor-filmmakers by making his own body a focal point of an expertly engineered frame.

SFFS Screen Returns with New Suleiman

Max Goldberg February 4, 2011

In Elia Suleiman's first feature, Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996), a professor introduces the director's onscreen persona—credited in all his films simply as "ES"—for a lecture, welcoming him back from his long "voluntary exile" in New York. Suleiman's subsequent films all take place in this waking dream of returning. As the subtitle of his new work, The Time That Remains: Chronicle of a Present Absentee, indicates, ES’s owlish silence is a figure of both presence and absence—a cosmopolitan ghost.

Suleiman follows the path laid by the great comic actor-filmmakers by making his own body a focal point of an expertly engineered frame. Because of his deadpan affect and expressive use of long shots and offscreen space, he's most often likened to Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton. The slippages between humor and melancholy, fantasy and autobiography in Suleiman’s films are carefully worked out at the formal level, but they also carry an unmistakable political charge situated as they are in proximity to militarized borders.

The Time That Remains incorporates many elements from the earlier films—there are several recurring faces and even camera angles—but for the first time Suleiman recreates the past, tracing ES’s Nazareth family from 1948, when his father Nuad operates as a resistance fighter in the final days of the Arab-Israel War (these passages are based on Suleiman’s real father’s diaries), through the present day, when an estranged ES stands at his dying mother’s bedside. To be sure, this chronology represents a more conventional mode of storytelling than the jigsaw arrangements of Chronicle of a Disappearance and Divine Intervention: A Chronicle of Love and Pain (2002). And yet planted in this new narrative frame, Suleiman’s strategic use of repetition and ellipsis reveals a sensitivity to the complex ways the past ripples through the present.

The Time That Remains passes through four distinct periods: 1948, 1970, 1980, and the present day. The middle sections both begin with ES’s mother writing a letter to relatives (the text is based on real letters that Suleiman’s mother wrote). Whatever life changes are reported in these correspondences—Nuad’s worsening heart condition, Elia’s living abroad—they only provide the faintest outline of the years that have been passed over. The changes to both the family and country are epic, but they don’t register that way; Suleiman lets history echo in the slow wheel of domesticity and routine. It’s unavoidable, though, that the roots of ES’s rootlessness lie in the events of 1948.

Suleiman pieces this fragile historical moment together from vignettes set in Nazareth’s sun-bleached houses and alleyways. An Israeli commander calls in ES’s paternal grandfather, the mayor, for a photo-op. A weary Palestinian prisoner reads a brief statement to the commander and then shoots himself in the head. Handsome and armed, Nuad paces his father’s well-appointed house and rushes out into the streets when he hears that a Palestinian man has been wounded. He helps the man into an abandoned bourgeoisie house, eventually leaving him in the deep shadows of a bedroom—the first of many disappearing acts in The Time That Remains. On the run from the authorities, Nuad looks on as an Israeli patrol looting another upper-class home, their movements comically synced to the Arabic music playing on a phonograph.

All of these episodes circle the Palestinian’s dwindling options in ’48. They also evince the terrific economy of Suleiman’s filmmaking. One can easily imagine a lesser director chewing up several scenes over the intergenerational conflict between Nuad and his father, the figurehead mayor, but Suleiman gets it in a single take when the young freedom fighter confronts his father on his way to the wounded man in the street. The ’48 segment climaxes when Nuad is captured by Israeli soldiers and led blindfolded to a peaceful grove of olive trees. Other detainees are scattered amidst the trees; a nun dashes between them with a pitcher of water. Suleiman shoots much of this tense scene from a remote position, implicitly acknowledging his distance from his father’s experience. It’s an oddly lyrical scene, with the olive trees rustling beneath an Israeli officer’s harsh interrogation of Nuad. As it becomes clear that he will survive this ordeal, we realize that the scene’s beauty is a measure of loss. From this day forward, Nuad lives in Israel.

How do we get from the image of Nuad being tossed over the side of the olive grove to that of him sitting comfortably at a square kitchen table with his wife and young ES? Suleiman’s stark ellipsis suggests that this is an unanswerable question; the director simply deposits us in the changed era, with its peachy light and orange kitchen tiles. Suleiman’s admiration of Yasujiro Ozu’s films is clearest in these domestic hours. Repetitions give us the quotidian grain of life and illuminate its changes. The first time ES dumps his aunt’s lentils in the trash, his mother smiles knowingly. The second time, she is distracted by the news reports of Nasser’s death. The graphically balanced, historically telling composition of Nuad sitting with his head in his hands on the right side of the television images of Egyptian President’s funeral is another instance of Suleiman’s arresting concision.

Always, Suleiman’s comic scenes are shot through with darkness and the tragic scenes with the absurd. One of the family’s neighbors douses himself in gasoline and lamely tries to light a match before Nuad walks him back to safety. This happens several times, and the routine is played for laughs. Meanwhile, when the police come late at night to arrest Nuad for gun running, they mistake a package of bulgur for gunpowder. The Israelis look foolish, but Nuad is taken away all the same.

The ellipsis bridging 1980 to the present day is especially cruel: Nuad is gone, and ES’s now elderly mother no longer speaks or writes. When Suleiman’s embodiment of ES returns to the Nazareth home—a character in itself—the only audible voices belong to the caretakers and the television. These final sequences are most like Suleiman’s earlier films, not only because of his distinctive onscreen presence, but also because the narrative is less centered by a strong family unit. There are also more of Suleiman’s signature sight gags. In one distant long take, ES is dropped off by a taxi at a chaotic traffic circle patrolled by a cop who seems to know everyone who drives by: people stop their cars for a kiss or a high-five. This is the city as the alienated exile imagines it.

ES and his friends sit around the same café table their fathers did 60 years earlier, but the patrimony isn’t at all clear. After ES leaves his infirm mother in her bed, as Nuad did his fellow resistance fighter, he sits in a hospital waiting room and watches his countrymen come and go from the far side of the hall. They appear strange to him—unrecognizable even. Memoir convention typically requires a sense of restoration or wholeness at the finish, but Suleiman won’t have any of it. We might have guessed from the title that he would curl away from closure.

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