A pizzicato sonata of absurd rituals, Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains unpicks a lifetime stifling inside the Green Lines. It’s more than just plucking at strings.
Living In Oblivion by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Subtitled A Chronicle Of A Present Absentee, The Time That Remains is another chronicle of the West Bank life following Elia Suleiman’s two previous Chronicle Of A Disappearance and A Chronicle of Love and Pain -otherwise known as Divine Intervention. They may be variations on the same autobiographic theme of inclusion and exclusion, but the melody still beats strongly.
Suleiman’s familiar offbeat style depends on his accumulation of elaborate detail, episodic comedy and eccentric choreography, but The Time That Remains is a majestic symphony of events depicting life in the Territories from the Palestinian surrender to the Israeli Army in 1948 to the present day. The film begins with the actor/director returning to the West Bank from pastures unspoken, his feeling of displacement echoed by the taxi driver’s increasingly metaphoric pleas to his absent controller; “Where am I, Elie?” Lost in a storm in the middle of nowhere, the film begins and ends in this taxi, a circular tailchasing, conjuring from the backseat a chronology of memories which, as the dedication makes clear, is both a contemplation on Palestine and a homage to the director’s parents – charting their lives from his father’s beginnings as a young freedom fighter and gunmaker to the final-reel death of his mother.
The flashback begins in Nazareth, Suleiman’s hometown, as the Israeli Army force the surrender of Palestine’s Liberation Army. But in Suleiman’s own unique tragicomic style, the capitulation is marked not by the official signing, but by the Arab officials’ sidetracked glance at the photographer’s posterior bending low to take the momentous photograph. Such whimsical asides occur time and time again in this intimate collage of comic fragments, hanging together like independent movements in some absurd rhapsody. While some episodes are purely comic, such as the nurse’s Celine Dion karaoke session or the pink-gloved policeman’s fervent housecleaning, others are subtly revealing, like the Arab-minority school which wins a Hebrew singing competition, laureled “for the sake of democracy”, or a fantasy sequence in which Suleiman tries to polevault the West Bank barrier wall.
As a boy, Elia is taken out of class and reprimanded, his teacher berating him; “Who told you America is colonialist?” Or the neighbour who douses himself in kerosene and fumbles falteringly to set light to it. The auntie’s lentils which get unceremoniously binned, or his father Fuad questioned by Israeli soldiers while on a night fishing trip. It only emerges gradually that these comic vagaries hide acts of rebellion only hinted at. Fuad may have replaced his homespun gun with a fishing rod, but his arrest for gun smuggling casts a different light over these innocent nocturnal fishing trips. The fight for Palestine’s independence continues beneath the surface, but that doesn’t prevent Fuad from saving an Israeli soldier when his explosive-laden truck overturns on a bridge. Similarly, these comic sketches hide a political seriousness, these idiosyncratic antics enveloping the recurring strain of gunfire and explosions within its strangeness, a violence all the more absurd in its humdrum banality. The idiocy is heightened by an all-guns-blazing skirmish which abruptly halts for a woman and her pram to pass through, or a tank’s cannon which swivels to follow at point blank range a man idly talking on his mobile phone.
These screwball scenes, along with Suleiman’s cheeky sense of comedy (an amusingly symmetrical mise-en-scène or a dancelike choreography of Israeli soldiers looting an abandoned house) put tongue-in-cheek humour in the place of oppressed outrage. But there are also moments of unveiled political acuity, the image of a field full of blindfolded militants both strange and chilling. The death of Abdel Nasser, the beloved President of Egypt who succeeded in uniting Middle East nations under pan-Arabism, pierces the film like a cold knife. With sharp stabs of politics buried beneath humour, The Time That Remains is Suleiman’s vision of Palestine; both present and absent, silent and frustrated. But life for this people without a country is deftly sketched; Israeli soldiers are ignored trying to impose curfew on revelling nightclubbers, the West Bank inhabitants’ hedonistic catharsis suffered with a head nodding in time to the music.
But the film’s comic asides reveal as much about Elia Suleiman as they do about Palestine and in the final reel, the focus shifts from the plight of Palestine to something altogether more personal. When Elia’s school class watch Spartacus, the passionate embrace is censored by the teacher, not only by walking in front of it, but also by hollering “She is like her brother, girls. She is like her brother.” The Theatre of the Absurd continues into later life as he’s gently slapped in greeting by old friends or waved at mindlessly by passers-by, but with arms dangling lifelessly by his sides, the director is for the most part regressed to a little boy lost in absurdity. Present but absent, Suleiman is the homo ex machina, a status which the theatricality of the final scene, where outside the hospital he witnesses one human collision after another, allows him to be both semifictional onlooker and ruminative director.
In The Time That Remains, both Suleiman and Palestine are the present absentees; the director helpless in his parents’ struggle with old age and death, while Palestine ticks along as a disenfranchised witness to a world going on around them. Suleiman sublimates the political struggle in order to highlight Palestine’s powerlessness, but in a credits-roll gesture of revolutionary bravado, he uses a song to ensure both his parents’ memory and hopes for an autonomous Palestine are Staying Alive.
The Time That Remains is released in the UK on 28th May 2010