x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Out of the ghetto

Does Elia Suleiman's latest film mark a watershed for Palestinian cinema? Or will the world continue to ignore a cinema growing under occupation?

Elia Suleiman at the Cannes Film Festival promoting his latest film.
Elia Suleiman at the Cannes Film Festival promoting his latest film.

Elia Suleiman's latest film, The Time That Remains, is clear proof of the impact that Palestinian filmmakers are continuing to have on the global film scene. Based on family correspondence, the film from Palestine's best-known director showed in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and is perhaps the highest-profile project from this recent spate of films. And although it didn't take any awards, its Cannes reception showed that Palestinian directors are up there with the best of them.

A subtle and almost silent meditation on the situation in the Middle East that has left millions of Palestinians displaced in their own homeland, The Time That Remains is also a personal meditation for Suleiman. The film is inspired by his father's diaries and his mother's letters to family members who were forced to leave the country when the state of Israel was created in 1948. The title is a reference to those who stayed behind. "The Time That Remains is a political term that describes the Palestinians that remain in their own land but remain as absentees," explained Suleiman, whose Divine Intervention played in competition at the festival in 2002 and won both the jury and the International Federation of Film Critics' (FIPRESCI) prize. "The Time That Remains is the chronicle of a present absentee. It is also about me in that I am an outsider wherever I am."

Indeed, in the film, Suleiman often observes scenes unfold as a ghostlike presence in silence. The cinematic style Suleiman uses in his exploration of conflict could be described as minimalist and even evasive. "History is always debatable and arguable," said Suleiman. "I don't want to say, 'This is what happened'." War is startlingly absent from the film. Instead, it is dotted with memorable scenes that convey the underlying reality of a people under siege. In one recurring theme, an old man clad in pyjamas tries to set fire to himself; an elderly woman sits motionless on a balcony, confined to a sea of high-rise buildings; and a young man talks on his mobile phone, oblivious to the enormous tank following his every move, back and forth across a deserted street. Suleiman watches the scene hidden behind a wall before the tank turns on him and he ducks.

Music also plays a big part in the film, with the story unfolding somewhere between the long silences and empty streets and the familiar sounds of the present day Middle East: techno beats which could be gun shots, tooting horns and Middle Eastern melodies. "It is the first time I have made a film about the past and an epic spanning several generations, and I had to find a cinematic language to show how it was," he said. "I wanted to create a cinematic world, not one with a message but one that hits viewers with an emotion."

Suleiman compared making the film under occupation to "sweating it out in a sauna and then having time to meditate. You become more sincere", adding that "Palestinians had no representation until a few years ago." This displacement, or being present and absent at the same time, as per Suleiman, is a large part of the impetus for the recent flurry of filmmaking activity. "It may be a paradoxical issue," he said. "There is more exile of Palestinians today than ever before, and more of a need for them to express who they are. This becomes more necessary as they have to find themselves in other places. The falling apart of the world makes them want to tell more stories. It is a form of resistance."

Displacement remains one of the most popular themes with Palestinian filmmakers today. Cherien Dabis's film Amreeka, which played in the Director's Fortnight in Cannes this year, depicts the tarnishing of the American dream for Palestinians who sought to make a home in the US. Amreeka tells the story of a woman emigrating to the US with her son. It is based partly on Dabis's own shocking experiences growing up as the daughter of two Palestinian immigrants to the US. The film was recently acquired for US distribution by National Geographic.

Najwa Najjar, another young female director, also addressed the exodus of her family from their homeland - via Brazil and Jordan to the US - in her short documentary Naim and Wadee'a, which explores the lives of a middle-class Palestinian family forced to leave his homeland in 1948. Najjar was born in Washington, DC, as a second-generation Palestinian and now lives in Ramallah. "Palestinians are forced to leave places all of the time," she said. "Palestinians were forced to leave Kuwait, to leave Lebanon, to leave everywhere after September 11. Having a homeland is crucial."

Najjar's latest feature, Pomegranates and Myrrh, tells the story of a prisoner's wife who creates a life for herself through the world of dance after her husband is imprisoned by the Israelis. Najjar was in Cannes selling the film at the Marche du Film this year. "It is easier to be a female filmmaker than to make a film under occupation," she said. "I grew up on the dreams of my parents and Palestine. When I first got to Ramallah, there was a shattering of the dream."

In The Salt of This Sea from Annemarie Jacir, which played at the Un Certain Regard section of the festival last year, the protagonist is a hip second-generation Palestinian from Brooklyn who goes back to Israel and tries to reclaim her family's property to no avail. Jacir was unable to re-enter the country for several months after making the film about the so-called right of return for the millions of exiled Palestinians, and she was warned about taking on such a controversial subject. Jacir was also denied certain permits to shoot in Israel and was almost blown up with her sister in the course of making the rounds in Ramallah, where she now lives.

Currently working on her next project When I Saw You, Jacir was only able to make the film with the help of foreign producers who didn't flinch at the subject matter. Both The Time That Remains and The Salt of This Sea were produced with the help of the actor-producer Danny Glover in a sign of an increasing interest from American filmmakers in Palestinian themes and films. Multiple western directors are now making films of their own about Palestine. Examples include the New York-based Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), whose next film Miral follows the Palestinian socialite Hind Husseini's efforts to establish an orphanage for Palestinian children in Jerusalem in 1948. The film is based on the novel by the Palestinian-Italian writer Rula Jebreal. The American producer Hal Vogel (End Game) is developing a film about the partition of Palestine in 1948 and the British director Michael Winterbottom is developing Promised Land, which unfolds in Palestine at the end of the Second World War.

Other Palestinian films in the works include the Lebanese director Chadi Zeneddine's Ramallah-set Barbershop Trinity, which follows the dwindling community of Palestinian Arabs living in Ramallah as told through the eyes of a local barber. There are also signs of some crossover between the two worlds. While Zeneddine is set to direct Disney's first Arab-language film, The Last of the Storytellers, in a major development for Arab filmmakers heading West, the Paradise Now director Hanny Abu-Assad has broken out of what Suleiman describes as the "ghetto" for Palestinian filmmakers. Abu-Asad is next set to direct a feature film adaptation of the best-selling Brazilian author Paulo Coehlo's Eleven Minutes. The story follows a young woman from Brazil who heads to Switzerland to make her living in an unorthodox manner.

For Suleiman, the completion of his film to coincide with this global vogue for all things Palestinian is coincidental. "If people knew of all of the rejections that I had had over the past five years in getting this film made, the people that said they didn't like my script or what if it isn't as good as your last film, then you wouldn't be asking me why my film appeared now," he said.