x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Trouble with the neighbours

Elia Suleiman's third and most ambitious film returns to a familiar theme - the plight of the Palestinians.

Palestinian-Israeli film director and actor Elia Suleiman.
Palestinian-Israeli film director and actor Elia Suleiman.

Elia Suleiman's third and most ambitious film returns to a familiar theme - the plight of the Palestinians. But, he tells Ali Jaafar, it nearly didn't make it on to the screen.

Elia Suleiman sits by the pool of a London hotel, cigarette in one hand. It is a somewhat bittersweet occasion. His latest film, The Time That Remains, has just had its worldwide release. It had its premiere at the Cannes film festival in May, but left empty-handed in terms of awards. And yet that the film exists at all is a triumph given the tortuous three-year ordeal he endured to get it made.

While raising independent financing for any film project, particularly one dealing with as contentious a political subject as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is never easy, Suleiman had to contend with an unusual number of obstacles. In 2007, with production only weeks away, the original financing collapsed. He spent the next few months trying to raise the money before salvation came in the form of the London-based Saudi entrepreneur and film enthusiast Hani Farsi and the French film sales company Wild Bunch.

"There was an attempt to kill the film before it was even made by people who possess a liberal facade but are actually quite racist inside," Suleiman says. "However this is not what is important now. We made the film and I am happy that everybody liked it." The Time That Remains is the third part of a trilogy that began with Chronicle Of A Disappearance and Divine Intervention, each of which charts the story of Palestinian dispossession and displacement over the past 60 years. It is Suleiman's most ambitious effort to date. Beginning in 1948, on the day his hometown of Nazareth surrendered to the Israeli army and continuing through to the most recent Intifada, the film skilfully interweaves the personal and the political. Suleiman even used his own parents' diaries for inspiration.

"This was the most challenging thing about it, because even though it is an epic film, I did not want to fall into the pit of the classic epic genre... the sensationalism and bombastic scenes," he says. "I wanted to maintain a very static, tense frame while still maintaining the historic feel of the film." It features many of the qualities we have come to associate with Suleiman: the surreal, blackly comic vignettes; a fractured dramatic narrative and Suleiman himself playing the silent, impassive observer. What stands out is its sense of emotional depth. Given that The Time That Remains is as much about Suleiman's parents as it is himself, there is less frivolity and greater sincerity than before. It helps that Suleiman has enlisted up-and-coming Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri - who previously starred in Eran Kolirin's The Band's Visit and Annemarie Jacir's Salt Of This Sea - to play his father. Bakri's performance is masterly: we witness his transformation from the young, defiant man in 1948, eager to defend his town against the Israelis, into the ailing old man who has experienced too many of life's disappointments.

"Saleh has amazing intuition. I sat with him and talked about my father but what he did, which was fascinating for me, is he went into town and met a lot of people who actually knew my father. He spent hours listening to them, listening to me and looking at old photos. It was a new experience for me to direct someone playing my parent but Saleh managed it perfectly." Elia Suleiman is something of a contradiction. The 49-year-old is, along with the Paradise Now director Hany Abu-Assad, the most prominent of Palestinian directors. In person, he is famously loquacious and mischievous, while on screen he has developed a near-silent persona, allowing his deadpan gaze at events to tell the story of the plight of Palestinians, its frequent absurdity as well as its tragedies.

"Without wanting to sound pompous, someone once told me I was an intellectual who happens to make movies and I think there's a bit of truth in that. I happen to have these two extremes. I am not just an artist who is hypersensitive and timid. I am also somebody who is fascinated with politics and philosophy. I am a very verbal person, just not in my films." The film had Cannes audiences clapping and cheering, with reviewers praising the way Suleiman skilfully veers between absurdist sketches and scenes of emotional poignancy. Scenes where the director visits Nazareth to look after his ageing mother - their encounters played out without any dialogue - are unbearably moving.

Suleiman's return coincides with a renaissance in Palestinian filmmaking. Filmmakers such as Annemarie Jacir, Najwa Najjar, Sameh Zoabi and Scandar Copti have all emerged to make their first feature films, while Tawfiq Abu-Wael - whose debut Thirst in 2004 garnered plenty of praise - is reputedly hard at work on another project. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has also attracted the attention of western filmmakers. Julian Schnabel is in production on Miral, a film starring the Slumdog Millionaire actress Freida Pinto as the Palestinian nurse Hind Husseini, who created the Dar Al-Tifi orphanage in Jerusalem in 1948. And The Queen producer Andy Harries is developing a Gaza-based feature starring Helen Mirren as a Jewish woman whose journalist daughter is murdered while covering events in the Gaza Strip.

While those projects promise to offer fresh, outside perspectives on a seemingly interminable conflict, Suleiman can deliver a uniquely personal view. He doesn't bombard us with political didacticism. Instead, he offers often playful indictments of the Arab political classes who have allowed the conflict to fester for more than six decades. That playful tone, however, masks the righteous indignation he feels at Palestinians still having to justify their cause.

"People say I'm a subversive filmmaker but this is only a term that has stuck to me because I am Palestinian. It is not subversive to show history."