The Palestine Film Festival opened in London this year with Elia Suleiman’s latest feature “The Time that Remains”, a monumental reflective and poetic take on Palestine since 1948.
To a certain the film reminded me of Ramzy Baroud’s book, My father was a freedom fighter. Both works chart a personal and devastating expedition into hopelessness. Both accounts are saturated with repeated failures and betrayals – both Baroud and Suleiman are courageous enough to criticize their collective narrative, and yet both pepper their story with some staggering wit, hope and humour. They make you smile just when you are about to sob.
As with Baroud, Suleiman juxtaposes the Palestinian journey from heaven to hell with the Zionist phantasmic countermove from “hell!” to “heaven”. The devastating images of Palestinian torture and dispossession are mixed with scenes of cheerful Israeli arrogance, looting and sadism. This counterflow of the two peoples is rather crucial to understanding the conflict. As much as Palestinian expulsion is concrete and deeply imbued in the consciousness of every Palestinian, the imaginary Jewish “home-coming” journey from “hostile Diaspora hell” to the “Zionist Eden” has proved to be dubious and unforgiving for the Jews.
It is obvious that the Israelis have never managed to make the Holy Land into their “homeland”. They are alienated from its nature, they have poisoned the soil and polluted the rivers, they have ruined the landscape, shredding it with gigantic concrete walls and monstrous urban settlements and, worse, they have eradicated the indigenous civilization of Palestine or at least this is what have they tried to do. In fact, this unique form of Israeli detachment is where Suleiman launches his film.
With Suleiman himself seated silently in the back of a brand new limousine, we watch an Israeli chauffeur prepare himself for a journey. Using his radio communication system, the driver reports to his station: “Do not try to contact me, I am about to start a long ride…” Within a few seconds into the journey a storm breaks out, lightning, thunder and rain is pouring. Our Israeli chauffeur is totally disoriented, he cannot see, he doesn’t know where he is, the fuel is running out. It is not long before he stops his car, only to find out that the radio is dead. “What am I doing here? Where am I? How did I get here in the first place?” he cries out. The Israeli driver is stranded in the middle of the night and in the middle of nowhere. He is isolated with no radio or fuel and in an unknown land that was supposed to be his promised one. He is lonely but not alone. He has a silent Palestinian passenger sitting comfortably in the back seat staring at him.
The allegory is pretty obvious. As much as the Zionists wanted to believe that their “home-coming” project was a journey from the “Diaspora hell” to a “promised shelter”, they are now becoming prisoners of their lethal, unethical aspiration. Soaked with power and loaded with American weaponry, they are driving a brand new Hummer in the dark, crossing an alien and hostile land; they do not know where they are going, their fuel is about to run out at any minute; they do not know why they are doing it. However, one thing is certain: they have a silent Palestinian passenger sitting in their back seat. The latter, like the rest of us, is watching them in their downfall.
Suleiman offers a critical reading of the Palestinian society. He touches some of the most painful subjects; he looks at the collaborators; he confronts the cowardice; he touches the manic depressive drive within Arab culture and yet, in spite of all that, he has hope in him. Miraculously enough, Palestine seems to prevail.
|"The Israelis are victims of their own relentless brutality. The more sinister they are, the more tormented they become by the fear they inflict on themselves... They think to themselves: 'if others are as brutal as we happen to be, we must be in real trouble'."|
In Suleiman’s cinematic chronicle we follow a reportage of an organized criminal army fighting scattered civilian resistance. We see Israeli soldiers looting, terrorizing and torturing the civilian population; we see the proud indigenous people becoming a defeated minority on their own land; we watch Palestinian children singing Zionist songs at school to a cheerful Israeli minister. We then witness Israeli soldiers shooting these kids as they become resilient, stone-throwing teenagers. As the story evolves, Suleiman takes us to contemporary Ramallah, where we see Palestinians living somehow proudly, celebrating their Arab culture.
While in Ramallah we witness a thought-provoking scene that throws new light over the balance of power between the Israeli and the Palestinian. As an Israeli Merkava tank invades the whole of the screen, we notice a Palestinian youngster leaving his front door on his way to empty some rubbish. The Israeli tank stops. Its barrel follows the youngster’s head as he walk towards the dustbin. This is no doubt a devastating image. However, on his way back to his front door the Palestinian lad receives a mobile call from a friend. The youngster stays in the street, joyfully chatting to his friend. All that time the Merkava’s barrel follows his move in a manner that rapidly transforms into a comical parody of Israeli power. All along, the young Palestinian doesn’t take any notice of the large calibre barrel that follows his head. It seems as if the Israeli power of deterrence is a matter for historians.
Suleiman’s message is clear. In order to maintain the Jewish national project, Israel may have to attach a tank to every Palestinian. But it goes further. While the Palestinian young man is up and about walking freely and enjoying the Mediterranean sun, four Israeli soldiers, probably about the same age, are locked inside a Merkava tank. The Israelis are stranded by a merciless and yet futile ideology that leads nowhere. They are enslaved to a Palestinian lad who doesn’t even bother to look at them. The Israeli soldiers cannot see the daylight. They see life through their military periscope. The Merkava tank can be interpreted as a metaphor of the Israeli ghetto mentality. However, as far as Israel is concerned, the Merkava tank is not just a metaphor, it is not mere symbolism, it is actually the true reality of the Jewish state and the Jewish political being. The Israelis are locking themselves behind separation walls and within tanks and bunkers.
While in Suleiman’s previous film victory was a matter for “Divine Intervention”, in the current movie the fog clears away. The Palestinians seem to win just because the Israelis are doomed to lose. The Israelis are victims of their own relentless brutality. The more sinister they are, the more tormented they become by the fear they inflict on themselves. The Israeli paranoia is a matter of projection. They think to themselves: "if others are as brutal as we happen to be, we must be in real trouble”.
Symbolically, Suleiman is from Nazareth, something that may remind some of us that someone else from the same town presented a very similar criticism of Jewish tribalism just 2,000 years ago. Israel is indeed locked in exactly the same vicious circle as its imaginary forefathers. The more brutal it becomes, the more terrorized it gets by its own viciousness. Jesus saw it all. Love your neighbour was his solution. Turn your other cheek, he maintained. The Israeli failure to grasp that compassion is the way forward is the true meaning of the Jewish tragedy. We are dealing here with an unfolding chronicle of an imminent disaster. On the other hand, in Suleiman's depiction of recent Palestinian history, it is the Palestinians’ forgiveness that shines.
Suleiman is the ultimate master of cinematic poetic symbolism. He manages to deliver the most devastating message through music and silence. He manages to convey the deepest philosophical idea through a little piece of choreography. As much as the film is largely a visual art form, in Suleiman’s work the ear has primacy. Music, sounds and rhythms communicate where the eye fails. The sound is the bond with the past. It is the ear that transcends us to the realm of the universal. Through the ear rather than the eye, we reconnect with our past, present and future.