Few Arab filmmakers have been greeted with the ceremonial reception given to Palestinian director Elia Suleiman last week at the second European Film Panorama hosted in Cairo’s CityStars cinema.
The three screenings of Suleiman’s highly acclaimed third feature, “The Time That Remains, were all sold out. Egyptian and foreign filmgoers alike flocked to the discussions that followed the screenings. A masterclass set up at the very last minute drew a throng of film students, filmmakers and actors. For the past week, there was no bigger star in Egypt than Suleiman.
Born in 1960 in Nazareth, Suleiman moved to New York 1982. A self-taught filmmaker, Suleiman began his career with two award-winning short films: “Introduction to the End of an Argument, which he co-directed with Jayce Salloum in 1990; and “Homage by Assassination the following year. He moved back to Palestine in 1994 and settled temporarily in Jerusalem, teaching film at the Birzeit University in the West Bank.
In 1996, Suleiman directed his feature, “Chronicle of a Disappearance, which went on to win the Best First Film Prize at the Venice Film Festival the same year. His second feature, “Divine Intervention, won the Jury Prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival and the Best Foreign Film award at the European Film Awards.
His deadpan comedy style, conscientious frame compositions and disregard for classical narrative structure cemented his reputation as the most original Arab filmmaker working today.
Daily News Egypt sat down with Suleiman last week to discuss his source of comedy, the Jacques Tati comparison and his employment of narrative for the first time in his career.
Daily News Egypt: How do you manage to find humor in tragedy?
Elia Suleiman: Now who is better to answer that question but an Egyptian? Because I would say that the sense of humor in Egypt, aside from it being cultural, comes in many cases from the absurdity of everyday life. Egyptian humor is so sophisticated and comes from the absurdity of so much of the despair that can occur vis-à-vis the political situation, vis-à-vis the economic situation.
In my country, I think I might be the only one who initiated inducing humor in art. Sarcasm and irony exists in every culture. Now you can add to it also the fact that it becomes a certain weapon of resistance, as a matter of sustenance for everyday life, as an emphasis on everyday life and its pleasures to tell the occupier: we maintain, we remain, we are there.
But it’s not a strategy; it’s what naturally happens when you have a people under occupation, when you have a people who are ghettoized.
It takes that and it takes the person who induces that humor. On a personal level, I come from a family of storytellers. My parents, my brothers, exchanged a lot of humor over lunch , around sitting sessions, and they produced a lot of irony and a lot of humor. I was the youngest one so I was definitely influenced by that.
Absurdity exists everywhere. Now the question is how to pick that moment and how to settle it in a certain temporality, in a certain gag, and in a certain motto that becomes a cinematic component. It’s not enough to just be funny. In cinema, you also have to have the tonality of that visual humor and all of the components of that visual framing temporality; they all have to come together in one thing called the tableaux or the story being told.
I’m still surprised that you never saw Jacques Tati or Buster Keaton before you made your first film, “Chronicle of a Disappearance .
I don’t think there is any wonder that you can have two people or three people among the millions around the around who have a similar sensibility or a physical resemblance. Imagine if I was living at the same time of Jacques Tati and not knowing him. It would’ve been possible too. The only thing is that I came in another phase of history, that’s all. But the truth of the matter is, now, as a spectator, when I watch Tati or Keaton, I’m many times mesmerized by the similarity between my work and theirs, even in the same kind of tonality.
Are you familiar with the films of [Swedish filmmaker] Roy Andersson? The odd thing is, his famous early work, which is very similar to yours, appeared round the same time when your work started to be recognized worldwide.
I think he is one of the most amazing filmmakers living today. Humor and poetics, this is the combination I adhere to all the time. How this happened, I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s a cosmic conspiracy (he laughs). I’m sure Roy Andersson wasn’t inspired by me at all. He has his very own powerful cinematic language. I’m still amazed he’s not more.
I think it’s understandable though.
It is understandable, but at the same time, I think it’s a pity that not a lot of people know of him. If world distributors were a little bit more courageous, I’m sure he would’ve had many more spectators. There is a checkpoint erected by distributors to decide for the spectator what they need to see and what they don’t, and this is a tragic element of cinema.
Your first two films were composed of separate vintages. “The Time That Remains is your first work to use a form of narrative. Why did you decide to change direction?
I think “The Time That Remains has its own domain of challenge. I wanted to make the most un-epic epic; a very big bang narrative which is the big bang of the Palestinian people. It was a high risk to come and take something so charged as a departure point and I took it from such a personal point of view even though I never lived through ’48, but it’s something that my father lived. I went that extra mile to actually dig into something that doesn’t have the same momentum of feel of what I did or used before.
The idea to historicize in cinema is a trap, one that has to be so amazingly careful not to fall into because you have all these dates and details that historians would debate and get preoccupied with and leave behind the cinematic element.
Is that why you decided to sidestep history to a great extent?
I maintained a certain level of historicism at the same time
Very loose though.
Yes, very loose. You can say I also deviated from coded history. I did tackle ’48, but I chose the one place where nothing much happened, which is Nazareth. I didn’t tackle ’67, I chose the year 1970 instead. It had nothing to do with official history, but with my memory of the emotions of those moments. For me, my father sitting frozen when Nasser died had a big impact on my mother; it brought so much sadness to the house that I still remember it so well until this very moment.
This is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve experienced in the movies this year. I’ve seen grown men cry in that scene.
Here’s the thing. You can share with so many people a certain emotional moment that everyone experienced from a personal perspective. Everyone has their own special memories of when they heard that Nasser died. Almost every single person who lived that moment vividly remembers where they were and what they were doing.
I chose the emotion of this moment, not necessarily the historical aspect of it and this is how I similarly dealt with ’48. I did not choose the mega spectacular. In ’48, it was the moment when the mayor gave up and surrendered the city. You have to remain faithful to the moment though, and that’s why I did a lot of research.
In addition to the personal side, I researched what exactly had happened in order for the imagination not just to be based on something imagined, to be based on a departure of truth.
Most of the film’s budget was concentrated on the first part of the movie. If you had more money would you have done the last part differently?
There is no way of knowing. There were many things I couldn’t do and I have a feeling we would have had something that we don’t have in the movie. But I am not different from so many directors who get censored for example. I happened not to have been censored, but the pressures of the economic factor definitely left me with a very tired soul.
I was unde
r such an amazing pressure to survive in this film, but this struggle eventually induced a certain humility that I suddenly discovered how essential it is for me. I was really blessed, even though the factor that made it happen is not a desirable factor.
The abundance of a budget can also start to make you have a show of muscle and become presumptuous about what it is that you are capable of doing, because in the cinema, there is also a circus you can play in. The fact that I had to do so much with so little was beneficial in so many ways, not all the way though.
I cannot entirely dismiss the importance of the extra cash. If I had had a little more budget, I would have spent a little more time taking care of certain details that were not taken care of. That would have added for sure to the film. It is a bit like when you have a child, and you miss a little bit on a certain form of upbringing. But you still love the child. I’m very happy with the film, it’s evident, but the facts are here. Yes it was quite difficult to actually complete this film, especially during the financial crisis which I am sure had a hand in the making of this film.
Part 2 of this interview will appear in tomorrow s edition ofDaily News Egypt.