In part two of Daily News Egypt s interview with award-winning Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, he discusses the necessity of unpredictability in his films, the financial predicaments he faced in making “The Time That Remains and his views regarding the future of Palestine.
Daily News Egypt: The last part of “The Time That Remains is radically different from the first. Gone are the big emotions, the big moments. Instead, you allow the banality and monotony of the present to take over. Did you intentionally aim at dashing the audiences’ expectations?
Elia Suleiman: It even excites me to always break up expectation, not only in this film, but in all my films. For me, it’s essential to have a certain dose of unpredictability, not only from one section to another, as you say, but from one scene to another. The element of surprise for the spectators is not to have a déjà vu, but a certain familiarity of certain moments as if they had happened, so they flow with the surprise and they are not terribly shocked at the same time. They become involved in a moment of renewal in the new story, so they’d experience that excitement, if they receive that kind of renewability.
It’s essential for me from the moment I start writing the script that the next shot or next scene or the next tableau is an unpredictable moment, even though it should follow narratively. For example, in “Devine Intervention, it’s so far away from classism to think that the son is going to visit his father who has just collapsed in the house and along the way he explodes the tank. It doesn’t exist narratively, but then after he explodes the tank, he is in the hospital to visit his father and the weight of his sadness about his father still exists. The risk is that you might not be able to sustain that kind of drama, but you have to be so absolutely at risk to do that kind of attempt and maintain the element of surprise.
Now if you asked many people what was before the explosion of the tank, many people will not know, will not remember.
He was eating as far as I remember
He was in the kitchen; he drank his coffee and then fell apart. Then you see me, my character, for the first time eating a peach and throwing away the pit that explodes the tank. The next scene, it’s the natural one in the hospital. The same thing I did in this film. The last part is not different from the other parts in terms of the unpredictability except for.
Exactly. I had a very special tone in the ’48, the two periods that covered the 70s and 80s, and then I had a different motif of the Nazareth of today. The fact is the way the film progresses, is totally opposed to a normal narrative structure where normally towards that end, you do the opposite; you fasten the tempo. The second the mother appears eating the ice cream in the last part, the temporality goes down to another level. It becomes a lot slower; the scene becomes more of a ticking clock, a total silence. It was there that we know that we have to adjust a new temporality.
Were you concerned though about losing your audience?
You’re always concerned with that all the time, but you always take the edge because if you start to take precautions, I think you will lose that edge. The best thing is to have faith that people will respond to your risks. Some assumed that people will remember mostly the ’48 part, but in reality, the majority remembers those moments of silence and the scene of the mother near the end where she sits still with Nagat’s song playing.
I think that I passed the test I set for myself because even critics give those little moments and the last part very special attention. In a way, I am very cautious, but I never censor myself. I always stretch the risk a little further. I wanted to take that step; otherwise I think I would have fallen into the trap of a very classical ending, which I didn’t want. I wanted the poetics to touch the very intimate, the very personal side of us.
There has been a lot of talk lately about the reallocation of most of the French money to French-speaking films. Since all three films of yours have been partially produced by French companies like Canal +, did you personally experience the impact of this change of policy?
I haven’t yet, but I might though. My difficulty was not this change of policy; it was more about the financial element at large. In other words, every time I make a movie, it’s hell to find finance, regardless of whether the previous one is a success or not. My first film got the first prize in Venice for first feature. Everybody told me go and write one because now all doors will open for me. What is true is that I did have a couple of chances, but those ones basically wanted to take me out from my milieu, to a more commercialized one. I had a lot of money offered but in a certain category of commercialization. I refused, and I am happy I refused. I could have gone into wanting to get rich and having facility. I didn’t do that.
After “Chronicle of a Disappearance, I told a big production company that I would write the script that I want to write and they shall decide if they want to go in or not, and of course they never did. Had [great French producer] Humbert Balsan not come into “Divine Intervention, it wouldn’t have been realized because I wouldn’t have felt comfortable working with any other producer at that moment.
When it came to “Time That Remains, I was really an orphan. There was no producer to be had who would go with an idea like this, because of its risks, because of its subject. Some people said it’s just “Divine Intervention 2 and refused to support the project; others who did want it to be “Divine Intervention 2 backed down when they found out that it wasn’t. Because “Divine Intervention was a success, they wanted me to do another one like it. Out of all my projects, “The Time That Remains was the most difficult to finance.
I’m quite surprised I have to say. I assumed it must’ve been the other way round.
It wasn’t. Like “Divine Intervention, if it wasn’t for one person, it wouldn’t have happened. That person was Hani Farsi, a Saudi Arabian young man who had nothing to do with cinema except for his passion for it. He loved “Divine Intervention, read the script for “The Time That Remains and loved it. He’s a businessman, has never ventured in film before. He’s a cinephille though and when he read the script; he came up with a big sum of money, knowing that he is not going to make his money back. He put practically 25 percent of the finance, and this is what made the film happen. And every time when I had censorship being imposed on me, when I was told that I couldn’t use a certain piece of music for example because it’s expensive, he would fully intervene and give me what I wanted. It doesn’t happen very often to work with those kinds of people.
In 2003, you stated in an interview for the Guardian that you “oppose the notion of statehood as it stands at the moment, and that what you want to see is “no religion, multi-national, open borders. Do you still hold those views?
What I said, and I say it many times, is that the Palestinians want a state in the West Bank in Gaza because they want the occupation to be out of their doorsteps. It’s not a notion of a state; it’s what it represents in terms of their freedom. This is what they want; they should have what they want. What I’m saying is that it’s not going to answer the question of Palestine, because there are so many Palestinians like me, Palestinians of ’48. Who are they? Don’t they want their dignity and freedom? They’re still living under a certain kind of occupation.
I am saying that a two-state solution might serve the issue, but it will not serve till the end. What will serve till the end is justice for all. I’ll definitely fight with the Palestinians to have their state, but when the flag will be raised, I will fight to lower it down because I want an expansion to that freedom and not a segregation of that freedom. There are many other Palestinians than those in the West Bank and Gaza. There ar
e millions of refugees who have been served zero justice until now. What about them? I have no illusion about the pragmatism and the difficulty of solving the issue. I am not a politician; I am somebody who dreams of justice. But dream is a way to achieve this goal. So yes, I still believe that a secular state might be the just thing to have.