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PRINT Summer 1997

film

Elia Suleiman's Chronicle of a Disappearance

“MY LIFE MAKES ME LAUGH,” Elia Suleiman writes in his notes to Chronicle of a Disappearance. “I am far from being courageous. I hate venturing. I wish to settle down and lead a linear existence, but even when I purposely attempt to conform, something is bound to go wrong.” Suleiman’s first feature film is like a diary full of such false starts, but it is animated by wary optimism. Screened in New York recently in the “New Directors/New Films” series, copresented by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, this truly thoughtful movie deserves to be seen by a larger audience—and thanks to the nonprofit distributor International Film Circuit, it is in fact about to become one of the rare films on the subject of Palestine to be released nationally in the United States.

The movie describes the filmmaker’s return to Palestine, which is also Israel, after a long self-exile in New York. He visits family and friends in Nazareth. Later he rents an apartment in Jerusalem “to be closer to the airport.” Suleiman’s notes to the film tell us that he is thirty-seven, and that he lived in New York for twelve years. He’s roughly the age of Nabokov’s protagonist in Despair, who realizes that the future will be a series of repetitions unless he can make a drastic change. On screen, Suleiman, acting “a version of himself,” projects the bewildered propriety or civilized discomfort worn by exiles everywhere—unsure how to carry themselves, groping for form while relying on manners to finesse their confusion. Now he’s home, but home is just a more familiar foreign territory.

The first shot of Chronicle is a dark, massive close-up of the filmmaker’s father’s catnapping head, its constituent parts obscured, an image that becomes legible only after long staring and a little movement. Next, the filmmaker’s aunt enters a living room, sits on a sofa, and relates some family gossip to the camera. She's on her way to a funeral. She talks for a while, stops, leaves. These two scenes denote an entire milieu: a self-involved sphere of family life, the rituals of a marginal community, everything suffused with sun-drenched, Mediterranean-feeling torpor. But this torpid atmosphere is deceptive: things move slowly here because every step is dangerous.

Suleiman isn’t the only subject of his film; his out-of-placeness is echoed by many kinds of muffled or dissembled alienation, a localized symptom of a communal psychological displacement. This displacement is a glare that shimmers on the surface of things. Situations that look slack are burnished with tension. In many scenes, Suleiman is more a hapless or bemused observer than a full participant. His main opportunity to speak—a lecture in a small auditorium—is mooted by microphone feedback and the incessant ringing of cell phones. In other scenes he’s merely the camera: staring, listening, sifting pellucid and unsensational moments from an avalanche of data. The diary form mixes the diarist's subjectivity with things observed, a picture of reality forming in the oscillation between the two.

It isn’t so remarkable that almost nothing happens here until we add in the awareness of where this almost-nothing occurs. Chronicle would probably look like a post-Godardian exercise in minimalist cinema if its pieces weren’t charged by their setting. Suleiman ponders his identity as a Palestinian; Palestine searches for itself inside a political-military-socioeconomic organism called Israel. Life goes on, but in conditions of nervous uncertainty about the future. The quality of nothing-happening is a freighted sense of something in abeyance, a feeling of fragility about all arrangements and expectations.

We have to infer much that’s suggested by studied silence. The film’s politics are ambiguous, for many evident reasons. Suleiman’s parents remember Palestine before Israel existed; when Israel was established, they were probably Suleiman's age when he left for New York. Suleiman’s generation, meanwhile, has only known the world of the Occupation. These university-educated, middle-class, younger Palestinians relate to the struggle for an independent state with ambivalence—not from doubt that such a state should exist, but rather from revulsion at the narrow options offered by a perpetual struggle. Suleiman is young enough to know that suffering stinks, and old enough to know it’s unavoidable. We’re responsible to our moral ideas, and moral ideas make us suffer. Although Suleiman acts his part as a Chaplinesque sad sack, his diffident humor is also the tact of someone accustomed to grief. He know his anguish is a matter of indifference to the world; paradoxically, the only way to make it felt is to conceal it in a way that makes the audience feel clever about finding it.

The time frame of Chronicle is important—it’s more or less right now, the period of regression triggered by Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination and the election of Benjamin Netanyahu. Suleiman, strategically, doesn’t represent the large, drastic internal movements of the state, the Jewish settlements, the riots and bombings that constitute the world’s image of Israel/Palestine. Polemics in the form of “news” condition us to see human groups in the region in the shapes of concepts, surging masses, shouting heads; Suleiman instead films an everyday microcosm that looks like a lot of other places, with cars and computers, restaurants and TV sets, cell phones and espresso, inhabited by “Arabs” who are visually indistinguishable from “Israelis” and preoccupied with the same quotidian problems as everybody else.

Our mental Palestine needs the face Suleiman gives it. Like his father’s face at the beginning, it’s something we assemble gradually, from synecdochal information. In one scene, Paha Mohammed Ali, a Palestinian author, tells a story about his grandfather, a story about Istanbul, that the grandfather used to tell in exactly the same way whenever the writer visited him in Lebanon. “Tell me about Istanbul.” “Istanbul is the flower of cities. . . . ” Why? Because he could buy a delicious lamb’s head for lunch, with bread that had just been made, for practically nothing. The scene has the character of a scribbled note, but it resonates, evoking the sensual ephemera that create our lifelong attachment to places and, at the same time, the magnitude of the Palestinian diaspora.

Chronicle reminds us that there is a secular life that transpires outside feverish cryptoreligious conflicts, and from the film’s point of view, these conflicts are extraneous to the simple facts of existence. A young Arab woman wishing to rent an apartment in Jewish West Jerusalem, for example, will encounter the same kind of racism that African-Americans moving into white neighborhoods do in the States, as well as the opprobrium of older Arabs who think it's improper for an unmarried woman to have her own apartment. As far as the special, sacred character of this overpromised land goes, Suleiman’s view is worldly and skeptical. He sets several vignettes at the Holyland souvenir shop, where the proprietor bottles fake holy water—it’s poured straight from the tap, and never passed by a priest—for sale to Japanese tourists. Elsewhere a Russian cleric on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, with motorboats buzzing in the background, complains that tourists have turned the lake into an open sewer. When you peel away all the religious issues, the machinery of economics lies exposed, humming its endless stupid song.

The second half of Chronicle, “Jerusalem Political Diary,” uses some agitprop theatrics reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise, comedically illustrating the powerlessness and frustration of the Palestinian middle class, caught between competing fanaticisms with which it can't identify. An absurdist vision of “security”shows oafish police and agents conducting arbitrary searches, and police vehicles being rerouted all over the city by pranksters with walkie-talkies—and this nonsense, the film implies, could go on indefinitely, since real security is impossible under the explosive status quo.

Instead of depicting violence, Suleiman employs objects charged with violent charisma to signify threat. After we see a gun and a grenade in the hands of a character we assume to be a terrorist, they turn out to be cigarette lighters. (Cigarettes function throughout as expressive time-wasters, lit by various characters during long static stretches when a person walking in and out of frame figures as a major event.) While it’s generally hard to decide what specific connotative weight Suleiman intends such cryptic, laconic scenes to have, the sudden powerlessness of the fake weapons compels a symbolic reading—a view of the paraphernalia of real violence as stage props in a bad comedy that keeps everyone moving in circles. Suleiman’s images make circular patterns that mimic the Israel/Palestine impasse unmistakably. Inscribed in these patterns are tentative gestures of hope—in this context, even whimsy is a type of optimism. Chronicle of a Disappearance is a shrewdly soft-voiced argument for peace.

Gary Indiana’s column appears bimonthly in Artforum.

Chronicle of a Disappearance opens at Anthology Film Archives in New York on May 30.