Elia Suleiman: Pure cinema is spontaneous

Elia Suleiman: Pure cinema is spontaneous
Culture: Dima Choukr speaks with the Palestinian director about the themes of his films, his techniques, the Israeli occupation and his recent collaboration with the Doha Film Institute.
22 min read
13 October, 2015
Suleiman is best known for Divine Intervention, described as a "surreal black comedy" [Getty]

Elia Suleiman is not just a Palestinian director; he is one of the nation's foremost directors.

From his first film, Suleiman has been able to present a different image of the people of Palestine. His films fled from ready-made stereotypes, gravitating towards grand metaphors revolving around both the cause of Palestine and the humanist cause at large.

It is difficult to categorise the filmmaking of this Nazarene, but one thing is sure: they are enchanting films, magically combining joy and sorrow in Suleiman's own signature style.

Dima Choukr: You are a filmmaker from Nazareth, Palestine. It is not just another city; it is the city of Jesus Christ. This is what makes it famous. Yet you veered off this road, so to speak. In your three films, Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996) Divine Intervention (2002) and The Time That Remains (2009), Nazareth is not a city but a metaphor for occupation-torn Palestine.

You appropriated the city by neutralising its sacred identity. How did you accomplish that?

Elia Suleiman: That may be. Perhaps I kind of appropriated Nazareth's sanctity. The city is sacred, historically, but I do not know to what extent this is true today. I believe the opposite is true.

With globalisation, it is perhaps more apt to say that Nazareth's sanctity has been globalised, becoming more of a tourist sanctity. But let me start from the beginning. My starting point is not metaphor.

I do not start by saying I want to make a film about Nazareth or the occupation.

It is true that I am from Nazareth, but I lived outside it too, which has given me both an insider's and an outsider's view. I think this has to do with the camera's angle in my films, which is set at some distance, because I want to remain loyal and true to what I am filming.

Nazareth is like a closed ghetto with a strong religious presence, but it is also where you spent your childhood. And yet you removed from it its sacredness...

I want to make one thing clear: Sacredness was [already] removed from it. I film with a sense of objectivity, and remove nothing. The viewer... can decide whether something has been removed or not.

I don't think my relationship with the country has to do with this sacredness anyway. But it's true that the relationship is indeed with the ghetto, the psychological pressure, and the "other" kind of occupation - since the military occupation in Nazareth is over. The occupation now takes the form of economic, and of course racial pressure. There is disruption of life and of movement in Nazareth.

It is a very small city. Israel seized all its lands in a systematic way, leaving only a small part, where people live on top of one another. There is a ghetto, unemployment, and crime in Nazareth. It reminds me of Harlem in New York in the 1980s, because of the frustration there.

Nazareth has changed. I was there a while ago. It is still a ghetto, but the ghetto has been globalised - like in many other parts of the world.

There is something clear in your three films, other than they are autobiographical. Repetition is a recurrent feature.

You film in the same kitchen and the same coffeeshop, though each time you seem to present a different meaning. Yet on the other hand, repetition suggests time is not passing and there is a general sense of monotony. It is as if you're saying: come see how the occupation stopped life here.

How do you use these recurrent motifs and yet change the meaning every time?

That's a very good question. The risk filmmakers take by using repetition artistically lies in portraying dullness without being dull at the same time. This is tricky.

I use this to create a comical, farcical effect, by filming the same person, setting or event with some kind of punchline or slight addition.

You keep trying each time, until you find the place where the rhythm should be broken, with that slight addition that highlights the irony or humour in the shot.

Of course, what you said is true. I do this not just to show the monotony; there is tension in this monotony. The monotony is due to the absence of choices. Those who live a life like this always try to get out of this situation, and could fail or succeed. Mostly, the attempts fail... which creates desperation, which in turn leads to irony, the closest thing to frustration and despair... that people feel in this ghetto, not just in Nazareth but everywhere.

The irony in my films is also because of my own character and filmmaking style, and I think both layers intersect at this point.

There is a link between repetition and irony, which arises from paradoxes at which you excel. In one scene in The Time That Remains, a Palestinian youth speaks on his mobile phone ignoring the turret of an Israeli tank chasing him, as he paces back and forth.

In another scene, a tourist asks an Israeli soldier for directions to a church in Jerusalem's Old City, but the soldier has no clue and asks a blindfolded Palestinian he had just detained for help.

Let me put it this way... The reason I did not portray Israelis with complex social layers in my film is because they do not exist this way among Palestinians. The only thing Palestinians know is the police in the territories of 1948, and the army in the West Bank...

It is not me who portrays them in this manner. I am not excluding anything, and this is simply what I experience and see.

Israeli viewers have asked me, is there nothing else other than Israeli tanks and police cars? My answer is that I am not lying to you and I am not imagining things that Israel does; this is reality. I do not pick and choose. I sit in places, walk in the streets, spend hours and months imbibing this climate of cynicism, sadness and depression.

For example, the tourist who asks [directions] from the Israeli soldier: I tell you, 99 percent of what is in my films are things I have lived, seen and documented. Yet I am not copying reality. As a director, this is anathema. Why would I copy reality when I am making art?

The tourist is of course a metaphor, but a metaphor linked to a reality I saw. The Israeli soldiers cannot give directions to a tourist in an occupied land that they are unfamiliar with, that they did not live in and have no roots or history in. The blindfolded detainee, however, can.

In Divine Intervention, you succeed in making the viewer feel admiration for the intelligent and resourceful Palestinians. We never see Palestinians in the film crying or bleeding and in pain.

You shattered the stereotype of Palestinians as victims, where we do not pity but love the Palestinian characters. By doing so, you succeeded in showing their humanity.

Of course. First of all, I do not feel Palestinians are a special case among peoples under occupation. Yet something sets this occupation apart because of its brutality. It is a rare kind of occupation in today's world, but in the end, it follows strategies that are essentially and historically settler-colonial. In the present time, it is a post-colonial occupation.

Palestinians have to be shown in all their complexities. They are under occupation, but they have a lot to do, things that appear as though the occupation has nothing to do with, but the opposite is true.

Palestinians have the ability to challenge occupation through the things they do, and the way they choose to live their lives and fulfil their desires.

In this regard, Palestinians are no different from anyone else - even under occupation. They have a kind of determination to carry on living. When you mentioned the tank, you mentioned a good example. That person wanted to go to the disco to dance, regardless of the turret trained on him. He wanted to dance and that is resistance, a poetic peaceful resistance.

     He wanted to dance and that is resistance, a poetic peaceful resistance

Again, I did not invent anything here. A friend from Ramallah told me this story, which happened when the Israeli army was besieging Yasser Arafat. My friend had woken up early and he found a tank outside his house. He wanted to take out the trash, and he did, ignoring the tank.

The tank did not train its large turret on him, but a smaller one. In the scene, I chose the big gun as a caricature.

It is as though you are inflating reality. When we combine these elements of repetition, monotony, silence and focus on Palestinians as humans, and even the comical illogic, such as with the scene where the neighbour gets drunk and claims to have a solution to all Arab problems, viewers feel the pinch of the occupation. It is the occupation that is illogical.

Yes, in the end there [are two] type[s] of cinematic expression. In one, we see an Israeli soldier beating Palestinians, in order to show the cruelty of the occupation. But there is another kind, which is to show daily life and determined resistance, which in a way "humiliates" the occupiers.

The way I show Israeli soldiers in my films ridicules the occupation. In my opinion, the occupation is absurd in the way it conducts itself, and its power and might are very brittle. This is clear when it is faced with resistance and the continuation of everyday life. The soldiers cannot bear to see Palestinians continuing to live under the weight of this occupation.

This is what disturbs the Israelis the most when they see my films, the absence of direct violence that they prefer to see. They tell me they prefer to see Israeli soldiers beating Palestinians because that allows them to give [the soldiers] excuses: we hit him because they threw stones or because they are terrorists.

But what excuse would they have in the tank scene? A Palestinian wants to go to the disco to dance, so what would be their excuse? You cannot debate that.

But cinema is not about debating, legitimising, or de-legitimising anything. It is different from the media, which shows violent scenes that I believe are some of the worst things that harm Palestinians.

If we go back to the tourist scene, the teacher scene or the man and the tank. What process goes into the writing and editing? Let us go into the heart of your work.

This is more interesting. Cinematically, I avoid a linear narrative, which I find a tad superficial. The linear narrative makes you attached to a character and a plot, and you identify with a character as part of a story with a beginning, a climax, and a denouement. I avoid this linear narrative, and my films have many narratives [at once].

The way I do this is that I sit and observe. I ask questions and I stare. Sometimes, I sit at home for hours and hours in silence, trying to dream away. I think daydreams are tributaries of scripts. They always carry potential for narrative elements by querying aesthetical, hopeful dimensions.

I take notes in a small notebook, and fill one notebook after the other. Sometimes, a whole month could pass and nothing would happen. Others, many things happen at once. Sometimes I am alert, sometimes I am distracted. Sometimes I feel no inspiration, at others I feel it.

I carry on like this, observing and taking notes from observation and imagination. At some point - I don't know how to explain this - the notes take on weight and become heavy. Something happens consciously or subconsciously, and I get a feeling or a need to sit and read everything I wrote. I start putting them together and try to find the link between them.

I discover in the end images and sounds, then I imagine potentials. I am never certain, but then I start synthesising, exactly like a painter, with one stroke after another, until he sees what he needs to express exactly. It is possible to get a scene out of this process.

This scene will have frames in which many things could happen. It could take hours or months to put these images together. As the scenes come together, I could come to feel the strokes of the brush are enough and have sufficient weight to form a painting. Sometimes, the scenes do not come together, so I cut and splice, or put them aside thinking the time for them had not yet come. I put them on post it notes on the wall.

This is very poetic. The way you described your work, with the notebooks that you write in every day, this is exactly what diligent poets do, whether inspiration comes or not. I found it odd that you compared your work with that of a painter, however, as your process is closer to that of a poet. Do you have a strong relationship with poetry?

I read poetry, but no, my relationship with poetry is not strong. What motivates and excites me in a poem is not poetry. I could find poetry in a piece of writing that may not be poetry per se. It could be a novel, a critique or an article where I find an inspirational sentence.

But the way you described your process is similar to that of a poet. If we consider the scene of the flying balloon with Yasser Arafat's face, or the heroine who turns into a ninja, there is a wild imagination involved, and this is usually associated with poetry. Perhaps these ideas come from your daydreams, like a poet?

I read poetry, but it is not my only source of inspiration. I could say that my main inspiration is the will to resist, and the state we are in, not just in Palestine, but in general.

To be pro-Palestinian is to be pro-change and pro-progress.

For me, Palestine is in the heart of all these causes. I am not just in favour of the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. I am not with the establishment of states at all.

The main thing is my will to carry on and constantly examine the situation. This sometimes produces anger, sometimes frustration, but mostly, a will to resist.

What is happening to us is connected to what is happening in Latin America, for example. Palestine cannot be seen in isolation, and it can be made into a global metaphor for resisting occupation or oppression against anyone. The desire for change generates the irony you see in my films too. Everything is connected.

I want to give a very direct example. Do you remember that scene where Israeli soldiers rob a Palestinian home in 1948? They take the gramophone, put a record on and then dance.

When I set out to film, the [idea of the] scene did not exist yet, and I was just looking for a location to film. I met a neighbour of ours by coincidence. I asked her if I could go up to the balcony of her house to film. She asked me about the theme of the film, and I said [the events of] 1948. She said: "I want to tell you about happened to me. I had just returned from my honeymoon in Beirut. Israeli soldiers raided my home and took my things."

It was a shock for her, to return from her honeymoon to find the Haganah looting her house. She started crying, even though many years had passed since.

I was upset and angry. I told her: "I cannot get your things back but I will avenge you." I climbed down from the balcony and told the assistant director, who was already under pressure because of the lack of resources: "We have a new scene."

He refused, saying the scenes were already too many and needed to be cut down. I insisted, saying the scene had to be in the film. He asked me what the scene was and I said: "I don't know, but I know exactly where it should be filmed; here, outside this house."

     I watched a film by Japanese film director Yasujirō Ozu, I think Tokyo Story. I felt as if the people in the film were from Nazareth

This is how the scene came about. I did not make a violent scene but a satirical one with a dance. This scene in particular sparked an uproar in Israel. Because they are brainwashed to believe the Zionist Israeli army is moral. They occupy and do anything they please - but they do not steal.

When in reality, they are thieves. They stole the whole country.

They stole an entire country, with its history, literature and even furniture. Yes, Moshe Dayan would haul stolen furniture in helicopters in 1967. So just imagine how much this scene upsets them, especially that it is sarcastic. They cannot claim it did not happen; it happened.

Of course it happened. Still, it doesn't mean your films are documentaries. They are not narrative films either. They are a genre in and of itself, combining fiction with reality. Like the scene of the woman who turns into one of the ninja...

I can tell you about the ninja and other things to show you how some motifs are half-fiction, half-reality. This was during the second intifada. I was on the highway and I saw a huge ad showing a masked Palestinian with a sentence in Hebrew saying: "Come and shoot." It was an ad to train ordinary citizens to shoot Palestinians.

I was shocked. I took a picture of the ad. Then I told myself, what if the image of the Palestinian turned into a living Palestinian? They would shoot and shoot at him, and then he could come from behind the billboard and fight back. This is how that scene was born.

The scene where a tank is destroyed by a seed: I was on the road and I saw a truck carrying a tank travelling to the north, towards south Lebanon. I was eating a plum and I threw the seed out the window inadvertently. Then I had the idea for the scene and it was born.

How did you come about this cinematic language, since you did not study cinema? Who were your influences?

I did not have a cinematic cultivation to begin with. I left school early on. I did not know what I wanted. I did not have filmmaking on my mind. People would ask me what I was going to study. I wanted to invent something, and the only thing I could say was "art". So I would say I wanted to learn filmmaking.

I did not know what that meant. It started as a lie and it seems I believed it in the end. I became curious about cinema, so I started reading. I was never a reader before, and did not know how to find or buy a book from a bookshop. The alphabetical order of books confused me.

I would lie to the bookshop owners in New York. I would go into a library with two lists, one for books and one for films, prepared by my "cultured" friends. I would tell the staff there I was dyslexic and could not fetch the books and films myself. They would bring them to me and I would buy them.

At the time, I had no discipline. I learned in a chaotic way. At some point, I saved some money and spent a whole year doing nothing except watching films.

I did not have a strong desire to work in cinema. However, one day, I watched a film by Japanese film director Yasujirō Ozu, I think Tokyo Story. I felt as if the people in the film were from Nazareth, and I felt the way they were filmed was the way I normally see things.

After that, I developed a strong interest in cinema from the far east, from Japan and Taiwan. I was influenced by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsein. Then I discovered other filmmakers.

The director who gave me confidence to make films was Frenchman Robert Bresson. I found a producer for Divine Intervention, who had been impressed by Chronicle of a Disappearance. He worked as an assistant to Robert Bresson, and he had noticed the shared motifs between Chronicle of a Disappearance and Bresson's films, so we worked together.

I developed a film cultivation. I was influenced by many other directors, but [Michelangelo] Antonioni has a special place in my heart, not just thanks to his films but also thanks to his writings about his films. Indeed, my first encounter with cinema was through books and not films. My brother taught at the University of Haifa, and I would ask him for books for my self-study, books like Godard On Godard and Antonioni's books.

I started filming with one of those popular handheld cameras. One of my friends was a Bedouin shepherd, and his goat was the first thing I filmed. When I was in Nazareth recently, I looked everywhere for this tape but could not find it.

Afterwards, I had a different idea for a film. My Bedouin friend lived in a tent with his family on the outskirts of a Bedouin village. There was an army force there whose function was to keep Bedouin women out as they foraged, and expel Bedouins from their natural environment to force them to live in homes. This was part of their process for expelling people from their land and then seizing it.

My friend's father was stubborn and did not want to leave his tent. In the end, he caved in and agreed with the occupation army to move out of his tent on the day of his son's wedding, and settle in the village. This was my first documentary, to film a day when joy and sorrow combined.

After that, I offered the village people to film their weddings for free, except for the cost of the VHS tapes, which was $1. I had one condition: not just film the wedding, but also the preparations. They agreed reluctantly because they preferred to be filmed only in their wedding clothes - but then it was free.

We became close and they wanted me to live with them. I filmed their daily lives. It was like practicing, and I learned a lot being so close to the theme and the subjects. This lasted for almost a year.

The village was called al-Bir al-Maksour - the broken well - exactly because it had a broken well.

You filmed for fun, not for money. Do you face funding issues for your films?

Funding has always been a problem. My films are expensive, and I cannot adjust my imagination according to a budget. The ninja and the balloon scenes were expensive. I don't think about budgets when I write or imagine the film, but sometimes, I do sense it will be costly and that I will be in a tough position.

There is something called medium-budget films, costing 3 to 5 million dollars. This is not my problem alone, and it haunts all those who make this type of films, which have no stars and little prospect for profit.

Those who want to make films like this do it because they love the film and want to take the risk, and while they might hope for some profit, they definitely do not seek it. These films are considered "Art House" films and are tough to market, and are distributed as such.

On the other hand, films like mine make profits from time to time. I don't know how it happens, but in the right time and conditions, there could be interest in similar films.

For example, Divine Intervention did very well, but this did not happen with The Time That Remains. This is not surprising, since the film was bleak and dark, despite having some humour. But the last scenes were heavy and the 1948 violence in the film is heavy. Some people did not want to see it, even among Palestinians.

I want to explore the issue in practice. In my opinion, there should be an institution sponsoring this work.

There are no institutions in Ramallah that provide this kind of support. There is one person or two who throw some crumbs. We do not have enough solidarity for rich Palestinians, who are few anyway, to launch a drive to establish a [Palestinian] cinema. There is no faith in art. Culture in general, not just cinema, is weak in the Arab world, and lacks the foundations to resist the occupation.

This is not the problem of Palestinian filmmakers alone. It is a profound problem of culture. In publishing, there is also an absence of institutions and funding, because it seems there is no appreciation of culture. Here I would like to ask you about Qumra.

I serve as an artistic consultant for the Doha Film Institute (DFI). I'm not an employee and I have nothing to do with the funding of any film. I have certain strategic ties with the concepts, the principal one of which is Qumra. The previous event, that is the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, which was a traditional red carpet festival, was shelved. We can say the Ajyal Film Festival overtook Tribeca.

     I and others thought about doing something more serious, something that could better serve our region and even the world

I and others thought about doing something more serious, something that could better serve our region and even the world.

Qumra is not a festival or a laboratory. It is just Qumra, with a flexible and open concept. The idea is to bring new Arab and non-Arab filmmakers to work with mentors, who could be other directors, marketers, and so on. But the idea is also to keep the number limited and keep the programme limited so as not to detract from its impact.

The first edition of Qumra was very successful and received global press coverage. Yet if we start expanding it, then the concern would be that it would go out of control and become "showbiz", so we are keen to avoid this. The idea is to create a close relationship between emerging filmmakers and mentors. Of course, directors get grants, but the relationship does not end there. There is continuity. The DFI helps them and gives them advice.

Qumra is akin to a workshop but not quite one itself. It is flexible. Tomorrow, there could be a new need that wasn't part of the programme, so we can add it. In short, Qumra is in an experimental, non-final state. This format is better than a festival and awards format every year, which does not serve anyone as much as we would like.

Some of the mentors are producers and marketers, and there is potential to produce a film if needed, so there is a relationship with the market here.

Speaking of marketing, are you against marketing art? What about Qumra?

No, God forbid. I would love for my films to be marketed like, say, Avatar, but I will not compromise on the artistic value and the efforts I put into it cinematically, only for it to become a commercial work. If the art that I present can become commercial without compromise, then so be it.

I want to clarify here that Qumra is not involved in distributing my films. In Qumra, we invite leading distributing and marketing agents worldwide. Then contact is established between them and emerging filmmakers through workshops. This is our purpose, and not to find a marketer or distributor for filmmakers. We open up possibilities.

I provide counsel but I don't have any power. I love this work and I have a passion to help emerging directors, especially because of my personal experience. I have suffered a lot and knocked on many doors. I was rejected and was accused of being crazy, a failure and a hack. No one helped me or held my hand, and it was very frustrating.

So when I see what DFI is doing today, I tell myself, if I had that, I would not have suffered as much. I used to roam the streets of Paris looking for a producer, and would be humiliated because of a script. They would tell me: "This is not a Palestinian script, this is an American script."

I did not have money and I did not use the underground because I could not afford a ticket. Look at DFI now, it is providing knowledge, experience and grants to young directors.

For this reason, I asked you about the DFI. What if the DFI model is replicated? Imagine 22 Arab countries with 22 similar institutions. Arab cinema would be in a different place.

True, but this requires certain capabilities, which Qatar has.

It is not just about capabilities. The decision to establish an institute is political, in my opinion. Even culture itself would benefit from this.

I agree, one hundred percent. Unfortunately, even if there are resources provided, hungry mouths would swallow these, which affects the quality of films.

It impacts serious and fresh cinema because it does not receive backing, while "sloganeering" and ridiculous cinema receives all the resources. Unfortunately, this is the current situation.

Elia Sulieman was in conversation with Dima Choukr, for al-Araby al-Jadeed. This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.