Through Sunday, the Arab American National Museum is presenting the four features Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman has made over the course of more than twenty years. These online screenings are free in the U.S., Canada, and Palestine, but capacity is limited. “On the one hand,” wrote Bilge Ebiri, introducing his interview with the director published on the Current two years ago, Suleiman’s films “are droll, deadpan comedies that at times recall the films of Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati, with Suleiman himself often at the center as a quiet, bemused, occasionally melancholy protagonist and observer. But the absurdities in these pictures come from somewhere deadly serious: the surreal texture of life in Palestine under Israeli occupation.”
Suleiman grew up poor in Nazareth, often referred to as “the Arab capital of Israel,” and left the city for New York in his early twenties. In 1994, he moved to Jerusalem and began teaching at Birzeit University in the West Bank and working on Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996), which won an award for best first feature in Venice. In Chronicle, Suleiman “presents a series of tableaux, seemingly unconnected images and incidents that give the impression that they are searching for a unifying narrative thread,” wrote Marjorie Baumgarten in the Austin Chronicle the following year. “Despite their idiopathic expressiveness, no conventional storyline emerges. But together they create a compelling portrait of marginalization and inaction.”
Writing for Artforum,Gary Indiana suggested that 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.”
Divine Intervention (2002) premiered in Cannes, won a jury award, and was named the best film in competition by the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI). Set in Nazareth, Divine has a “sketch comedy structure” that is “less an evocation of Israeli aggression than it is a startling acknowledgement of a society’s chilling acclimation to day-to-day terror,” wrote Slant’s Ed Gonzalez. “Perhaps more incredible than the film’s daring structure is the smoothness of the execution—like sharp, many-ridged blade.” The Time That Remains (2008) is “a funny, achingly sad, and discreetly bitter bricolage of embellished autobiography that evolves into a counter-history of the State of Israel, from 1948 onward,” wrote Ella Taylor at the top of her interview with Suleiman for the Village Voice in 2011. “In its oblique, intensely personal way, The Time That Remains inserts an acidic voice into the fierce debates currently being waged in the country about who qualifies as Israeli.”
In 2019, Suleiman returned to Cannes for a third time, winning a special mention from the jury and another FIPRESCI prize for It Must Be Heaven. Here, Suleiman “turns his delightfully absurdist, unfailingly generous gaze beyond the physical homeland, where parallels and dissonance abound,” wrote Jay Weissberg for Variety. He leaves Nazareth for Paris, and then New York, only to find that no matter how far he roams, the world remains just off-kilter enough to keep reminding him of home. Weissberg observes that “Suleiman’s robe of bemusement protects a more fragile body both at home and abroad, where the possibility of exile adds a further level of destabilization: What does it mean to carry one’s roots to a different soil?”
For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.