Seven Questions For Elia Suleiman, Director Of "Chronicle Of A Disappearance"
by Anthony Kaufman
Elia Suleiman journeys to a fleeting sense of home in his first feature,
"Chronicle Of A Disappearance," which played at the New
Directors/New Films series en route from Sundance, Rotterdam, Venice,
London and Nantes, all of which praised the film's political poignancy and
clever ironies. A 36 year-old Palenstinian with scarely a high school
education, Suleiman has produced a film evoking the likes of Godard and
Antonioni, filled with complex questions of identity and national politics.
For Suleiman, the film is a "search of what it means to be Palestinian."
Suleiman was extremely honest in his responses, cynical at times, and
always articulate. One of the first things he asked me was, "Do you think I
can eat during the interview." "Of course," I responded and after a long
discussion on whether or not to get carrot juice or cappuccino, we began.
indieWIRE: What has the response been to the film?
Elia Suleiman: What I aim to do in this film I actually accomplished. Even when
they object to the nature of the presentation of the film, a lot of people
have delayed questioning. They don't know how to invent the language that
must deal immediately. . . There is no ready-made rhetoric that they could
say, "I don't agree with you on this or that?" I mean, what can they pick
on. . . . My mother walking across the room, I mean, what are they going to
say, "No, your mother doesn't walk this way. She walks on her head." I
think that maybe there was a general lack of response as far as those who
may have not liked the film, but I didn't hear, I mean, of course, you get
an audience that doesn't like the film for aesthetic reasons, but I didn't
get those either.
iW: Has it played in Jerusalem?
Suleiman: The responses were so fragmented, the situation there so complex,
you had Israeli film viewers who were absolutely enchanted by the film.
Some of those were troubled by what I was trying to state, for instance,
there was a complete absence of that Other. . . the Israelis are not there
in the film, in fact, you see caricatures. Those who would like to have
seen themselves as input in a film like this didn't find themselves there.
iW: Were you surprised at the critical response of the festivals. It seems
to be very good, very popular and from my perspective, this does not seem
to be an easy, traditional, "film festival" film?
Suleiman: I am not exactly surprised, but you're never sure how people are
going to respond. You're simply scared. I must say, though, that even
though the film might pose as a difficult film, it is not, in fact, it's a
very simple film. The only thing that is not in the film is the
straightforward narrative. But then each tableau that comes has its humour
and has its life, then people don't concern themselves with the narrative.
. . and that proves you can do a film that can entertain people and that
does not necessarily have to center itself on a beginning, middle and end.
So, no, actually, funny, it's not even the festival people, it's also the
general public, the people even who were in MOMA responded like the people
in Nazareth. I think maybe because there is something for everyone in it. I
iW: You were talking about it as a political film and the division you make
between Part I [Nazareth Personal Diary] and Part II [Jerusalem Political
Diary]. Is that a real division for you or is it a device?
Suleiman: I think I can easily say there's a bit of it that's a pretext.
When you make film, you make film. I think the fact that I said political
diary, maybe, it makes sense in the fact that the critique is that there's
supposed to be peace there. So I'm going there and making a film about the
peace there which is not true -- another pretext. What I find is a very
politicized atmosphere. But in Nazareth, it's extremely political as well,
but then it's also extremely personal. If you want to truly define the
meaning of political, then, of course, it's truly just a tag and a more
cinematic device rather than anything else, because I think both are
personal. I think everything is personal. Everything is political.
iW: What about using yourself in the films?
Suleiman: Obviously, there is a very good reason. Because truly what I'm
doing is a personal film. But then, there's all the cinematic conceptual
reasons behind it. And what I try to do is, actually, let's say, somehow
decentralize the authoritative positioning of the filmmaker. You can do
that in different strategies. Actually doing that by putting myself as an
object, as part of the image. And if you notice, actually, in "Homage by Assassination" [a short film made in 1992], you saw me a lot on the sides of
the screen. And the immobilty and the static shot puts the filmmaker in a
vulnerable position, where he's no longer just saying a linear statement or
a linear fact and leaving something for the spectator to actually
participate as a coproducer of the image and I think, I want to do that all
the time. . . .
iW: Are these frames a direct relation of your exiled feeling?
Suleiman: It's a permanent exile. Wherever you are. It's a particular
detachment, that is also part of who I am, part of my character. When I
want to position a camera and I want to be sincere about who I'm filming,
there's so many questions that arise. Your intrusive eye can go that far,
your potential story-telling can tell that much. If you start to go further
into the details then you are only pretense and you are only falsifying
what you know not. I always try to think where do I stand vis-a-vis the
image that I'm filming and how close I can be. So you have images that were
very close. . .
(For examply, the father's chest. . .)
And it's a very good example because that's how close I can be. And it's
not an aesthetic device, it's simply the way I see it. And I try, I'm not
saying that I actually make it all the time because sometimes you're on the
production aspect of things, and there's the money and the tension, you end
up shooting something that you don't think is your right position. And I'm
sure there are a couple of these. But I actually had the privelege, when I
did this film, to not do so many mistakes.
iW: Were there things that you felt were sacrificed in the actual making of
Suleiman: Always. I think filmmaking is probably the closest metaphor for
comformism. If we try to present it as a tool of resistance, I have too
many doubts about that form of resistance. I think it's very digressive,
because, in fact, what happens, is you're always inside the system. You're
always bought and sold, and you're always packaged and packaging. Of all
strategies, actually, that one thought at some point would do something for
the world, it did not work for me. Whether it's from the first work or the
second work or the third, there's always a no exit situation, and there's
always something that torments you about the way you position yourself and
the way you're positioned. I don't know how the fight can be taken, in fact
. . . . I think what I do is listen, but when I listen, I can only reflect
on myself and can only stretch the moral questions to myself. . .
(And not to an audience. . .)
Well, myself will always translate somehow. As long as you're trying to
communicate and there's that impulse, there's that desire to actually
communicate to others, I think, you're constantly testing yourself,
researching yourself and eventually raising the moral questions to yourself
about your political positioning in film and the way you want to change the
world. And I think if you don't ask those questions to yourself, you'll end
up cheating and you know what? The audiences will pick it up when you're
being a liar . . . and you're going to be labelled a con-man. I don't want
that to happen, not because of my career, I think it's because (can I have
my cappuccino now?) because the little rest and peace I derive from this
very turbulent world is when I'm honest. . . . Which is what I try to do in