Taking to the stage at the London Palestine Film Festival, Palestinian-Israeli director Elia Suleiman spoke of the problems he encountered making his latest feature, The Time That Remains. As he peppered the discussion with wisecracks, there was something of the charismatic showman about Suleiman. He wittily told tales of problems with funding, run-ins with the Palestinian Army (who, somewhat unsurprisingly, failed to lend him a tank to film) and his own difficulties in approaching the film’s subject matter. Clearly, any cinematic work that presents a narrative of Palestinian history will necessarily generate a certain amount of controversy but with this semi-autobiographical work, Suleiman also needed to wrestle with his own personal history.
Inspired by the private diaries and letters of his parents, the film follows the lives of Suleiman’s family, starting in 1948 when his father was acting as a resistance fighter. It was an immensely strong beginning with a rapid-fire pace, as characters raced through occupied streets, dodging bullets and finding themselves in absurdly comic situations. Furthermore, the first quarter of the film was infused with instances of sublime beauty. A shot where white pamphlets fluttered down over the hills to announce victory in the Arab-Israeli War possessed a particularly powerful stillness. A similarly graceful silence permeated perhaps the most vivid scene of the whole film. Arrested and tied up, Suleiman’s father was led to an olive grove as his captors prepared to shoot him. As he was left alone for a few moments, his blindfolded eyes faced out on to a beautiful valley. There was an intensified rustling among the branches and grass; the sun shone a mellow honey; he breathed in deeply and serenely. Here was a man facing death, unable to see the view, and yet the magnificence of the scenery overpowered his senses, even through the material of his blindfold. Suffocatingly still and hushed, yet light and beautiful, it was a subtly powerful moment. Suleiman is evidently a director capable of masterful cinema.
Unfortunately, for me at least, the rest of the film did not achieve this level of subtlety. After chronicling his father’s experiences in the 1940s, the narrative progressed to Suleiman’s childhood in 1970, his teenage years in 1980 and, finally, the present day. Suleiman himself appeared in the final quarter, resurrecting his semi-autobiographical persona of ES, seen in the two features - Chronicle of a Disappearance and Divine Intervention - that began this loose trilogy of films. As Suleiman comes closer to the material, the magic seems to diminish. The blackly comic elements played out so nicely in the first quarter, with its balletic violence and incongruous moments of beauty among conflict, become increasingly heavy-handed and broad. In particular, there is one scene where a tank tracks a man while he takes his rubbish to the dustbin outside his house; too wrapped up in a conversation on his mobile phone, he does not notice the tank’s movements, which become increasingly frantic as it tries to keep up with his back-and-forth pacing. This may have been a funny skit for a second or two but the scene lingers too long; it almost seems to be waiting for the audience’s laughter.
Suleiman evidently enjoys referencing historical cinema (one particular scene echoes the plane-dodging episode in North by Northwest) and much has been made of his stylistic similarity to the greats of silent comedy. Certainly, there is a comparable playful physicality in the early stages of The Time That Remains but towards the end of the film the endless visual gags begin to feel a little superficial and repetitive. The balance between physical comedy, dramatic tension and human interactions is difficult to achieve; the variation between these elements begins to disappear as the film progresses and the character of ES, as a silent witness to history and observer of those around him, seems a little too detached to demand our sympathy. While we are always rooting for the characters created by Buster Keaton, it is not easy to empathise with a protagonist who provides such little outward emotion. There are moments where we catch glimpses of ES’s inner feelings - when visiting his sick mother in hospital or looking at a pretty girl on the bus - but they are few and far between. As the amount of dialogue and interaction between the characters diminishes, the surrounding individuals are in danger of becoming basic caricatures or figures of fun.
In the Q&A after the screening of the film, Suleiman explained that he had to think harder about how to deal with the early material as he knew less about this period of his family’s history; he decided to approach it in what he described as a more formal style. For me, the leap between the straightforward narrative of the early stages and the later whimsical, episodic approach was ultimately too great. Having felt emotionally involved at the start of the film, it was disappointing to feel this attachment evaporating. There needed to be more balance and pacing in order to retain the film’s subtlety and maintain the audience’s involvement. Yet, although the latter part of The Time That Remains was dissatisfying, there were certainly elements to enjoy. By injecting incongruous comedy into a history of conflict, Suleiman emphasises the absurdity of much of human experience. This approach is a refreshing one and, at times, created some moments of thoughtful visual beauty.