The Time That Remains and Zindeeq
by Nana Asfour
The Time That Remains: Written and directed by Elia Suleiman; produced by Elia Suleiman and Michael Gentile; cinematography by Marc-André Batigne; edited by Véronique Lange; starring Saleh Bakri, Elia Suleiman, Ali Suleiman, and Amer Hlehel. Color, 109 min., 2009. Distributed by IFC Films, www.ifcfilms.com
Zindeeq: Directed by Michel Khleifi; produced by Omar Al-Qattan; cinematography by Raymond Fromont; edited by Marie-Hélène Dozo; original music by Jean-Marie Sénia; starring Mohammed Bakri and Mira Awad. Color, 85 min., 2009.
A few minutes into Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains, after a brief opening chapter in which the main character drives from and to an undisclosed location through a torrential rain, the film turns blindingly bright and sunny. It stays that way for much of the story that follows, one that spans sixty years in the life of a Palestinian family, based in large part on the director’s own. The brightness is at its most noticeable and most severe during the opening of its second chapter, as we are introduced to Fuad, a character drawn from the diaries of the filmmaker’s father and played by the incredibly dashing and incredibly tall Saleh Bakri. Fuad and a group of men, all in crisp white shirts with rolled-up sleeves and dark slacks, sit at an outdoor café with white tables, and whitewashed stone walls and floors. Slung across their shoulders and splayed across their laps are rifles. From the heavy shine of Brylcreem on Fuad’s mountain of hair, it is evident that this is another era. As we soon learn, it’s the summer of 1948, the time of the nakba, or Palestinian exodus (and forced exile), that dogged event of Palestinian history that is only now, more than sixty years later, being adequately dramatized by Palestinian feature filmmakers.
In an interesting coincidence, the nakba has been chosen as the basis of the latest works by Palestinian cinema's two most important filmmakers: its luminary Elia Suleiman, and its forefather, Michel Khleifi, whose 1987 Wedding in Galilee is, by all accounts, the first Palestinian feature film. Khleifi’s latest, Zindeeq, depicts one endless night in the life of a self-exiled Palestinian documentarian who has returned to his native city to record eyewitness accounts of 1948.
But the two filmmakers approach this event of Palestinian history from starkly different angles. In The Time That Remains, the third and final installment of Suleiman’s trilogy, it’s the nakba as seen through the director’s wry and off-kilter eyes—hence a nakba doused in humor; the most cataclysmic moment for Palestinians, in vivid colors and à la burlesque. The tone is set from the beginning of the second part, with a farcical repartee at the outdoors café between a zealous soldier of the Arab Liberation Army and a bemused Fuad.
Even as Fuad, who runs a gun-making factory in the basement of his parents’ home, is captured by the Israelis and denounced by a masked man (there’s a strong implication here that the tattletale is also a Palestinian freedom fighter, and likely even a friend), Suleiman seamlessly weaves the tragedy besetting Fuad’s fellow resistance fighters and Fuad’s own dire straits with dry humor. Fuad is taken to a field littered with kneeling and blindfolded men where he is brusquely stripped of his suit jacket. A soldier, not quite three quarters of his size, struggles to cover Fuad’s eyes but can’t reach his face. He locates a brick nearby, places it behind Fuad, and climbs on it. It’s a small moment and the comedy is slight but it adds a touch of lightness to a cringingly bleak predicament. Blindfolded with a dirty rag, Fuad now stands in front of a vista of Nazareth, in unnerving calm, breathing the crisp air and listening to the rustle of the leaves.
In this and other scenes, Suleiman does not scamper from what might be regarded as the more incendiary part of the history. He depicts the Israelis as prone to coldblooded violence (a soldier nonchalantly shoots a ululating Palestinian woman) and thievery (Fuad watches a group of soldiers ceremoniously emptying out the contents of one deserted Palestinian household and claiming the looted objects as their own). But throughout, esthetics trump the gloominess of the day. With crisp photography and an exquisite attention to detail, down to the golden clasp on the satin red tie of the Mayor of Nazareth who is doomed to sign an official surrender of the city to the Israeli authorities, Suleiman captures the grandeur and eloquence of the time. Every shot of this period is an artfully elegant portrait or tableau, as Suleiman himself calls it, of Nazarene life. The sweeping drama and the melodic Arabic music soundtrack recall the golden age of Egyptian cinema, and yet Arab cinema never looked so good—or at least hasn’t looked this good in a while.
Even though it relies on a by-now-tiresome device of filmmaker-as-protagonist, Khleifi’s Zindeeq ingeniously handles the parts of the film pertaining to the 1948 testimonies. As the lead character—in this case Mohammed Bakri, the father of The Time That Remain’s Saleh Bakri, who has equally piercing blue eyes—waits out the night in his car, unable, for reasons that are frustratingly never made clear, to get a hotel room in town, he replays some of the interviews that he’s captured on his camcorder. But he hardly ever views a testimony in full. Rather, he pauses here and there for a few seconds, fast-forwarding and rewinding as he goes along. As if Khleifi is all too aware how weighty these testimonies of cruelty and despair can become, he has his character stop a recollection mid-sentence, with the viewer almost able to fill in the blank of what remains unheard. The use of the camcorder allows for testimonies to occur throughout the film, rather than in a single chunk, thereby acting as nagging, continuous reminders. And the character’s manhandling of the footage can be interpreted as a commentary on how the past can be edited, silenced, and ignored—not only by others, but also by the Palestinians themselves. Bakri’s unnamed protagonist is clearly only half-interested in these stories and he skims these tapes as he searches for the surreptitious shots he’s taken of his assistant and unrequited love interest. He regards his country’s past as a job he has to endure and complete, and confronts his personal past only when it’s shoved in his face.
His presence back home, in Nazareth, inspires memories of one prickly, haunting matter from his youth: why his parents chose to stay, back in ’48. This, it appears, is a question that he has posed to his mother repeatedly but without ever receiving an answer, adequate or otherwise. This decision rankles the poor soul, to no end, it seems (and in turn, rankles us, as viewers). His sister, meanwhile, tries to remind him of the upside of their parents’ choice. “At least our parents are buried here,” she tells her brother as they attend a relative’s funeral. But she’s also the voice of support for the inevitable alternative. “Fleeing is three-quarters of manliness,” she says to her brother, who left for Europe as soon as he was old enough and finds little pleasure now that he’s back, aside from bedding women (Palestinian or otherwise) every chance he gets, even as his declared love interest waits for him in a car downstairs.
The haste and urgency with which many Palestinians fled at the time of the nakba is masterfully illustrated in The Time That Remains. Suleiman’s films are by now notorious for their silences—especially that of ES, the bug-eyed, speechless character played by the director who appears here as a child, young man, and adult—and Suleiman, who it must be said, is clearly the better filmmaker, gives here irrefutable credence to the old adage that a picture speaks a thousand words. At one point Fuad, looking for refuge for a wounded man he’s rescued on a street, bursts into a neighbor’s home and opens the dining-room doors only to find what looks to be a recently vacated breakfast table, a life (one of countless many) uprooted mid-meal and even mid-bite.
Fuad’s family—his parents and younger sister—are also preparing to make a mad dash out of their home and country. They are in such a hurry that, as Fuad’s father tells him, they are unable to wait for their other daughter. “She has to make her own way to the border,” he says. But the family is forced to leave without Fuad. In the third part of the film, Fuad is married and lives with his wife and son in an apartment in Nazareth, and The Time That Remains becomes a portrait of a family that stayed put. Politics recede to the background, even as Fuad’s youthful military escapades taint and disrupt his now pacifist existence.
While the first two sections of The Time That Remains relied on a more straightforward narrative, from here on out, Suleiman reverts to his trademark style of repeated vignettes. Some of these, such as when little, uniform-attired ES robotically dumps the food given to him by his near-blind “Aunt Olga” in the garbage, are utterly charming. The foul-mouthed neighbor, who keeps trying to light himself on fire and stops by to share with Fuad his absurd, crackpot theories on how the Arabs can overcome Israel, is hilarious. Less side-splitting and more insidious are the passages in which a teacher scolds little ES for identifying America as colonialist and imperialist.
Suleiman, as it were, kept running afoul of the authorities and being ejected from Israel. But the story he tells here is less about his personal trials than about his relationship with his parents. Although father and son hardly ever speak, there are some touching moments in The Time That Remains, such as when ES, now a young man, picks up his father from the hospital and they stop at a pharmacy. As he waits for the prescription to be filled, ES turns toward the car where his father is sitting and watches as Fuad nods his head to Arabic music. When ES returns to the car, his father is fast asleep with his head limply slumped down toward his chest and the son’s eyes reflect a frightening recognition of his father’s frailty and mortality. In the final part, which reverts back to ES as an adult, he comes home to celebrate Christmas with his ailing mother whose only joys in life are middle-of-the-night trips to the fridge for some ice cream. In one endearing scene, he playfully taps his mother’s hand as they watch television and she, without ever averting her eyes from the screen, taps his back. This is what makes Suleiman, despite his repeated protestation that his cinematic intents are of a far more universal nature, the great chronicler of Palestinian life: its large-scale stasis and the minuscule, personal moments, delineated in equally heartwarming and heartbreaking brushstrokes.
Suleiman’s Divine Intervention was loaded with symbolism and included some fantastical revenge dream sequences, but in his latest film he entirely avoids these cinematic contrivances. Even the palpable anger that brims in the second part of his trilogy has been flattened out. Meanwhile, Zindeeq drowns in hackneyed religious allegories. The rejection of Bakri at the hotels is supposed to mirror the rejection of Joseph and Mary at the inn. The film ends with the thinly conceived love interest, Racha, walking in a white robe across the sea! And yet, curiously, the film has staggering antireligious undertones. The title itself translates to both “free thinker” and “atheist” and the protagonist evidently fits the bill. To keep warm during a stopover at his parents’ abandoned home he burns a wooden cross. This is a bold move from Khleifi as is the part where the character throws his family’s photos into the flames. To hell with religion and the past, Khleifi seems to be saying, they are but debilitating crutches; what matters is now and today.
Both Zindeeq and The Time That Remains are essentially modern-day stories that look at the past. They are as much about history as contemporary life, the byproduct of a jarring past. As such, each highlights the ludicrousness that currently befalls the Palestinians. The checkpoints, the tanks, and the violence, those bedfellows of Palestinian cinema, are all here, and so is the wall, the now-ubiquitous element of every recent Palestinian film: the opening of Zindeeq finds Bakri Sr. driving along this endless slab of concrete; towards the finale in Time, ES pole vaults it. Suleiman’s style, which has been compared, with good reason, to that of both Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton, is a perfect vehicle for limning that ludicrousness—distant but trenchant. One of the most memorable scenes is of a young man taking his garbage out and nonchalantly talking on his cell phone about a party, while the cannon of a tank lurking nearby follows his every move. A little earlier, an Israeli soldier shouts at a woman with a stroller walking through a firefight between Israelis and Palestinians to “Go home!” She defiantly answers, “Me go home? You go home!” These are outrageous incidences but seemingly true; they come from real stories that Suleiman has heard.
But the violence in the two films, as it is in Suleiman’s earlier features, is not only between Israelis and Palestinians; it also rages among the Palestinians themselves. Zindeeq’s main character can’t spend the night at his sister’s because his nephew has stabbed a fellow Arab and a vendetta has been issued against his family. The Time That Remains ends with the adult ES sitting on a bench at the hospital, watching incomers. Two elderly men say they were attacked because they tried to settle a feud in their neighborhood; a Palestinian man enthusiastically recalls to the listener on the other end of his cell phone how he slashed a group of men outside a bar. As the credits roll, a remix of the song “Stayin’ Alive” by the Lebanese singer Y.A.S. plays on, a cheerful, thumping affirmation of endurance and survival.
Zindeeq ends pretty much the same way—suddenly, without any resolution. Khleifi’s film is indeed atmospheric and Khleifi, to his credit, tries to create a complicated main character, but most of the dialog is riddled with well-intended-but-platitudinous statements (the protagonist tells a boy who is infatuated with his camera: “We make films, not war”). His protagonist’s journey is for the most part but an exercise in tedium. Suleiman’s film is likely his best to date and yet one can’t help but look forward to him moving away from what has become something of a shtick, and applying his dexterous hands at something different. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a feature film from either of these filmmakers: seven years since Suleiman’s Divine Intervention and a whopping fourteen years since Khleifi’s The Tale of the Three Lost Jewels. The delay was mostly due to the difficulty of obtaining funding, but there was one thing seriously missing in contemporary Palestinian cinema and it’s only fitting that these two directors, upon their return to the screen, choose to address that blind spot of Palestinian history, giving it shape, voice, and indelible life.
Nana Asfour is an arts and culture writer based in New York City who has published several essays on Arab cinema for Cineaste.
Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.