The time that remains - Chronicle of a Present Absentee -
Adania Shibli - 02/10/2009
The Time that Remains (2009), by Elia Suleiman, can be best described as a semi visual diary divided into four historic episodes of the filmmaker’s family life, spanning from 1948 until recent times.
The first episode depicts the filmmaker’s father, Fouad Suleiman, as a resistant fighter in 1948, during the occupation of the city of Nazareth by the Haganah militias, whereby many residents of the city were forced to leave Palestine, including Fouad’s lover.
The second episode follows the life of the young Suleiman family - Fouad, the woman to whom he eventually got married and their 8 year old kid, Elia - in the neighbourhood of Nazareth under the Israeli military rule during the 1960s. The film here focuses on the Palestinians who were able to remain in their land and the state of alienation concerning their culture and history that they had to undergo.
The third and fourth episodes continue to portray fragments of the daily life of the family and that of the Palestinians inside Israel and the West Bank, namely from the point of view of Elia Suleiman as an adolescent and as a man respectively. As an adolescent, Elia is actually forced to leave Palestine in order to avoid prison after hearing that the Israeli authorities intend to arrest him. Only a couple of decades later, Elia returns back to Nazareth, to his family and old friends, though in the meantime the father had passed away, and a new third generation had emerged; a generation which seems to be more troubled than its two predecessors.
The Time that Remains , in fact, does not only unfold in ‘the time’ but also in ‘the space’ that remains in Palestine.
The film starts with a taxi leaving the Ben Gurion airport carrying a traveller of whom all one could see is his suitcase and an out-of-focus, dark stature sitting at the rear seat. During the trip, a storm suddenly breaks and the driver can no longer see the road. The radio connection with his office is also cut off and the trip is suspended. From there onwards, the film explores three other episodes in which a similar suspension or rupture in time and/or space occurs.
The first episode takes place in 1948 following the seizure of the city of Nazareth by the Haganah Militias. While Fouad’s lover has to flee for her life, Fouad survives a killing attempt miraculously (well, this is Nazareth after all, the place of miracles!). The rupture generated by the lovers’ separation is followed by a change in time, moving from the year 1948 to the 1960s. Here, Fouad appears to be living with another woman and their little boy Elia. Their life seems to be confined to neighbourhood’s space and is reined by a persistent, repetitive absurdity. For instance, one of the neighbours tries to commit suicide but Fouad manages to save his life. However, this neighbour makes another suicidal attempt and yet another one again and he is saved each time. On the other hand, any attempts to escape this absurd repetition and the repressiveness of space in which it unfolds, are hindered. Each time Fouad, the father, leaves Nazareth to go fishing with a friend, the police always check whether they have the required papers. And each time the police find that everything is in order. However, one evening, they raid Fouad’s house, accusing him of smuggling weapons to Lebanon via the sea. Fouad doesn’t go fishing anymore.
While the older generation of Palestinians have limited mobility, the second younger generation is subjected to a systematic erasure of its historical and cultural consciousness. Palestinian school children and Elia is one of them, are taught the Israeli national hymn and Zionist songs. However, the failure of these methods is soon revealed in the film: when the schoolmaster tells Elia off several times for saying that the US are colonialists, Elia is only encouraged to say that the US are imperialist the next time.
The absurdity and the state of alienation the film depicts become more extreme as Elia turns into a young man, until one day, a Palestinian man who works with the Israeli authorities visits the family, he tells Elia to open the atlas, choose any country from any page and leave to that country immediately, as there’s an order to get him arrested. However, the only political action in the film in which Elia appears to be engaged is when he looks from the balcony of their house and sees a confrontation between the Israeli police forces and young people due to the land confiscation of Palestinian farmers in 1976 (later known as the Land Day). Yet looking at such an action seems to be enough to get involved in politics!
When Elia finally returns to Nazareth after 2000, he simply returns to his old place and friends there where they resume their old same silent life. In the meantime, while the father had died, the mother got older and lonelier and a new third generation has emerged.
The entire film is composed of scenes showing repetitive monotonous events where hardly anything changes. They are filmed from the same distances, from the same angles and the images have the same framing. The only thing that changes is ‘time’- time passing by and the protagonists get older and older always in the same space. The dialogues remain also repetitive and meaningless as if they were not necessary. They, to some extent, remind of the first dialogues ever in Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times (1936) when Chaplin starts singing in Gibberish.
On the other hand, the film reveals that the only way to get out of this absurd tyrannical repetition, alienation and meaninglessness is by the most simple and most minor actions of resistance. This is particularly clear in the scenes in Ramallah but also in some of those taking place in Nazareth. For instance, when the mother is sitting alone on her balcony, as she has been doing over the past fifty years or so, suddenly fireworks celebrating the 60th anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel fill the dark sky. Nevertheless, she turns her eyes to the other side, thus preventing these fireworks from achieving their goal - to impress the viewer. The mother here simply resists by not looking.
Eventually Elia does the same thing. He commits a very simple act to escape this prison. The film gives a detailed account of the prison’s architecture. His act requires power that exceeds that of the oppressor but also that of the greatest of Olympic champions: to jump with the help of a stick over the eight metres high Wall which the Israeli authorities have been constructing in Palestine over the last few years. Elia Suleiman finds such power by means of fantasy that only cinema can provide.