Elia Suleiman: Laughter and Pain


In 2003 I saw, at a film festival, Divine Intervention, made the previous year. It displayed a sense of humour I found extremely infectious. Some audience members were giggling along; others were silent.

Then along came a particular scene I will never forget, featuring the auteur, Elia Suleiman (born 1960 in Nazareth) himself. As often occurs in his films, he’s innocently driving along – an everyday situation. The camera frames the simple action from the passenger seat. Suleiman is eating a piece of fruit, a peach. When finished, he tosses the hard core of the peach out the car window. Cut to a new shot: the core hits a tank, and the tank, surprisingly, explodes.

Pure surrealism! With an indirect but punchy comment about the relationship between Israeli domination and the Palestinian response to that oppression. Resistance takes many forms! I thought it was the most hilarious thing I’d ever seen, and I laughed aloud accordingly.

However, my Divine Intervention story does not end there. All throughout the film, my companion was among the resolutely silent members of the audience. I anxiously wondered: was she totally hating it? Finally, the session ended, some people applauded, and I was still laughing at the final scene. Then the lights came on and I realised not only that my friend had her fists clenched in anger, but that she was also crying. She turned to me and yelled in rage: “How can you laugh in the face of so much suffering?”

In fact, I should have heeded the subtitle that Suleiman had inserted at the very start of Divine Intervention: “A chronicle of love and pain”. The writer-director is fond of such paradoxical or dialectical contrasts appended to his titles: The Time that Remains in 2009 presents itself as “the chronicle of a present absentee”.

Yet the fact remains: Suleiman makes comedies – political comedies – that are richly, riotously funny, if you can get on their wavelength. I was right to laugh, and my friend was right to cry. His films invite both responses, equally: one does not cancel out the other.

We live – today more than ever – in a deeply troubled world where feelings of compassion and anger run in tandem with a sense of the complete absurdity of all social structures, and even of the human condition itself. Suleiman’s films encompass the bittersweet wisdom of that all-round, inclusive vision. There is something “universal” about his work, if we agree with him that what is fundamentally universal, shared by all races and classes, is not necessarily always edifying or reassuring.

Suleiman’s type of comedy is special. Right from his debut feature Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996), the style is minimal, painstakingly based on the exact repetition of certain events, gestures, places, camera angles. The repetition itself is a source of humour: whenever we return to a certain room, a certain street corner, a group of men gathered yet again at a café table, or the familiar stance of a person lurking on their porch, it’s weirdly funny from the first second. Maybe something will then happen, or maybe it won’t: either way, the scene scores.

As we follow Suleiman’s work from one film to the next, we, too, become fond of the small things that he loves to record: people smoking cigarettes, drinking from cups, driving, walking in the street, gazing out windows. And we learn his code, his syntax: performers looking directly into the camera, individually or in packs. Tension builds until the reverse-shot arrives and some mystery or punchline is revealed but, in the meantime, we concentrate on the mainly rigid, deadpan faces, which betray thought or emotion only through the smallest signs of a flicked gaze or a raised eyebrow.

At the centre of this performance style is Suleiman himself, so deliberately blank in his expression that he has often been compared to the famous stone face of screen comedy, Buster Keaton. Whenever Suleiman the actor looks up or down, left or right, he mimics the exact, swift pans of a camera-eye!

In all these ways, Suleiman sensitises us to the precise form of his framing, his editing, and the overall structure of each film. Indeed, he sometimes shows us his preferred scripting method: cards (one per scene) stuck on a wall and endlessly rearranged. There is never a simple through-line plot sticking to a central character; rather, his films are unpredictable mosaics, going this way and that, looping back when we least expect it.

In the span of modern film comedy, these tableau-like scenes remind us of Sweden’s Roy Andersson – except that Suleiman’s versions are barer, stripped right to the bone. Or we may recall Luc Moullet, except without the Frenchman’s anarchistic looseness and proudly amateur touch. Unique to Suleiman is his ace card: the unveiling of simple but astonishing special effects at the least expected moments – scenes in which, usually, a Utopian wish truly takes over.

Suleiman’s attention to all dimensions of sound – once again playing on the tension of what we hear off-screen before we see it on-screen, and the stylised strangeness of (for instance) a street-cleaning van – is certainly in the tradition of Jacques Tati. But Tati’s own brand of universal humanism, and his light satire of modernity, could never have resulted in a film as tonally complex as Divine Intervention.

The politics of Suleiman’s cinema is fascinating, and never more so than during the current, horrific crisis occurring in the Gaza Strip. No viewer can doubt for a moment his passionate commitment to the Palestinian cause, and to his people. The Time That Remains even extends the filmmaker’s usual timeframe to offer a historical, family chronicle of Palestinian suffering from 1948 to the present – autobiographical traces fill all his films.

But when Suleiman travels elsewhere, to Paris, Montréal or New York as part of his cosmopolitan life as an award-winning filmmaker (who nonetheless finds it hard to raise any interest in his latest project), as we see in his most recent work It Must Be Heaven (2019), nothing really changes. Everywhere he finds evidence of the same paranoia, the same idiocy, the same recourse to reflex menace and violence. Signs of militarisation are in every city in which he pops up: tanks, soldiers, planes and helicopters overhead, cops on every corner, a rifle slung over the shoulder of every citizen, adult or child shopping in the street …

We could say that Suleiman’s films are based on the investigation of two, recurring figures: the neighbour and the stranger. Neighbours – even when they are on the same side, culturally and politically – do terrible things to each other in these films. It’s in their nature. If the wider social world oppresses them, they internalise that problem and begin to oppress each other. Yet, sometimes at least, they can be surprisingly benevolent. The same goes for strangers: they frequently carry a threatening aura, but they may also come bearing an unexpected, life-redeeming gift.

In short, (bad) neighbours might remain strangers, but strangers could become our (good) neighbours. It’s an important lesson to bear in mind as our contemporary, collective history proceeds …


© Adrian Martin 13 December 2023 / 20 January 2024

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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