I was supposed to be a conqueror of Nazareth. I wanted quite badly to be a conqueror of Nazareth, but I didn't pass the audition. And so I became a junior officer in the Haganah. Okay, not so junior, but I still got a line or two in the movie, eight words in Arabic in total. The man in the Haganah uniform in the dim right corner of the scene is me, taking part in the humiliating surrender of the leaders of the holy city.
Hooray, I'm an occupier, too! Worse than Danny Ayalon and the low chair, the Haganah people - in real life and in the movie - wanted to film the city's surrender so that its humiliation would be permanently documented. They had a sense of history, these first occupiers, which is how I ended up being the one who translates for the humiliated mayor the word "picture" into Arabic - sur'a.
On the appointed day, I drove to Nazareth and the production's hairdresser gave me a haircut appropriate for the period. I donned my uniform - baggy khaki shorts and knee socks; they even gave me an antique watch to wear. Actor Nati Ravitz played the Haganah commander, the role I'd coveted, and I was positioned behind him. I was the one who dictated to the abject mayor the date of Nazareth's surrender - July 16, 1948, which in Arabic is sittash Tammuz, alf watis'a mi'a watamaniya wa'arba'in, if I memorized it correctly, as I say in the movie. A character actor. My film history to date: a fleeting appearance as a doctor in Shira Gefen and Etgar Keret's "Meduzot" ("Jellyfish") and a bit as a television interviewer in Joseph Cedar's "Beaufort" - a rich cinematic career, in other words. If only Rafael Zvi, my drama teacher at Ironi Aleph High School, who once tossed a chair at me in exasperation, could see me now. All his hard work paid off.
But that, as they say, is not the story. This week I watched the film whose full title is: "The Time that Remains: Chronicles of a Present Absentee," a name that recalls, perhaps unintentionally, "All That Remains," the monumental work by historian Walid Khalidi about the 418 lost Palestinian villages. It is a very sad movie, despite being full of humor, bitter as that humor may be. It is also a very beautiful film, a careful aesthetic evident in every image and detail; a magnificent dance of occupation, a captivating dance of death, a feast for the eyes that are supposed to shed a tear.
Nor is it a film that arouses anger, except perhaps in the McCarthyite Israelis who haven't (and probably will not) see it and have already issued calls this week for it not to be screened at the cinematheques. It is an incredibly restrained film, almost the polar opposite of Mohammed Bakri's seething "Jenin, Jenin." Bakri's son Saleh stars in Suleiman's movie. The beatings are not quite beatings, the wounds are not quite wounds, the war is a little ridiculous, the occupation is kind of amusing and everything is unhurried, yet deliberate; the great tragedy unfolds with reserve, style and even humor. And there are moments of tremendous power.
The director, Elia Suleiman, observes everything from a distance - a geographical distance - from his diaspora home in Paris - and an even greater psychological distance from what goes on here. He presents the national tragedy with style, gives us a national (and very personal) disaster with a smile. Even the scene of the looting of people's homes in Nazareth, a scene that incurred the wrath of the IDF, which refused on account of it to supply a tank for the production, is done with stylized dance steps. One step forward, one step back; the soldiers of the "Israeli Army" (as it was still called then), fold the stolen silk tablecloth taken from an abandoned house. Have we ever seen the plunder of 1948 in a movie? I don't think so. Now we get it complete with dance steps, a choreography of plunder. Suleiman, perhaps the most stylish Palestinian director, presents: a political autobiography. A native of Nazareth, he based the screenplay on his father's diaries and the letters his mother wrote to her relatives who were forced to flee from here. The tale in a nutshell: The father tried to fight against the Israeli occupation and his son decided to go into exile and observe the whole thing from afar. Does this mean that Suleiman decided to give up? To surrender? That not only is despair more comfortable in Paris, it also derives from a conscious and rational choice? It seems to me the answer is yes. Children pay for their parents' mistakes.
Suleiman is not alone. The writer and lawyer Raja Shehadeh, whose first book was an intellectual political work, has now published a guide to hiking in Palestine. The serial administrative detainee Imad Saba, a keen intellectual warrior, has lived in exile in Holland for years. And there are others like them. Zionism has been victorious: Their finest people have given up. When I say this on the phone to Suleiman, at his home in Paris, he laughs, and the laughter also sounds a little bitter to me, but he hastens to deny it: "I always cling to the hope that lies in the cinema. Making a movie is a step that signifies hope, not despair."
It is still a melancholy film, but one can't help laughing at times: Such as when the starchy Israeli education minister (producer Avi Kleinberger in a guest role) visits an Arab school in Nazareth, where he is greeted by kids waving mini Israeli flags and singing Israeli Independence Day songs. One can't help but smile when the school principal catches the small boy Suleiman and angrily asks him: "Who told you that America is colonialist?" One can't help but smile at the unforgettable scene in which a tank turret dancingly follows Suleiman as he enters a hotel in Ramallah; or when the Israeli policeman brings Suleiman, who has returned from exile, a plate of tabbouleh; or at the Arab prisoner who yanks the Israeli policeman to whom he is handcuffed hither and thither; or at the armed and grotesque soldier from the Arab "Salvation Army" who has no idea where Jenin or Nablus are and where he is supposed to fight; or at the white flag of surrender that covers the windshield of an old Mercedes, blocking the view of its Arab occupants, who are simultaneously trying to evade an Israeli plane flying overhead; or at the hero's mother, who sits quietly on her balcony as the sky behind her fills with Christmas fireworks, which to an Israeli viewer immediately call to mind Independence Day celebrations; or at the pole vaulter who easily vaults over the separation fence.
And it is also impossible not to laugh most bitterly at the fact that nothing has changed: In 1948, we blindfolded the Arab detainees and coarsely shouted at them: "iftah al-bab" ("Open the door!"), just as we do in 2010. There is nothing new under the sun of Palestine and Israel.
And the hero of the film, Suleiman, observes it all with his handsome and melancholy gaze - and is silent. He does not utter a single word in the whole film. Neither the boy Suleiman nor the adult Suleiman, who plays himself. The continuous silence of a cinematic poet. There is nothing to say, nothing to do, except to look and be saddened - and to make a movie about it. "I think the situation speaks for itself. There's no need to say that it's not very successful and promising," says Suleiman.
He says he does not want to become a cliche of a Palestinian. He wants to give his film another dimension, the human dimension. He says the film also speaks of building a family, getting old, losing one's parents, changing priorities and taking a different view of life, while the political drama of Israeli Arabs, as we call them, continually plays out in the background. "The family I depict is not political. This is also a way to defend the homeland. It is also a movie about growing up, about getting old and losing your loved ones."
The movie ends with the death of his mother in Nazareth. Her sister, Suleiman's aunt, plays the part, wearing his mother's original eyeglass frames. Upon his mother's death, Israel became a more paradoxical place for Suleiman, who holds an Israeli passport, and the confrontation between the country and his identity became more complex.
"How do I feel now toward this country, now that my loved ones are gone? I don't have an answer to that. Now when I go back to Nazareth it's even harder: The apartment where my parents lived and where I filmed this movie is empty. I have very little to go back for." Lots of Israelis will surely be happy to hear that sentiment and think to themselves: May there be many more like him. Still, this is bad news.
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