Over the past several days I saw two radically different films about Palestinians. One is the documentary Budrus that is a stirring introduction to the new nonviolent resistance movement in the West Bank. The other is The Time that Remains, a fictional chronicle about a middle-class family in Nazareth over a 50 year period that is deeply problematic but worth seeing.
Budrus is a farming village of about 1500 people largely dependent on its olive tree groves that had the misfortune to be located close to the border between Israel and the West Bank, the so-called Green Line. When Israel began building its infamous wall of separation in 2004, it chose to build it not within its own borders but within Palestinian territory—and more egregiously right through the middle of Budrus. Not only would the Palestinians lose a good part of their olive groves that had sustained them for hundreds of years; their civic life would suffer as the wall cut through and surrounded the village.
The mayor of Budrus was one Ayed Morrar, a long-time activist who arrested as a student activist at the age of 19 in 1981 when it was still illegal to raise a Palestinian flag. He spent most of the first intifada organizing strikes, demonstrations, protest roadblocks and boycotts of Israeli goods. When the villagers first learned about Israel plans, the mayor convened a meeting in which he insisted that they had to choose between passive resignation and peaceful resistance. They chose the latter. This meeting, as well as other key moments in their struggle, was captured by director Julia Bacha, a Brazilian graduate of Columbia University who was inspired to make such a movie from professors in her Mideast Studies classes who challenged the ideological consensus.
She and her film crew risk Israeli repression to get you close to the action, so much so that you can practically smell the Israeli tear gas. Most of the movie depicts the cat-and-mouse game between the IDF and protestors as they fight for control over the olive groves. In one key scene, we see Morrar’s 15 year old daughter Iltezam jump into a pit that has just been dug by a bulldozer, risking the same fate as Rachel Corrie. We also see a number of Israeli peace activists who have come to the aid of Budrus, including Kobi Snitz, a member of Anarchists Against the Wall. (http://www.awalls.org/). In my review of Rachel (http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/09/28/rachel/), I commended another anarchist—Jonathan Pollak—whose email reports I receive on a regular basis. As a long time critic of anarchism, I can only say that the movement puts its best foot forward through the example of Pollak and Snitz.
Scheduled to have its last showing yesterday at the Quad Cinema in N.Y., Budrus has been extended to play through next Thursday and possibly longer. It is not to be missed.
The Time that Remains was shown last night at the Museum of Modern Art as the opening night selection of an Arab film series titled “Mapping Subjectivity“, a program described on the MOMA website as aiming “to map the largely unknown heritage of personal, artistic, and sometimes experimental cinema from the Arab world.” Not quite my cup of tea, but I was willing to give director Elia Suleiman’s movie a try. MOMA describes it this way:
Subtitled “Chronicle of a Present Absentee,” this humorous, heartbreaking film (the final installment in a trilogy) is set among the Israeli Arab community and shot largely in homes and places in which Suleiman’s family once lived. Inspired by his father’s diaries, letters his mother sent to family members who had fled the Israeli occupation, and the director’s own recollections, the film spans from 1948 until the present, recounting the saga of Suleiman’s family in elegantly stylized episodes. Inserting himself as a silent observer reminiscent of Buster Keaton, Suleiman trains a keen eye on the absurdities of life in Nazareth.
The movie starts off very promisingly as a dramatic recreation of events in 1948, as Elia’s father Fuad is picked up by Israeli soldiers for supplying guns to the Palestinian resistance. He is beaten into unconsciousness by men who seem exactly like the goons currently making life miserable in places like Budrus. There is a taut and suspenseful quality to these scenes reminiscent of Battle of Algiers. If only the rest of the movie had lived up to these opening scenes, then it would have been a film for the ages. Alas, it veered off in an entirely different action as it moved forward in time.
In the next chapter in the life of Fuad Suleiman, he has become a father to Elia, the character based on the film’s director. Elia goes to a school run by Israelis that awards its Palestinian children a prize for singing Israeli nationalist anthems. Like just about every scene that takes place at this point, Suleiman is determined to wring out every ounce of the ironies of life under occupation.
Despite having withdrawn from the struggle, Fuad is still hounded by the Israeli authorities. As a devotee of late-night fishing, he keeps being interrogated by Israeli cops whether he has an id and why he is fishing so far from Nazareth. Finally, he is arrested—falsely—for smuggling weapons carried by boat.
His son becomes a victim as well. During the first intifada, he learns from a Palestinian cop that he has been denounced and must leave the country. When he returns, his father has become gravely ill from heart disease and soon dies. From the very minute that Elias makes his appearance in the movie as a young boy, he never says a single word. His role in the film is to stare glumly at the camera as one irony-drenched scene unfolds after another.
One in particular illustrates the sensibility that informs the movie. A young boy enters the Suleiman house unannounced and demands that they buy his string beans. It turns out that he has come from Jenin, a village in the occupied territories. He is told by the cop alluded to above, a family friend and frequent visitor, to show his permit. He says he has none and virtually demands that the cop arrest him. Elias’s mother intercedes on behalf of the boy who continues to demand that they buy his string beans. And if they won’t buy them, then they at least should give him a cigarette. This scene, which lasts about five minutes, conveys the futility of Palestinian existence that Elias takes in with the same mournful and mute expression throughout. When there are street protests, he never joins them but stares at them blankly from his balcony.
One cannot help avoid concluding that Elias Suleiman made this movie for Western consumption, and for art houses particularly (it opens at the IFC Center on January 7th.) He studied cinema at NYU and has obviously absorbed the international minimalist style that can be seen in Jim Jarmusch or Aki Kaurismäki, whose deadpan humor he imitates with mixed success.
As a contrast to the stirring Budrus, it is a dispiriting reminder that for at least some Palestinian intellectuals and artists, the experience of expulsion, dispossession and occupation is no guarantee of great or even good art.