CHRONICLE OF A DISAPPEARANCE (TV)(director/writer: Elia Suleiman; cinematographer: Marc Andre Batinge; cast: Elia Suleiman (Himself), Ula Taberi (Adan), Nazira Suleiman (Director’s Mother), Faud Suleiman (Director’s Father); Runtime: 88; An International Film Circuit presentation of a Dhat production produced in association with the Fund for the Promotion of Israeli Quality Film; 1996-Palestine)
“The film’s rambling, non-linear structure may turn some people off even more than its politics does.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
What I learned right off the bat from this experimental documentary styled film about the director’s search for his Nazareth Palestinian roots, is that in the Holyland Souvenir Shop the “holy water” comes from the tap and has a cross put on it to make it look authentic. Deception is not a new thing in the Middle-East so whatever is said about this birthplace of the world’s three major religions, bears careful scrutiny and should be taken with a proverbial grain of salt. That caveat goes also for this personal film about what it means to be a Palestinian living today under Israeli rule.
The film comes in two parts and with two different moods. The first part is entitled Nazareth: A Personal Diary. The second part is entitled Jerusalem: A Political Diary.
The director has returned to his homeland after a self-imposed exile of 12 years in New York to tell his story with the use of mostly nonprofessional actors.
The film opens and closes with shots of his parents sleeping. The closing shot is politically charged with the question of what does it mean to be an Israeli-Arab in today’s Israel. The TV program his parents were watching ends and the station plays the Israeli anthem and we see the picture of the Israeli flag on the screen. This symbolically points to the explanation of “disappearance” in the film’s title, indicating that it is, indeed, the Palestinians he is talking about who are disappearing without a homeland. They are disappearing beneath the waves of immigration. Since the film was made there have been many ongoing changes in the Palestinian situation, with a homeland probably in the future cards of the peace negotiations. But this is the Middle-East we are talking about. What is expected always comes with a surprise.
The film is the most sensible when it humanizes the Arabs it introduces us to, who are for the most part apolitical, middle-class, and non-violent. This in itself, is quite different from most films about this volatile subject. What ensues are short takes on the events of the day, followed by the typing out on the computer “the day after” which seems to be a statement about the oppression of life that the Israeli Arabs feel while living without a homeland and how one day for them is the same as the next.
The following events that took place in the film’s first part gives us some inkling about the character of the Palestinians: We watch a bunch of old women chew the fat while peeling garlic. His father is feeding his parakeet, and then he is smoking from a hookah while playing a game on the computer. Suleiman and the souvenir shop owner are waiting for customers outside the shop. A book that is dropped from a window above, suddenly hits the ground. One of them says, “It’s raining culture.” A car stops in front of a restaurant and the occupants get out to fight, but are stopped by the onlookers. We see a boat full of Arab men fishing, with one of them asking another if he is related to the names he mentions while dissing those named he is not related to and complimenting only the one who his friend is related to. And we see a Russian orthodox cleric being interviewed, who rails against the tourists polluting the Sea of Galilee Jesus walked across.
The second part of the film shifts dramatically to Jerusalem and the pace quickens, as the film also becomes more bitterly bizarre. A young and attractive Arab woman, Adan (Ula), is looking to rent an apartment on her own but is told by the Arab real-estate agency that she should follow tradition and live at home where her parents can protect her. Adan then tries the local newspaper ads and is told by the Jewish landlords that they don’t rent to Arabs.
We then see that Adan has in her possession a police walkie-talkie, which she uses her fluent Hebrew to confuse the inept Israeli police by sending them all over the city on false alarms. This gives us cause to believe that she may be a terrorist.
Adan blurts out: “Jerusalem is not unified…Jerusalem is nothing special.”
Adan then beautifully sings “Hatikvah” over the walkie-talkie. This version of Israel’snational anthem sounded malevolently strange. It was the most powerful image in the film, offering a menacingly striking note.
A slapstick comedy routine unfolds, as a police van stops and half a dozen Israeli policeman stop to urinate on a wall. The last one finished nearly doesn’t make it into the van rushing off on an emergency call.
We get to hear Leonard Cohen sing in his unique and somber tone, as the police blindly invade an Arab apartment to unjustifiably search it. The lyrics reflect about being sentenced to 20 years of boredom. This segment alone would qualify this work as an art film.
To use Nazareth and Jerusalem, two cities governed by Israel not the Palestinians, and imply that this is Palestine, is wishful thinking on the part of first time director Elia Suleiman. In any case, it is controversial, and a sure thing to aggravate the Israelis.
One-third of the film’s budget came from the Israeli Fund for Quality Film and the rest from the National Endowment for the Arts. This angered the radical Palestinians, who also accused the director of inadvertently recognizing the legality of Israel. As you can well imagine, making a film about this subject matter is very touchy, indeed.
This film succeeded in being provocative without being openly a hostile political one. It works because it gets its urgent message across through the use of irony and offers a step in the right direction for people who live so close together but do not know each other and have hated one another for too long a time. That is not to say that this film is not openly in favor of one side over the other. But, at least, there is an air of civility about it that provides some hope for a future peace in that region of the world. What this film indicates, is that the learning process has to be continuous and have some room in it to make people look and act human. Comedy is a good weapon against such racial hatred, and some of the sketches presented here were quite effective.
The film’s rambling, non-linear structure may turn some people off even more than its politics does. As with most personal and original material, there are parts of it that remain obscure. Perhaps, it will be viewed as a more entertaining film to its creator and his supporters than to others.
REVIEWED ON 7/1/99 GRADE: C+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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