Elia Suleiman on 'The Time That Remains'

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The Palestian director talks to David Jenkins about being snubbed by Cannes, his love of Tati and how hard it is to make a movie

The Time That Remains’ marks the third film in a loose trilogy from Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, the first being 1996’s ‘Chronicle of a Disappearance’ and the second 2002’s ‘Divine Intervention’. Suleiman again employs a deadpan cinematic style to take a wry look at the idiosyncracies of life as an Arab living in Israel.

There was a seven year break between your previous film, ‘Divine Intervention’ and ‘The Time That Remains’. What were you doing during in that time?
‘It’s a combination of things. I really need to live and experience in order to write my notes. I can’t just say, “Oh, my next film is about a kangaroo in Australia”. I need to land from one film to another – I need to walk on the ground. I’m not like one of those filmmakers who spit out one film after another. Yes, some of the ideas I have are ten years old, but this is the cinematographic process – the maturing element.

I want to make sure that it is not sufficient to see one of my films a single time, so people need to return to it like a tableaux and they see something else. Now, having said that, I didn’t need seven years to make this film. It was always the fact that people were scared to come to me. They like to have production lunches, because they want to be in a seductive proximity. But the fact is, my films are so unpredictable to them, they want me to make the film before I’ve made it.’

The Time That Remains’ has been to many festivals since its 2009 premiere in Cannes. Do you enjoy the festival circuit?

‘What happens is that for the promotion for the release I travel. I did not travel as much this time as I was too exhausted. This time I chose the countries that I felt like going to. Lately, I think it’s more a question of maturity…or you might call it ‘old age’. I’m entering into that unfortunate phase where I’m being given lots of tributes and masterclasses. No, it’s a real pleasure actually. I enjoy meeting writers, filmmakers and most of the press.’

Do you feel your attitude towards the film has changed at all in the period since it premiered in Cannes?
‘At Cannes it was very frustrating moment. For me, this film was very hard to make financially and logistically. It took a long time to pull off. I was very frustrated at Cannes because we had the longest standing ovation – because they calculate them on a stopwatch – and yet no prize. I felt it was really not a paranoiac attitude because I knew there was a political objection. It’s something I would never really tell you if I did not know it so well. I had a much better reaction to this film from a wider spectrum of press. I did the film in such a short time to make sure it was ready for Cannes. There was a lot of pressure on me, and I did not go to Cannes feeling very happy. It was gratifying that there was such a good reaction, then a downer afterwards because of the rejection. I had real depression. All of that is over now. Finally the film has been appreciated and the prize doesn’t matter any more. I love the way that people have reflected on the film in a number of different ways.’



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Have you seen the film that won the Palme d’Or, ‘The White Ribbon’?
‘No I haven’t yet. I remember seeing Haneke's “71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance” and thinking he was a great filmmaker. I don’t know what he has done lately. I liked “The Piano Teacher” less. I did not always dare to see his new films because of the violence. I don’t really have a good reason why I haven’t seen this new film, but you’re not pressing any wounds by asking. Not any more! If you had asked me a month after Cannes, I would have said yes, I was a bit…it was not like I was so arrogant as to want the Palme d’Or, but I just felt that my film was excluded.’

Would your experience of Cannes in 2009 dissuade you from sending a film there in the future?
‘Not at all. I’m such a spoiled brat in Cannes. You have to separate the jury from the festival. The festival treats me embarrassingly well! They are truly supportive of my films. I was a member of the jury myself and I shot a short film for their 60th anniversary. In fact, they catagorise me in such a high calibre that I have to remember who I actually am. I was on the jury in 2006 and I had this conspiracy theory that the organisers would lobby for who the winners should be, but I can tell you it’s not the case. You see them at the beginning where they give you the regulations and then you see them at the end.’

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Would you be interested in being a director for hire?
‘I get lots of offers to make a film for such-and-such millions. How can you sit and write a script and be thinking, “how much will it cost to have him moving from here to here?”. I could go and make something cheap, but it has to be synchronised with my ideas. I’m just not someone who thinks about the market, and now it’s all about the market and people who know nothing about cinema. It’s like in everything – in politics, you have those who preach for the good, and then as soon as they get in to power they’re as corrupt as anyone.’

Do you think – in terms of funding – you’re a victim of your own style?
‘Sure, but in that sense I’m not the kind of guy to cry over spilled milk. If you go and read about the history of filmmaking, even when auteur films were prospering in the sixties and seventies, there was misery just the same.’

Would it be wrong to see this film as your ‘Playtime’?
‘Let me tell you a funny story. I was in Cannes in 2002 with “Divine Intervention”, and that year they were showing the restored 70mm version of “Play Time” which I had never actually seen before, so I was very excited. I was meeting a friend in the theatre who was saving me a seat, and as I was running there, I saw this funny scene – I can’t recall what it was – but I thought it was funny and so wrote it down. An hour later, I’m watching the film and there’s the idea I just had right on the screen. So I pulled out the piece of paper there and then and tore it up in the cinema. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with being compared to Tati. Just as you get people who look similar, you can have people who share the same aesthetic sensibility.’



Read our review of ‘The Time That Remains

Author: Interview: David Jenkins



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