My streaming gem: why you should watch Chronicle of a Disappearance | Film

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Elia Suleiman’s a man of few words, so we can be sure that the ones he does use have been chosen carefully. “What I am to do in this film, I actually accomplished,” the Palestinian film-maker told Indiewire upon the US release of his debut feature Chronicle of a Disappearance (now streaming on Netflix) in 1997. “Even when they object to the nature of the presentation of the film, a lot of people have delayed questioning. They don’t know how to invent the language that must deal immediately … There is no ready-made rhetoric that they could say, ‘I don’t agree with you on this or that.’ I mean, what can they pick on? My mother walking across the room?”

Like so many dissidents before him, Suleiman derives more power from silence than screams. In the breakout that earned him the prize for best first film at the Venice film festival and literally put Palestinian cinema on the map as the nation’s first production to receive a Stateside theatrical run, the writer-director-actor-producer prefers to play his politics close to the vest. He anticipated the controversy part and parcel to any work critical of the Israeli occupation, and pre-empted the pushback by couching his resentments in unremarkable moments. There’s no speechifying, no harrowing depiction of the bitterness or cruelty still festering around the West Bank; Suleiman thumbs his nose at the prospect with a scene that sees his onscreen avatar ES take the podium at a conference, only to be interrupted by whining feedback every time he gears up to speak.

He instead articulates the placelessness he feels as a citizen without a country through brief, deadpan sketches in static wide shots oft-likened to the compositional sight gags of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. Like his real-life double, the mute ES has returned home following a self-imposed 12-year exile in New York, just as peace talks break down in the wake of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination and the election of the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu. Their names are left out of things, however, the atmosphere of acrimony indirectly seeping in through absurd little banalities. In Nazareth, the proprietor of a souvenir shop peddling phony holy water is mocked by a camel figurine that won’t stop tipping over. During the second half, which shifts focus to Jerusalem and a wrier register, a woman gets blackballed from every apartment listing she calls once they learn she’s an Arab. She pops up again later on in what appears to be a terrorist cell, until it’s revealed that their grenade and gun are just novelty lighters.

The segments that confront the Israeli-Palestinian friction head-on do so with the most unassuming levity, as in the shot that sees Jerusalem police troopers hustle out of a van, line up to urinate against a wall, and sprint back into the van with a militaristic briskness. Suleiman prefers to let his pricklier remarks sit in tacit ironies of the everyday: kids frolicking in a swimming pool under the watchful gaze of a Yasser Arafat mural, men cheering on two geezers deadlocked in an arm-wrestle, tourists jet-skiing all over the sacred Sea of Galilee. Though these shots have been meticulously constructed, their delivery is matter-of-fact, as if we’re just seeing snapshots of vérité local color.

Matching the stony face with which he portrays ES, Suleiman directs from a pose of aloofness that allows him a safe distance from his own subversion. If he seems reluctant to come right out and say what he means, that’s only because his feelings aren’t so easily organized as points to be made, the final stretch steeped in a cloudier ambivalence on Palestinian identity. The film is bookended by two of its few closeup shots, noteworthy for their earnestness as they depict the weathered skin of Suleiman’s actual, slumbering parents. Ultimately, he feels something deeper than mere anger on their behalf, more mournful at all they’ve had to live through. While he doesn’t claim to have all the answers to the planet’s thorniest geopolitical conflict, he does want peace.

Any obliqueness in the stoicism of his approach can be ascribed to a pragmatist’s awareness of how the industry operates, knowing that overt statements could potentially turn off distributors or viewers. Netflix currently hosts this film and its follow-up Divine Intervention, but Suleiman’s latest work – the equally inspired It Must Be Heaven, in which he frankly paints a pair of Israeli characters as aggressors and intimidators – still hasn’t been acquired for US exhibition in the nearly three years since its premiere at Cannes. (Amusingly enough, its loose plot mostly concerns Suleiman’s difficulty with selling and promoting his films around the world.) Perhaps his methods have grown more explicit as the region’s body count rises, its deterioration also explaining why buyers aren’t snapping up an Israel/Palestine film. But in his career’s boldly self-assured earliest phase, placing quotidian scare quotes around his quiet rebellion made it more palatable for the global cinema circuit. As he himself asked, what would they have to pick on in a movie that stops to spend a few minutes watching a dog play keepaway with a hapless man’s bucket?

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