Comedy in tragedy. Elia Suleiman’s story of a Palestinian family – from the 1948 nakba to the outbreak of the second intifada has just premiered in London’s Leicester Square to an audience of hundreds.
Resembling a beautifully shot BBC period drama, The Time That Remains starts with Nazareth’s Israeli-imposed surrender. The Suleiman family is torn apart, with most fleeing to Amman, after reluctantly signing Nazareth over to the Israeli army.
Fuad, the youngest of the family (played by Saleh Bakri), stays behind against his father’s wishes – refusing to bow to occupation. He breaches the curfew to rescue civilians shot by the invading army. He manufactures guns in his basement. And despite his doctor’s orders, he goes fishing every night. Israel suspects he is importing arms from Lebanon, but the truth is never revealed.
While he continues to resist, in his own individual way, his friends are signing up to work with the Israelis. His neighbour raids his house – and to his shock – is wearing an Israeli police uniform.
The treason is closer to home too. Aunt Olga, the headmistress of the local school, teaches the town’s children to sign patriotic Israeli nationalist songs. Fuad’s son repeatedly gets told off for denouncing America as a colonial power, and an imperialist. But as he grows up, he eventually ends up working for the Israeli police too – shouting at man from Jenin (in the West Bank) who turns up at his door, asking whether he had the legal right to enter Israel.
The loss of a homeland is vividly told through the film’s subtle moments. A man chain smoking on a bed, with lush green trees visible through the big windows of his perfect house, while his wife packs their suitcase to start their life in permanent exile – life in a refugee camp.
A wounded man is pulled to safety by Fuad – he turned out to be a man on the run. Everyone in his village was put into a truck and dumped at the border. He escaped, but every town he got to, the Israelis had already arrived.
And the film is punctuated by moments like the Sadat TV statement that Jamal Abdel Nasser had been killed. It brought a tear to my eye.
But while this is a tragedy – the story of a country and a family ripped apart by the Israeli colonial project – the humour is powerful. “Blackly comic vignettes” is how Ali Jaafar describes it. Fuad’s straight faced responses to his crazy old drunk neighbour provide most of the laughs. His crackpot ideas for liberating Palestine (our soldiers should get so drunk they can imagine the Israeli planes 2 metres away from them, then they can pluck them out of the sky with their hands) elicit an understated, “um hmm, I hadn’t thought of that”.
And Fuad’s straight face doesn’t just create the comic moments. It is also central to the story’s tragic theme: the impotence of his personal resistance, in the face of a Palestine which – at first sold out – and later, ended up fighting itself. Palestinian drug gang warfare, and young thugs partying all night and putting each other in hospital is a metaphor for the current Fateh-Hamas political paralysis.
The screenplay gains its power by being subtle. The scenes are authentic and painted with a gentle hand. And the music really puts you in the era they are portraying. Music like Mohammed Abdel Wahab’s Gifnahu Alam El Ghazal. Or Turkish music from Sagopa Kajmer.
So no wonder that Lebanese musician Yasmine Hamdan (pictured, right – who I’ve loved since her SoapKills days, and who’s now working a new project called Y.A.S.) was the film’s musical consultant. Although it wasn’t credited, I’d be prepared to bet that she was the voice on the closing title track – a reworked version of the Bee Gees’ Staying Alive.
And strangely, Danny Glover was one of the film’s associate producers.
This is one of a series of reviews of Arab films premiering at the London Film Festival. Tomorrow, Egyptian blockbuster One-Zero.