Weekly Spotlight #7: Chronicle of a Disappearance (Suleiman, 1996)

In this weekly series, The Lonely Film Critic highlights an older release of interest, whether it be an oft-overlooked gem or a classic worth revisiting. This week, to mark the conclusion of the Cannes Film Festival, we put the spotlight on Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, whose latest film received both a Special Mention and the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Film In Competition.

The confidence on display in Chronicle of a Disappearance is immensely satisfying to behold. Elia Suleiman takes a big risk in choosing to make this vignette-heavy without trying to find linkages between narratives, or even resolving them. He must have understood that this would potentially not go over well with audiences clamouring for complete stories but went ahead because he knew that the prevailing sentiments being espoused would be enough. He actually calls this a “simple” film because of this—one that fulfills its potential because the emotional inflections it possesses are straightforward and can be grasped right in the moment. Each vignette has a distinct affective shading, whether it be absurdist, ideological, sarcastic, broadly raucous or dryly witty (my favourite moment, perhaps, occurring when a book inexplicably falls from the sky in front of an indolent storeowner and his only remark is that “it’s raining culture”).

But while the humour is undeniable and welcome, the film itself rings with ennui, the feeling no better captured than the final shots of Suleiman’s parents falling asleep as the Israeli broadcast on their TV turns to static. Filmed during a period of high tension amongst Palestinians and Israelis, the film captures the unsettling gulf between these two territories and peoples as they wait for progress that they aren’t sure will ever come. It’s all done indirectly, with actual conflicts never arising during the film’s runtime (except for one semi-slapstick brawl between a father and son), but the helplessness of being caught in an environment charged with hostility and mistrust is keenly felt all the way through.

I guess today some will not find this a scathing enough condemnation of Israel from a Palestinian’s perspective (albeit an ex-patriot). There will always be someone out there wanting more, and it’s understandable. In my case, I can appreciate this was filmed during a very fragile interregnum, and that it wouldn’t have benefited Suleiman to stir up a lot of controversy. It still plays well even now because it’s a very humane work that implicitly pleads for resolutions without trying to disguise the pain of those being targeted on a daily basis for their identity (or, in some cases, lack of one). In its seemingly humble way, it’s trying to build a truth that can be universally processed, and for that it continues to stand on its own.