Credit: Netflix
by Joshua Polanski Featured Film

Chronicle of a Disappearance — Elia Suleiman

February 23, 2024

The staff of In Review Online have come to the collective decision to abide by the international call from Strike Germany. We will be withholding coverage of the Berlin International Film Festival on the grounds that its institutional backing from the German government is marred by the latter’s censorship and marginalization of activist voices. Germany’s military and financial support of Israel, alongside the repression of those speaking up against Israel’s genocidal actions against the Palestinian people of Gaza and its assault and expropriation of those within the Occupied West Bank, should not be ignored or condoned. We wish to send our commitment of solidarity to all filmmakers and cultural workers who have joined this strike; business as usual is unacceptable. As over 100 Palestinians are killed each day in Gaza, we find the festival’s attempt to mitigate these criticisms with the gesture of The TinyHouse Project to be a condescension toward active and ongoing genocide. The festival’s poor attempt at good faith gives little actual space to the voices who push against empire, and offers only a tiny house, filled with hot air, off to the side, where no one else can see or hear you. While we will not be covering the Berlin Film Festival, that will not be the end of our participation in the strike. Instead, as a form of counter-programming, we will be reviewing selected works within the Palestinian Film Archive and publishing original writings related to these films. We declare solidarity with all participating in this strike, and solidarity with those participating in protests across the festival grounds.

The cinemas of Germany and Japan following the Second World War and the Baltic countries immediately following Soviet occupation share an overarching something with the entire history of Palestinian cinema: an inability to not be about the big elephant in the room. Once the Allied occupation came to an end, German and Japanese cinema could reckon with the “angel of history,” to borrow a phrase from Walter Benjamin; history remains with the present. Last year, German filmmaker Christian Petzold spoke with Screen Slate about his film Afire and the absence of the Rohmerian-style summer film in Germany: “We lost our freedom and summer left Germany for a long, long time.” The German elephant in the room — the Shoah, German guilt, and mass death — robbed the film industry of the innocence and capacity for the apolitical “little” movie. Only now can they at last make a summer film. 

Palestinian occupation never ended. The Israeli expansion and settlement into Palestinian territory grows by the day. And this is reflected in the cinematic traditions of Palestine. Trying to find a Palestinian film that does not wrestle, mourn, protest, or lament the material reality of life under military occupation is almost impossible. Israeli film, by contrast, has more in common with American film than it does the rest of the Levant. Last year’s Ten Months, an Israeli production about a woman knowingly carrying a false pregnancy to term, reflects the gap between the cinema of the oppressed and the oppressors. Palestinian filmmakers are rarely afforded the chance to make films about apolitical domesticity and internal antagonists. When they do, they are more like Samar Qupty’s short Hush. There, an Arab woman fears an unwanted pregnancy and pursues interdependence with the help of her friend. The film is not about the occupation, but, not unlike many of the Japanese post-war films of Yasujirō Ozu, the political environment is an essential part of life. Much like the trees one must pass on their walk to the pharmacy, the infrastructure of occupation and ethnic cleansing linger over Palestinian cinema.

Elia Suleiman’s film Chronicle of a Disappearance uses this to its advantage with a three-part structure. The first bit, in a series of almost entirely unconnected vignettes, works as a window into the daily life of Palestinians (mostly in Nazareth and the West Bank). Mechanics fix cars, old men listen to radio broadcasts about post-war Bosnian politics, and a dog plays with a bucket behind a fence as its owner smiles and laughs. “Is it true that a guy from Nazareth wrote his thesis on how a man pees?” one friend asks another over a meal in a public space. This is a glimpse into the Palestine — and especially its beauty, its humanity — often raced past in Palestinian and Israeli-Palestinian productions. 

Set sometime after the conclusion of the First Intifada and before the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, Suleiman fictionalizes a record of his return to Israel-Palestine after a lengthy self-imposed exile in New York City. The first part, neatly indicated as such through computer intertitles, concludes, and the second part (“Part II – Jerusalem – Political Diary”) continues with a series of fewer but longer vignettes in a more expected political mold. An Arab woman named Adan (Ola Tabari) struggles to rent an apartment over the phone despite her fluent Hebrew. “Finally, a Russian who speaks Hebrew,” one woman comments after hearing her accent. It makes more sense to this Israeli landlord that a Russian would speak Hebrew than that a Palestinian woman would be inquiring about the apartment (in East Jerusalem, a majority Jewish area). Another landlord observes that Adan is not a Jewish name, in a clear conclusion to the prospect of renting that causes Adan to hang up. Later, in one of the few episodes in dialogue with another, Adan appears connected with some sort of violent resistance or terrorist organization. At least, Suleiman uses the biases and preconceptions of his audience to let them draw these conclusions on their own without any explicit textual proof. She and her friends are planning something, for sure, and it looks like explosives might be involved. Then, in one of the two great surprise reveals of the film, she lights a cigarette with what we thought was a grenade just as her plan comes to fruition, and she uses the police radio to confuse and distract the Israeli police. She disrupts the police state, but with aimlessness rather than violence. 

The other great reveal comes in the third part when Suleiman returns to the mundane. These episodes, perhaps chronologically subsequent to the earlier, are colored by the politics of Part II. The mentions of oppression differ from the more explicit part that came before it, and serve as lamentable and pessimistic reminders that this land is no longer theirs. Palestinian flags pop up with greater frequency than before, and small reminders of conflict, such as a harmless arm-wrestling match observed from outside a storefront window, set an attitude of resistance. The surprise reveal comes in the final segment, which captures Suleiman’s parents watching TV on the couch. The still camera rests behind the furniture, and the television transitions from a broadcast about Jewish religion to something new: a single image, of an Israeli flag waving in triumph. In full jingoistic pomp, the Israeli national anthem accompanies the nationalist image. The TV is small and only takes up a small portion of the frame, yet it alone is shown in the family’s living room. Just as the viewer begins to wonder how long the Suleimans can tolerate (or perhaps, hate-watch) the ethno-nationalist jingoism of their oppressors, the camera moves in front of the couch and glimpses the couple sleeping. At first humorous — of course, the Nakba survivors would only tolerate that atrocity of media while sleeping! — the final image overstays its welcome long enough to form questions with only its images. And within these questions, the comedic reveal starts to bite.