Tuesday, September 8, 2009

DVD of the Week: "Chronicle of a Disappearance" (Elia Suleiman, 1996)

by Chuck Williamson

As the formation of Israel seemingly put an end to centuries of Jewish diaspora, a single nationalist slogan encompassed for many the spirit of the time: “A land without people for a people without a land.” But such myopic platitudes did little to accurately explicate the region’s complex reality, instead exemplifying the sort of rhetoric used to legitimize Jewish claim to the land and invalidate Palestinian nationhood. In Chronicle of a Disappearance, director Elia Suleiman investigates this disconnect between convenient myth and political reality. Rather than center on a literal “disappearance,” as the title suggests, Suleiman’s film focuses on the systemic erasure of a national identity—both personal and political—that has becomes a daily reality for the Palestinian people.

Mixing the choreographed physical comedy of Keaton with the languid, sun-blasted photography of Kiarostami, Chronicle of a Disappearance is composed of a series of non-linear, loosely interrelated vignettes, each soaked in the textures and rhythms of Palestinian life. Suleiman himself plays the veritable “man without a home,” a stone-faced silent clown who, like Buster Keaton, uses acrobatic physical comedy to combat a hostile and authoritative social order. In one of the film’s funniest set-pieces, a mid-morning police raid in Suleiman’s flat transforms into a comedic, choreographed dance where visual gags and vaudeville acrobatics theatricize the indignities and subjugations experienced by Palestinians. But even as Suleiman’s slapstick routine disrupts the authority of his oppressors, he remains a man without a state, invisible and powerless. In a parallel narrative, a young Arab woman named Adan (Ola Tabari) takes more proactive measures to protest the occupation. Here, the film inverts the iconography associated with geopolitical terrorism to comic effect, transforming guns and grenades into toys and cigarette lighters, suicide bombs into firework displays. Chronicle reduces political violence into performance art pranksterism, culminating in a scene where Adan uses a stolen IDF walkie-talkie to orchestrate a series of comically illogical police raids, occasionally interspersing her dispatches (delivered in “perfect Herbrew”) with sardonic renditions of the Israeli national anthem.

But even during its most anarchic and comedic sequences, Chronicle of a Disappearance focuses on the repetitious rhythms of daily Palestinian life. In this respect, the film remains a singular piece of political filmmaking, an abstract, minimalist tableau detailing the social fragmentation and political dissolution faced by the Palestinian people. By rejecting all forms of demagoguery, Suleiman’s debut feature film compresses the personal and the political, creating an abstracted collection of impressionist images that encapsulate the conditions of a people with a land.


Anonymous said...

This sounds much more enjoyable than Netflix led me to believe. Queued. Thanks, Chuck!

Chuck W said...

Ha, ha. I hope I didn't make the movie sound too enjoyable, as it is, for the most part, long, protracted scenes of Palestinian life spiked with momentary sequences of vivid physical comedy. Think Kiarostami, but with some socially conscious tomfoolery thrown in.

At any rate, I hope you enjoy the film. :)