Suleiman, Elia (1960–)

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Suleiman, Elia

Palestinian film director Elia Suleiman (also Sulayman) is perhaps the most prominent Palestinian auteur filmmaker, and one of the most acclaimed Arab auteurs, having been awarded several of the most prestigious awards from international film festivals for his work. His filmmaking often draws upon autobiographical elements and settings within his hometown of Nazareth, producing a body of work that is strikingly consistent in its use of melancholic humor, its focus on the absurd in the quotidian, and its unflinching engagement with often-unexplored layers of the narratives of tragedy and resistance that define the post-1948 Palestinian experience.


Suleiman was born in 1960 in the Palestinian community of Nazareth in northern Israel. His interest in cinema apparently found a fertile ground only after he moved to New York City in the 1980s, living there for about twelve years. After making a series of short and experimental films in New York, Suleiman returned to Palestine in the mid-1990s, taking a visiting post teaching at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank while working on his first feature film Sijl Ikhtifa (Chronicle of a Disappearance, 1996). Living for a period in East Jerusalem, Suleiman left the area around the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, and afterward has largely based himself in France. In 2003, he released his second feature film Yad Ilahiyya (Divine Intervention, 2002), which won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. In addition to filmmaking, Suleiman has produced a small body of film criticism, and has served on film juries such as the main jury for the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.


Suleiman began working in filmmaking during his time in New York, co-directing the feature-length documentary/montage film, Muqaddima li'l-Nihayat Jidal (Introduction to the End of an Argument, 1990) with Lebanese-Canadian artist and filmmaker Jayce Salloum. A densely woven, intricately edited montage of news footage, material from classical Hollywood cinema, and documentary video footage from Palestine, this film is one of the finest deconstructions of the representation of the Middle East—in particular the Palestinian-Israeli issue—within Western media. In some ways this work stands in stark contrast to the aesthetic strategies Suleiman was to develop in his later filmmaking. Nonetheless this film presages the particular use of irony and humor developed in his later work.

Suleiman's work is often compared to that of great comedic film talents such as Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati, and even Charlie Chaplin. However, he himself more often cites the work of Robert Bresson as being inspirational, while also noting the influence of East Asian filmmakers such as Hou Hsiao Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang on his work (Porton, p. 27).


Name: Elia Suleiman

Birth: 1960, Nazareth, Israel

Nationality: Palestinian; citizen of Israel

Education: High school


  • 1990: Directs Muqaddima li'l-Nihayat Jidal (Introduction to the End of an Argument)
  • 1992: Directs Homage by Assassination, a short film in the collection Harb al Khalij … wa ba'd
  • 1996: Directs Sijl Ikhtifa (Chronicle of a Disappearance); awarded Best First Feature Film at Venice International Film Festival
  • 2000: Directs Hilm Arabi (The Arab Dream)
  • 2002: Directs Yad Ilahiyya (Divine Intervention); awarded Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival

His 1992 short film Homage by Assassination sets out many of the aesthetic strategies which would come to define his later cinematic work—elements such as static shots, shots often framed through doorways and windows, the propensity for action to occur at the margins of the frame, as well as the tension developed by awkward silences and inconclusive interruptions. However, critical attention and regard for Suleiman's particular talents as an auteur filmmaker only fully emerged after the release of his first feature Chronicle of a Disappearance in 1996. As in Homage by Assassination, Suleiman plays the main role in this feature, the character E. S.—a character who never speaks and who most often acts as a passive observer of actions around him. Chronicle of a Disappearance is a narrative film only in the most general sense of the term; while purporting to be about the return to Nazareth from a self-imposed exile in New York, most of the action of the film relates to short everyday scenes centered on the mundane lives of a number of Nazerine and Jerusalemite characters who are family, friends, and neighbors (many of them played by Suleiman's actual family, friends, and neighbors). On the surface these disconnected vignettes seem to rarely present a narrative continuity, although the occasional appearance of the character E. S. does allow for a sense of some focus. The camera and Suleiman's protagonist impassively and statically view the scenes with an ironic distance. Many scenes are positively hilarious, albeit with a most intimate kind of melancholic humor, commenting pessimistically on both the status of Palestinians inside Israel as well as on the highly inflated hopes of the "Oslo period" of the 1990s during which the film was made and released.

Chronicle of a Disappearance won several film festival awards and was reviewed favorably by international film critics. Stuart Klawans, writing in The Nation, described the film as "thoroughly extraordinary," while also identifying a particular criticism that has also at times been directed at Suleiman's work—an accusation that his work over-intellectualizes the Palestinian-Israeli predicament. Klawans says, "Yes, he's unmasked the absurdity of Jewish nationalism, but without affirming Palestinian nationalism. Such loftiness is possible only for intellectuals, artists, and those who have never missed a meal; a day-laborer under curfew in Gaza might prefer a political response that fits in the hand." Suleiman has since admitted that he "may have censored" himself somewhat in Chronicle of a Disappearance. The film also invited some controversy due to Suleiman's request for payment from Israel for a portion of its production costs (the film was largely produced with French money). Suleiman has responded to this criticism by asserting that, as a citizen of Israel, soliciting these funds was an act of demanding his civil rights rather than an act of political acquiescence.

Suleiman's second feature Yad Ilahiyya (Divine Intervention) builds upon and continues with the structure and themes developed in Chronicle of a Disappearance. The character E. S. returns, and much of the action again takes place in Nazareth with some of the same characters of the first feature. Similarly, the film is constructed around a series of everyday vignettes marked by the same ironic distance and humor. Beneath these similarities, however, the films are distinctly different. Divine Intervention has a stronger sense of narrative and pursues a more explicitly political set of issues. The film's narrative follows the failure of E. S.'s father's business, causing his father to suffer a heart attack. While his father is in hospital, E. S. pursues a love affair with a woman who lives in Ramallah; because of the Israeli checkpoint between their homes, they can only meet in a parking lot beside the checkpoint. Eventually his father dies and his lover stops coming to meet him. E. S. continues to act as a silent observer of events around him, in a situation more dire than that of Chronicle of a Disappearance. The vignettes are more pointed, more directly engaging with the militarization of Israeli society and the grinding frustration for Palestinians. Also, in Divine Intervention, Suleiman pushes the fantasies that result from this frustration into colorful relief, most remarkably in a completely unexpected sequence featuring a Palestinian female ninja-guerilla who fights off a group of Israeli special agents and destroys a helicopter.

Divine Intervention gained a degree of notoriety in 2003 when it was submitted by the Palestinian Authority as the official Palestinian entry to the American Academy Awards. Initially the Academy refused to allow an entry from Palestine, and a public debate ensued. Ironically, only two years later the Academy accepted the Palestinian entry Paradise Now (directed by hany abu-assad) as a nominee for the 2005 Best Foreign Film award.


Elia Suleiman is a member of what may be termed the second generation of Palestinian narrative filmmakers, coming to prominence after the groundbreaking work of Palestinian directors such as the politically committed Mustapha Abu Ali (1938–) ("They Do Not Exist") or the auteur work of Michel Khleifi (1950–) ("Wedding in Galilee"). Suleiman's contemporaries include Hany Abu-Assad (1961–) ("Paradise Now") and Rashid Masharawi (1962–) ("Haifa"), who have brought Palestinian cinema to a higher international prominence as a result of their work during the 1990s. However, Suleiman should also be considered among a group of international filmmakers of Arab or Middle Eastern origin who have achieved a prominence in global cinema in the same period, including figures such as Iran's abbas kiarostami, Turkey's nuri bilge ceylan, and Mauritania's Abderrahmane Sissako.


Among film scholars and critics, Suleiman is perhaps the most widely acclaimed of the second generation of Palestinian narrative filmmakers. While his contemporaries such as Rashid Masharawi and especially Abu-Assad have themselves attracted significant critical praise and global audiences, neither has enjoyed the same degree of critical adulation from the highest levels of the film establishments of Europe and the United States. Suleiman himself has maintained a balance between his identification with Palestinian cinema and his position as a largely European-produced filmmaker whose audience is arguably largely outside of Palestine.


Suleiman has already gained prominence among global film experts for his highly developed and very original aesthetic vision. He will most certainly be remembered as one of the most prominent of Palestinian filmmakers, in particular for his use of cinema as a means to raise questions about Palestinian aspirations and identity that are more ambivalent and unresolved than those of prior filmmakers. His film language has already been recognized as influential upon international filmmakers such as Mauritania's Abdelrahman Cissako. It remains to be seen if his work will continue in the same vein as his first two features, or if he will be able to successfully extend his aesthetic vision into new areas.


"Elia Suleiman." Midnight Sun Film Festival. Available from

Indiana, Gary. "Minority Report." Film Comment 39, no.1 (Jan/ Feb 2003): 28-31.

Klawans, Stuart. Review of Chronicle of a Disappearance. The Nation (16 June 1997).

Porton, Richard. "Notes from the Palestinian Diaspora: An Interview with Elia Suleiman." Cineaste 28, no. 3 (Summer 2003): 24-27.

                                                            Kamran Rastegar


Suleiman's film [Divine Intervention] makes no claim to documentary reality. What he presents are the normative pressures of daily life in the spectacular absurdity: through involuntary reactions to sight gags, to the over-the-top behavior of checkpoint guards, to the irrational acting-out of people under impossible stress, the viewer is carried beyond whatever didactic political positions he or she came in with…. From this perspective the question of "balance" seems moot. You don't have to be Palestinian to relate to Suleiman's movie in these dark times. It's impossible, on the other hand, to ignore the specific situation Divine Intervention addresses. Like any other 'minority' artist, Suleiman finds himself speaking for a whole minority when he basically wants to speak for himself.

                    GARY INDIANA IN FILM COMMENT, 31.