Movies at the Mudd: “Chronicle of a Disappearance

Corey Lehnert

Political films, if based on matters vague or remote to a Western audience, often suffer from a timeliness that threatens to throw them into obscurity for all but the certainly devoted, but admittedly sparse, crowd of history major film connoisseurs.
Elia Suleiman’s “Chronicle of a Disappearance,” a 1997 film set during a period of calm in the Israel-Palestine conflict after the 1993 Oslo Accords, runs the risk of falling into this category, but it persists beyond its topicality.
Though it is set during a period of time most Lawrentians find hazy at best, in a country that appears to have changed dramatically in recent years, the film remains a stylistically fresh and funny take on Palestinian identity.
Suleiman’s film eschews traditional modes of storytelling and character development, lacking any extensive narrative structure and following the lives of a number of characters only loosely connected to one another.
Examining Suleiman’s return to Palestine after a self-imposed exile, the film, instead, is something of a black comedy divided into a series of episodic sketches of everyday life.
These sketches are at times surreal, critical and hilarious. In one particularly noteworthy segment, a priest offers his new spiritual perspective after commenting that the water Jesus once walked on is now disturbed by speedboats and sewage drainage pipes.
In another, the director, playing himself, stands to give a speech on Palestinian identity to a Western European audience, only to be drowned out by microphone feedback and ringing cell phones.
Suleiman’s message isn’t just confined to these moments of humor, however, as his cinematic style does an equally exceptional job. Camera angles centered and steadied in doorways and windows, showing the lives confined inside, suggest the notion of Palestinian identity and the Palestinian state as trapped within prejudiced and static Western dialogues.
Through these sketches, Suleiman shows a picture of Palestinian identity that seems to have been lost in the aftermath of the attacks on Sept. 11 and the demonization of “un-American” views of the world.
His perspective is politically impartial, at times even almost apathetic, teasing out the quirks in life and reminding the audience, perhaps specifically the American audience, that Palestinians are people too. Although the occasional segment drags at times with obscure politics in metaphor, the film largely perseveres with a populist flavor.
After watching the film, in fact, I realized that, despite the film’s 1997 release, I was expecting to see suicide bombers and references to radical Islam peppered throughout. “Chronicle,” however, provided a wakeup call, alerting me to media-enforced prejudices I didn’t know I had.
“Chronicle of a Disappearance” proves to be not just a humorous and amusing picture, but an illuminating film regarding Palestinian identity.
“Chronicle of a Disappearance,” directed by Elia Suleiman. PN1997 .C576 2005