Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival

Chen-Yi Wu

Chen-Yi Wu

Static Noises and Silent Voices: “Chronicle of a Disappearance” 28 Years Later

Elia Suleiman's Chronicle of a Disappearance and 10 other Arab films to watch on NetflixPhoto Credit: Chronicle of a Disappearance

Recent solidarity protests on university campuses and increased calls for recognition of a Palestinian state may be shining an unprecedented spotlight on the ongoing genocide in Gaza, but the dispossession of Palestinians by Israel is not a new story. This makes Elia Suleiman’s first feature, “Chronicle of a Disappearance,” still fresh and relevant, even as it marks the 28th anniversary of its premiere. 

Soldiers, gunfires, bombs, and limbs. The crying women and children. Starvation and poverty. All these images do not exist in Suleiman’s debut. The only aspect of “Chronicle of a Disappearance” that resembles belligerence is its metaphorical impact, as it was a bombshell on the 1996 film festival circuit. With no clear storyline or plot, the film presents a fragmented personal diary from the perspective of a man named E.S., played by the director himself. The film starts with E.S. return to the West Bank and Israel after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the election of Benjamin Netanyahu

Suleiman’s work embodies Felliniesque absurdity and humor, along with the spirit of post-war neorealism. However, it goes further by creating spaces between sounds and images that allow for audience interpretation. Those determined to “understand” Suleiman’s work often end up frustrated, as he does not attempt to authoritatively explain or clarify any plot points. According to Suleiman himself, the film is meant to be an exploration of “what it means to be Palestinian.” Those who view identity as a fixed and concrete concept will find themselves challenged by Suleiman’s creative decisions, ultimately losing themselves in the statelessness of Palestine.

Chronicle of a Disappearance — Films | Doha Film InstitutePhoto Credit: Chronicle of a Disappearance

In the first half of the film, the audience follows the perspective of E.S., experiencing the peaceful and simple life of the small town of Nazareth through his chronicled entries. In this quiet town, there seem to be no signs of war; the only clues to political turmoil come from television and radio news. Suleiman uses many static shots and long takes to create this illusion of tranquility. The souvenir shop “The Holyland” comically illustrates the religious and commercialized nature of Israel: tourists’ impressions of Israel are rooted in ancient religious stories, seeing not the living people of today, but rather cultural icons — camels, holy water, and scenic postcards. In this context, “Chronicle of a Disappearance also seeks to challenge this flat and oriental perspective.

Suleiman focuses on the complex racial and cultural dynamics of Jerusalem in the latter half of the film. One of the most humorous scenes features an Arab actress, Adan (Ula Tabari), using a walkie-talkie to command and direct the police. This scene starkly contrasts with an earlier one where she is mansplained by an older estate agent, telling her she must wait until marriage to live alone so her honor is protected. It also contrasts with her repeated failures to rent an apartment due to her Arab identity. Both the walkie-talkie and the telephone are tools for communication, yet they yield different results based on the assumptions made about the speaker’s identity. As an unmarried Arab woman, she faces constant obstacles; as a member of the Israeli police, everyone obeys her commands. Is communication ever truly possible, regardless of the tool or medium used? When E.S. stands in front of the microphone to speak about his new film, the microphone magically breaks. We only hear static noises.

Chronicle of a Disappearance | Rotten TomatoesPhoto Credit: Chronicle of a Disappearance

Serving as the first piece of Suleiman’s Palestinian Trilogy, “Chronicle of a Disappearance” is a commentary on existence, communication, and identity that still resonates deeply in today’s tumultuous political landscape. It’s even more special if one considers nowadays American audiences’ preferences: straightforward, clear narrative, and character-driven stories. Suleiman’s minimalism is a generous gesture to pass the power of discourse back to the viewers, and the Palestinians. Suleiman never needs a microphone.

Chronicle of a Disappearance is part of PAAFF’s 2024 Film Club watch-list. Sign up for Film Club here.

If you were moved by this writing, consider donating to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund or Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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