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Elia Suleiman’s “Time” to Shine

Elia Suleiman’s “Time” to Shine  (photo)

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Don’t call Elia Suleiman a Palestinian filmmaker. “It’s a kind of ghettoization, frankly,” says the 50-year-old Nazareth-born director, and he has a point. True, his name often heads lists of filmmakers working in the Middle East — Suleiman’s last two features have both premiered at Cannes to wide acclaim — but his work also displays a universality and accessibility that reaches beyond politics or questions of identity. His films manage an irresistible — and somewhat paradoxical — blend of Jarmuschian irony, Tatiesque slapstick, and occasional bits of documentary, while also working with deeply emotional, almost romantic undercurrents.

The films have never been particularly political, even though they often tackle potentially explosive topics: 2002’s much-admired “Divine Intervention” climaxed with an Israeli checkpoint being blown to bits, “Matrix”-style. (It was a comedy, believe it or not.) Suleiman’s third feature, “The Time That Remains,” is certainly his most ambitious yet, examining the effect of the creation of Israel on the lives of one family – the director’s own – through his characteristically wry, deadpan style. I recently spoke with the director about the difficulties of making a historical epic, his frustration with questions of identity, and whether his three features could be considered a trilogy.

This seems like a very personal film for you, telling in part the story of your family in Palestine over the decades. And it’s been regarded as part of a trilogy. When did you first decide that you would make this film?

You know, everybody asks about this trilogy aspect of the films. I never said that. I do not think of cinema as trilogies or “duologies” or whatever comes with a “-gy.” I think sometimes there’s a closure, so maybe people feel like the film brings some kind of finality to the other two films. But I don’t know, for example, that my next film isn’t going to feel like a continuation of this film. I’m against the idea of planning ahead this sort of context. You do that if someone commissions you to do a work and says, “The narrative has to do such and such a thing at such and such a place.” And then it becomes a sketch of some kind. I’ve done a few of those, like the four-minute films I did for Cannes. But not in the actual films I make. It’s difficult to say that you planned to make three films, because then suddenly that becomes a context that’s imposed on the film, and there’s no room left for the poetic.

01072011_TimeThatRemains1.jpgBut you do have a very distinctive style, and these films do explore certain themes. So maybe there’s a particular uniformity on a superficial level? And then, when you make another film, they’ll say, “Oh, now he’s just repeating himself.”

Exactly! When the producers read my scripts, they always say, “Oh, this is just like the other one.” This happened to me. When I did “Divine Intervention,” they said, “Oh, it’s just like ‘Chronicle of a Disappearance’ all over again.” Then I made it, and they saw that it’s not the same thing all over again. It’s connected, of course, because this is also a personal story, this is also semi-autobiographical, this is sincerely the way I feel my images. So, I guess I should add that there are some intentional connections.

In “Chronicle of a Disappearance,” I filmed in my parents’ house, and I placed a camera pointing towards the kitchen, where my mother sits. In “Time That Remains,” I intentionally shot in the same place, from the same angle. Because I wanted to talk about the passage of time and the aging of my mother. So that was very connected. And people who come and look and write about a film have an absolute right to write what they want about the film. So I’m not in a position to say, “No.” And I guess it’s flattering, too, because it means people are seeing the films and creating a context for them.

One thing that all of these films do display is your remarkable sense of location – your impressive ability to work within a physical space, whether it’s a room or a house or a street. You have a unique way of moving actors. You discussed your parents’ house. When you plan a film, are you precise in what you’re looking for? Do you think of a space and find it? Or do you just show up and work things out on set?

Most of the time, when I write in my notebooks, there’s a place that I note. When I come to write the script, that place becomes imaginary. And so when I’m writing the scene, I write it with precise description. In my script, I’ll talk about screen direction, very precise movements, etc. Then what I do is when I go to scout a location, I go to the exact same places as a departure point. I go to that space, and I sit down by myself for quite a while, just to feel the space. Even if it’s absolutely familiar. Even when it’s my parents’ home, which is where I grew up.

01072011_TimeThatRemains3.jpgHow do you know when you’ve found the right space?

You look for the place that comes to dialogue with you, in that moment. You find the poetic space, where the imaginary is actually playing, and you’re being sincere to yourself. Then you feel that this is the place you’re going to shoot. Sometimes, however, the walls are in your way, the place is smaller, you’re not going to be able to push in the camera, etc. And then you have to find or create an alternative space. What I try to do most of the time is manage with what I have.

This is how I choose my locations. I go and I live in them. Even with my cinematographer, when he comes to the set, we go and we hang out there, and we talk about things – things that maybe don’t even have anything to do with the scene, or the movie. That makes you sense whether this is the right space to shoot the movie. But many of my locations have been alternative locations, because you’re not given permission, or because there’s a lot of traffic, or whatever.

Plus, you’re making films in Palestine, which I imagine is a place that’s constantly changing.

And you know what? This is actually a huge headache for production, because sometimes I’ll pick a location where trucks cannot enter, or where it’s impossible to have 50 crew people, and so production-wise, it becomes difficult. But I always find this challenge is worthwhile because you come closer to something. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself looking for something that’s just easy and open and convenient, and ultimately doesn’t feel true to yourself.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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