Finding humour in political tension
Divine Intervention, from Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, won the jury prize at the Cannes film festival, and continues to raise eyebrows. It's a dark comedy played against the harsh politics of the Mideast that decries the violence that tears apart the region
By ANGELA MULHOLLAND, CTV News Staff
September 13, 2002
Elia Suleiman's visually poignant Divine Intervention defies categorization. It's one part political satire, one-part physical comedy, one-part lament. Without overt didacticism, the film offers a rare glimpse into the lives of ordinary Palestinians living under what they see as the oppression of those who stole their homeland.
The film opens with a collection of silent vignettes, showing neighbours behaving badly in Nazareth. As symbols of the region's tension, the neighbours dump garbage in one another's yards, block access roads, and stab errant soccer balls of pesky local kids.
Amid this backdrop, ES, the main character in this semi-autobiographical film, tries to sustain a thwarted romance. He meets his lover in a parking lot across from an Israeli checkpoint. From their vantage point, the couple watches as Israeli soldiers mock Palestinian drivers, turning them away on a whim, or making them play "musical cars" before granting them access.
Suleiman, who grew up in Nazareth himself, says he was trying to illustrate that the tension in the region finds its way into the daily petty vindictiveness of the neighbours.
"Nazareth is a ghetto and as a ghetto, like any other, it's a place filled with despair. It's filled with unemployment, there are no movie theatres, no cultural venues, it's a claustrophobic space.
"So what happens to people who feel impotent in such a paradigm, especially vis a vis the true reason behind the status quo, behind the despair of their psyche, [Israeli rule], they turn against each other.
"This is something you can say about many situations, not just Nazareth but just any place that is ghetto-ized. You can go the States and find similar situations. Many times, it's black against black."
The feeling of impotence against Israeli rule takes a heavy toll on the spirits of ordinary Palestinians, says Suleiman.
"There are different kinds of occupations. Nazareth, and all Palestinians living in Israel proper, are living in an occupation that is represented by economic forces, by deprivation of opportunities for work, by racist values, by taking away their land, by freedom of movement. It can be a psychic occupation, an economic one, it's not just the tank and the soldier at the roadblock."
Despite the situation, the neighbours in the film insist on maintaining the facade of normalcy. One of the opening scenes show ES's father driving down a local road, cursing at his neighbours under his breath, even as he politely waves to each of them.
"People want to have a daily continuity in their day-to-day lives. But at the same time, there is a breakdown in communication. Faith, moral values - all the equations that make our life flow in some kind of harmonious way - are sometimes disrupted when situations are such that they become so intense, so tensed."
This breakdown is literally translated to the screen: there is little dialogue throughout, with long moments of empty scenes and staring faces. It's an unconventional approach to storytelling that can leave many viewers a little bewildered. Suleiman makes no apologies.
"This is not a linear narrative that wants to tell you just one thing. If you wanted to see that, you would go to a conventional consumption film."
Suleiman encourages viewers not to bemoan the lack of clarity and conventional structure, but to embrace the approach because it leaves the film up for interpretation.
"Understanding is not a necessity," Suleiman explains. "I think what is important, what is interesting in cinema-going or viewing an image is the pleasure, the sensuality of the poetic territory. It is the desire and the liking, and the desire-seeking. Really, understanding can come on its own, you don't have to force consciousness, you don't have to force comprehending.
"Going to a film and spending an hour and a half trying to sort of "break bones," to understand, will take away from you the pleasure of the image. Understanding can sort of settle in at another situation, another time."
It's a director's prerogative not to give away what he was thinking when he wrote the film. "When you compose an image, a poetic territory, the one thing that you reserve is the right not to explain. Because the second you start to explain, it becomes a linear thought, it becomes preaching, it becomes the one way to seeing it, it becomes truth, which is exactly what you try to resist when you make a film."
Suleiman hopes his films are watched more than once, so that each time, the viewer will bring something new to it. "It's just like when you see a painting when you're five and when you're 10. Your experience changes the way you interpret it. And I think this is what the cinema can do as well."
One of the film's final scenes has disturbed some, a scene in which a Ninja-type Palestinian woman descends onto a group of Israeli soldiers at target practice. When they shoot at her, she turns the bullets around and almost gently kills each of them.
Suleiman doesn't understand why people are upset by the scene.
"From my point of view, calling the scene violent is a little over-exaggerating. If you want to see violent, go to those middle of the range American films that come to town all the time that show violence for violence's sake."
The Ninja-woman is not meant to be seen as evil, Suleiman explains. She is the Divine Intervention of the film's title, a saviour ES imagines after enduring the despair of watching his father die and his lover leave him. By gaining victory over the soldiers, she destroys his helplessness.
But it that's now how all viewers see the scene, and if it leaves some feeling angry, Suleiman says that's fine too.
"If we are a little provoked every once in a while, I'm not sure this is always a negative thing.