DIVINE INTERVENTION written and directed by Elia Suleiman, produced by Humbert Balsan, with Suleiman, Manal Khader and Nayef Fahoum Daher. A Seville release. 92 minutes. Opens Friday (January 10). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 62. Rating: NNN
When so many bodies keep getting ripped apart, metaphor can feel like a luxury. The killing in the Middle East just is. But the moment we start to talk about it, we're thrown into thickets of representation. That's where Elia Suleiman lives.Suleiman is Palestine's foremost filmmaker. His layered, searching films dive into paradox from the titles on: Introduction To The End Of An Argument, Homage By Assassination, Chronicle Of A Disappearance, Cyber Palestine.
Now he's lobbed his new film into the fray. Divine Intervention has been both hailed and damned since it debuted at Cannes. (See review, page 62.) Recently, it was judged ineligible for Oscar consideration. Since the Academy doesn't recognize Palestine as a country of production, how can the film exist?
It's an absurdity Suleiman could have scripted himself. In Divine Intervention, he imagines life under the Occupation in episodes of dire wit. Israeli workers fix a Ramallah pothole, then residents dig it open again, snaring a neighbour's car. A French tourist asks a soldier for directions to old Jerusalem. The soldier hauls over a Palestinian prisoner, still blindfolded, to do the job.
Suleiman himself plays a silent figure, E.S., whose girlfriend lives on the other side of the Green Line. They spend their only time together parked beside an Israeli checkpoint.
Intensely thoughtful, Suleiman understands just how charged a subject the Occupation is. The battle over meaning is no less fierce than the battle over land. But when it comes to putting it up onscreen, he says he wants "neither the myth nor the demystification."
In early works, he says, "I was trying to respond to the voice of the dominant order. But by negating the other's point of view you end up trapping yourself in a counterattack. This is a malady that the left finds itself in a lot."
Instead, he's reaching for "a more poetic image, an aestheticization of some kind.
"In the beginning," he admits, "you feel very insecure about poetry and the risks involved in a poetic image. So you cling to a critical approach. In case the poetic doesn't work, you can always come back home to a clever, intelligent remark."
But with Divine Intervention, Suleiman finds the risks of poetry more rewarding.
"The limitations are not even foreseen. You don't know where you're going, and that's the pleasure of it."
As for the risk his audience takes, he hopes it'll be "like love. They might feel a bit dislocated here and there, but the second they let themselves go they'll find that this risk is in itself a place to be, a kind of habitat."
Metaphors of place and confinement crop up often with Suleiman, even in gags. Sitting in a highly non-smoking Toronto hotel suite, he jokes, "What happens if they catch me smoking? They send me to Cuba with the rest of the Taliban?" This is a man who's long lived with feeling like a threat.
He recalls a French critic who loved Divine Intervention as long as the Palestinian was talking in gaggy humour about being occupied, about oppression.
"As long as I was in that domain he was very happy, because I was reaching out to people and telling them in this magical way, a funny way, that we need your support, your help. As long as I was in that occupied position he was quite content and happy.
"But when I transgress a little he couldn't protect me any more from those he considered the enemy. His mediative role was abolished. He doesn't want to defend me from accusations of being a terrorist, an aggressor. I lost my good-Arab-ness and he lost his role."
The breaking point for many comes during what can only be called the film's Matrix Intifada sequence. In a fantasy conjured from both life and movies, a female avenger takes on Israeli soldiers armed with a shield in the shape of Palestine and her own gravity-defying stunts. It's hilarious, and remorseless.
"The action film can be political," Suleiman insists. "This must be said to those ideological people on the left who believe that only a static camera is the truth." His goal in this sequence was to "Bressonianize The Matrix."
And if the sequence appears violent to some viewers, "it's the potentiality of violence they see, not the violence they watch," Suleiman says. "It's their fear that is operating."
But "if there was violence inside of me," he continues, "well, here it is. Look at it. Why censor it? Think about the potentiality of the Palestinian who lives in a refugee camp and sees the army coming and destroying his home and killing his brother and his mother and then decides to go and really commit violence. Think about that.
"Think about me as this angry pacifist who's never going to toy with the real weapons, who's only toying with the representation of it. And think what to do to prevent further violence instead of accusing me or putting me on the defensive, because I'm never going to be on the defensive."
He pauses for a moment, and adds, "I'm working on myself to reduce my levels of violence, to increase my level of tolerance."
And being Palestinian, which Suleiman deploys as a metaphor, is a part of that.
"This is Palestinianism as a notion, just as many times I would term something a Jewish concept."
If watching Divine Intervention "extends your aesthetic territory after the screening, you've already arrived in a place where you're living the present more intensely," he says. "You want to deter your finality. It's very resistant to a way that others who hold power would like us to live.
"In other words, you go out there and you become more tolerant, you go and make better love -- that's very Palestinian as far as I'm concerned.
"Poetry and love," he concludes, "are threatening to established orders because they have no defined territories, you know. You don't present an ID."firstname.lastname@example.org
Add together these artists' sensibilities to get the sum of Elia Suleiman's parts
Keaton's silent comedy is unforgiving and ecclesiastical. Where Chaplin adopted an American optimism, Keaton took an Old Testament view of the world. In Our Hospitality he finds himself trapped inside the social order of the Gallant South, which, thanks to a blood feud, wants to kill him. It's the Occupation on a domestic scale.
Like Keaton and Suleiman, this French master plays mute observer in his own films. But his M. Hulot also embodies an impish urge to destroy. In Playtime, where a mechanized city seems to rise up against him, Hulot refuses to be contained. In Divine Intervention's Tatiest moment, Suleiman's E.S. character throws a peach pit out his car window and blows up a tank.=
Toward the end of the 60s, Godard opened a direct channel between battlegrounds in Vietnam and the streets of Paris. In Weekend, capitalist excess turns ordinary French vacationers into snarling cannibals. In Divine Intervention, the Occupation has turned Ramallah into a war zone fought over trash cans and stray soccer balls.
Farocki is a high-forehead polemicist whose experimental documentaries take nothing for granted. Images Of The World And The Inscription Of War begins from Allied aerial shots of Auschwitz and strips pictures of all kinds back to their material base. Divine Intervention runs The Matrix's action fantasy through a deconstruction machine with Farocki gears. Pictures from the Occupation can never be the same.