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Don't Hate Divine Intervention Just Because it's Palestinian

Thought Balloon: Elia Suleiman and friend in the Palestinian comedy Divine Intervention

By Eric Allen Hatch | Posted

A small but vocal minority of Americans will detest Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman's new Divine Intervention sight unseen. This detestation will have nothing to do with the subjective artistic qualities of the film, and everything to do with a single objective reality: It exists. As I found out first-hand the last time I gave favorable notice to movies sympathetic to the Palestinians' plight (Film, April 10), painting a positive picture of any aspect of Palestinian culture opens one up to an immediate barrage of criticism that, at best, repeats the party line of corporate news media but, more commonly, succumbs to plain and simple racism. While I thank everyone who took the trouble to research my home address and write last time (especially one polite gentleman who opted to forward a William F. Buckley Jr. article instead of hate mail), I'd appreciate it if this time everyone saved their stamps and went to see the movie for themselves. For, as it turns out, Divine Intervention has the chutzpa to be not just politically controversial but also quite beautiful.

As with Suleiman's Chronicle of a Disappearance, one of the most promising feature film debuts of the 1990s, Divine Intervention's camera acts as a bemused observer, armed with a wry sense of humor and zenlike patience. Through this lens, the viewer witnesses a number of small, seemingly inconsequential events--a man waiting for a bus, a kid bouncing a soccer ball, neighbors bickering over bags of trash--some of which have immediate punch lines, others of which repeat with minor variations until they yield epiphanies of comic understanding. These images eventually coalesce into a warm, pockmarked portrait of a community just like any other--except that some people seem to be a little testy, as though they were, well, under a lot of pressure.

Enter E.S. (Suleiman), a silent character whose actions have a lot to say about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. E.S. often hangs out at Israeli checkpoints, observing soldiers harass Palestinian civilians. Some of these scenes come off as unnecessarily cartoonish, but two stand out as particularly effective. In one, E.S. floats a balloon brandishing Yasser Arafat's face toward the checkpoint; a panicked soldier calls a superior to ask if the balloon can pass. In another, E.S. observes Israeli soldiers stopping a siren-blaring Palestinian ambulance and inspecting its contents before allowing it through; immediately thereafter, Israeli emergency vehicles blast past the checkpoint unslowed and unmolested.

Other critics have compared Suleiman's on-screen persona to Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, and the similarities definitely exist. Suleiman's E.S. maintains a slightly sad poker face worthy of Keaton throughout the film's increasingly chaotic trajectory, and Suleiman's lens frames its visual punch lines--sometimes off-screen, sometimes from unexpected viewpoints--much like Tati might have. However, having grown up without access to most of the films to which his own get compared (including any work by Keaton or Tati), these are gags that Suleiman reinvented for himself.

Suleiman also injects some illuminating intellectual meta-humor into his work. E.S. sometimes contemplates a wall on which he arranges index cards representing scenes of the film the viewer is currently watching. In one scene the man is still waiting for his bus, some graffiti having appeared on the wall behind him reading i am crazy because i love you. In a later scene, E.S. plucks a card inscribed with the same words (presumably representing the earlier scene) off his wall and shyly flashes it to his unnamed female best friend/romantic interest (Manal Khader). With this re-contexturalizing act, Suleiman playfully acknowledges his control over structuring and ordering what the viewer sees. Later, when he tears up an index card reading father dies, the viewer witnesses his heartache in realizing that these powers don't extend into real life.

Such tender emotional moments betray the real thrust of Suleiman's work. Yes, he criticizes the Israeli military. Yes, he argues for Palestinian autonomy, putting the viewer in a position to ponder what it would be like to have his or her neighborhood occupied by a hostile military. But more than anything, his films depict Palestinian humanity--not the demonized nation of terrorists our government and media offer as an object of fear but struggling everyday people worthy of life, love, and art, the overwhelming majority of whom don't know a thing about bomb-making, even if each has a reason to be really, really pissed off.

The aforementioned detractors will probably disregard critical acceptance of Divine Intervention, supposing that any positive reviews it garners stem from political sympathy rather than artistic merit. Admittedly, this trend exists in film criticism--what inveterate moviegoer hasn't attended an acclaimed Third World film only to find it more well-intentioned than well-done? Divine Intervention's fresh, quirky, deadpan excellence negates the need for any such critical largess. It's something close to a masterpiece.

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