The Occupation (and Life) through an Absurdist Lens

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VOL. 32


No. 2
P. 63
The Occupation (and Life) through an Absurdist Lens

    Elia Suleiman, born in Nazareth in 1960, is the first Palestinian filmmaker to be selected for the “official competition” of the Cannes International Film Festival: his Divine Intervention: A Chronicle of Love and Pain was not only one of the twenty-one films out of 939 entries chosen for the fifty-fifth festival in May 2002, it also won the Jury Prize and the International Critics Prize. Suleiman had already come to the attention of the 2001 Cannes Festival, where his short Cyber Palestine was shown at the “Directors’ Fortnight.”
    Though without formal training, Suleiman has been winning prizes since his first film, a short entitled Introduction to the End of an Argument, won the award for best experimental documentary-USA in 1991. This was followed by his 1992 short Homage by Assassination, which won a Rockefeller Prize. By the time he made his first full-length movie, Chronicle of a Disappearance (which won the prize for the best first-feature at the 1996 Venice International Film Festival), his style was already well developed: a progression of sketches--witty, surreal, ironic, often devastating--and a virtual absence of narrative; in the case of Chronicle, a main character (a filmmaker called E.S., played by Suleiman himself) appears in a number of the episodes, most of which shed harsh light on life in Nazareth, but his presence seems more accidental than part of a storyline. Film critic Stanley Kaufman of the New Republic called Chronicle of a Disappearance “a film of the absurd. If Ionesco had been a Palestinian and a filmmaker, he might have made it.”
    While his recent film, Divine Intervention, is still very much an assemblage of vignettes, it does nonetheless have a semblance of narrative: a “central character” (again, a filmmaker named E.S., again played by Suleiman) shuttles between his hometown of Nazareth, where his father, beset by business woes, has a heart attack and lies dying; his apartment in East Jerusalem, where he is working on a screenplay; and a checkpoint between East Jerusalem and Ramallah, where he holds tender but wordless meetings in a parked car with his lover, a Ramallah woman hemmed in by borders and closures. In one of the checkpoint scenes that combines the visual beauty, whimsy, humor, and satire characteristic of the film, the hero inflates a large red balloon bearing the smiling visage of Yasir Arafat and releases it, creating havoc among the soldiers. aking advantage of the ensuing confusion, the hero and his lover manage to speed through the checkpoint, while the camera follows the balloon as it soars over the landscape toward Jerusalem, floating over the rooftops of the Old City and past the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to alight on the Dome of the Rock.
    When Divine Intervention won the Jury Prize at Cannes, the New York Times (27 May 2002) called it “a Keatonesque exploration of the large and small absurdities of Palestinian life under occupation.” And indeed, despite the humor, moments of tenderness, and laugh-out-loud sight gags, the film presents an all-too-realistic picture, pitiless and meticulous, of the devastating impact of occupation on Palestinian society both in Israel and in the occupied territories. Suleiman is witty and light, but dead serious; allergic to preaching, propaganda, and cliché, but highly political.
    The underlying grimness of the film is relieved not only by the humor but by resort to fantasy: the hero, cruising along a highway, casually tosses an apricot pit out of his car window and a tank blows up; a stunningly beautiful woman (the hero’s lover) strides through a checkpoint, mesmerizing the soldiers with her fierce beauty, and a military watchtower collapses. The most elaborate such sequence is the spectacular “Ninja scene,” a violently beautiful and stylized choreography wherein the same woman is imagined as a guerrilla fighter who dispatches (seemingly bloodlessly) a whole phalanx of Israeli sharpshooters who have been firing at her effigy in a shooting range.
    The meaning of the images, whose connectedness one to the next is not always immediately apparent, can leave the spectator temporarily puzzled; the New York Times of 7 October 2002 called them “cinematic riddles and visual puns, delivered in elegant deadpan.” The cumulative impact, however, is clear, and the images themselves linger long after the film ends. New York Times critic A. O. Scott, while noting the film's “appearance of randomness,” adds that there is “an oblique, elegant sense of structure here” and that “the interlocking series of setups, punch lines and non sequiturs add up to something touching, provocative, and wonderfully strange.”
    Divine Intervention currently is being shown throughout Europe and will be opening in the Middle East and Israel in January 2003. Shown at the New York Film Festival in October 2002, it will open commercially in the United States in January. Suleiman, in Paris for the opening of his film, was interviewed by Linda Butler, associate editor of JPS, on 26 September 2002.