A mind’s ‘Divine Intervention’

At first, Elia Suleiman did not want the discussion to turn to the war and politics. In our telephone conversation the Palestinian director discreetly yet clearly avoided commenting on the current situation. «I find it useless and trite for us to keep repeating the same things. It would be difficult for our conversation if we had different opinions on the war,» he said diplomatically. «I don’t think so,» I replied. «Then let’s just say that I feel the same way you do. I don’t believe that the Palestinians are any more sensitive than the Greeks, or even the Americans, except, of course, those who have been brainwashed.» All those who have seen «Divine Intervention» – Elia Suleiman’s second full-length feature film, which was awarded the Special Jury Prize and the Fipresci International Critics Award at last year’s Cannes film festival, will find it difficult to reconcile it with its director’s quiet, careful tones. This is a film full of passion, irony and humor, a fusion of Jacques Tati, silent comedy, and contemporary social and political absurdity, suggesting a brave, imaginative but also «fanatical» creator. The 43-year-old Palestinian speaks perfect English (he lived in New York for 12 years), travels between Jerusalem and Paris and considers himself neither «a politician nor a representative of anyone,» and therefore not able to talk about Palestinians’ daily lives or their reactions to the war. Despite all this, «Divine Intervention» follows its hero during his unconventional, quotidian life in Nazareth. Divided between his sick father and an impossible love affair with a Palestinian woman from Ramallah, the hero sees his world collapsing all around him and his desire for life being struck down at Israeli army checkpoints. Only a divine intervention can provide the solution. What does the film’s title refer to? To the imagination. When a director is at a dead end, he resorts to divine intervention. It’s his inspiration. The divine intervenes in the film either to liberate the hero or as a form of transgression, such as in the scene when the girl is transformed into a Ninja warrior who defeats the Israelis and goes triumphantly to her lover. The metaphor here is that if you put a prisoner in a cell of 1 square meter, then he will fantasize about his escape, his liberation. It means that with the constant restraints at the checkpoints to confirm personal details, they will never really imprison the Palestinians. Divine intervention gives them the chance to escape. The film works on two levels, reality and fantasy. Is reality so unbearable as to make someone slip constantly into fantasy? The answer is structured and based more upon a general idea than on reality. «Divine Intervention» is not a realistic movie. I prefer to escape from reality, from realism. I wanted to blur the boundaries between reality and fantasy. As I see it, our imagination is a part of our reality. It’s a part of the potential reality. Like when you are driving and thinking but also returning every now and then to the present moment. What you thought is a part of your own reality. In the film, I tried to make the impossible possible. In «Divine Intervention» there is no break between truth and dream, as in other films, when you wake up and realize that it was a dream. Here, it is not just a dream. As a viewer, though, I didn’t focus on the love aspect. «Divine Intervention» is a sarcastic and cynical film, portraying the daily lives of the Palestinians. Was this your intention? I didn’t have any particular intention. Each viewer takes what he or she wants from the film. I wouldn’t say it’s cynical but ironic. There is no bitterness but absurdity. I based the film on a love story. The narration is based on the hero being divided between his sick father and a love that he cannot have. But this is nothing more than a pretext. Despite that, you record the daily life of the Palestinians. A part of it. I want to be clear. However, we see the Palestinians who live on the Palestinian side of Nazareth, according to the 1948 borders. I wanted to capture the atmosphere of the ghetto, which I think Nazareth and all the cities that belong to Israel are today. All those Palestinians who live in Israel are under a peculiar regime of psychological and economic occupation, which marginalizes them. They are under extreme pressure, and gradually go out of control. They live in a situation that is very depressing psychologically and economically. These are the Palestinians whom I wanted to record. I’m not saying this is the only truth. It is, however, the truth that I have lived. Moreover, in the imagery of the film there is an aesthetic element which projects a subjective truth. I didn’t film daily life on the West Bank. The images which you see are the hero’s images, he is our «guide» in the film. He documents the poetic intensity at the checkpoint and an impossible love. One of the toughest scenes in the film is the one where the Palestinians are humbled and lose their dignity. Is this a way to justify Palestinian reactions? No. I’m not an eyewitness or a documentary maker. I work with fiction. I am not trying to impose my truth as the only truth nor am I trying to mobilize people over the Palestinian issue. I am weaving a reality using poetic license, either with humor or absurdity or sadness. Reality is the starting point. It’s been said that Palestinians «are born and die» at the checkpoints. The checkpoints are far less brutal in the film than in reality. After the Intifida the checkpoints became completely different from those that I have filmed. Cars cannot pass, people are checked one by one, waiting for hours. It is like a concentration camp. The whole of Ramallah has been turned into a concentration camp. Can the idyll between a Palestinian living in Jerusalem and a Palestinian living in Ramallah have a happy ending? Good question. I don’t know if it’s about Ramallah and Jerusalem or love in general. I feel that love vanishes at the end of tales of passion. There may be some happy love stories, but I will only be able to come to a conclusion once I am dead! Edward Said has argued for a peaceful coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis, with the precondition that the Israelis acknowledge the Palestinians as equals. Is this possible? I agree on general lines. It is possible and feasible, but it will take time. It is not just the ideological position of the Israelis, but American dominance over the whole world. We are facing a complex web of power, made up of Americans, Israelis and some of their allies. They want to control the world: how we think, what we eat, what we are worth. It is difficult but manifest: The Palestinians have the right to a state. Israel has to stop being a state with territorial ambitions, to become a democratic and secular state, because it isn’t now.