Tell me when you start to laugh.
One typically tense night in Israel, a boisterous IDF soldier (think
a slimmer Bill Murray) decides he wants to handle the traffic at a
checkpoint between Ramallah, an Arab territory outside of Israel
proper, and Jerusalem, the Jewish capital. The dusty clutter of
vehicles lined up to gain admittance are cramped with Arab men,
women, and children looking to conduct whatever business they may
have in Jerusalem (our ears prick up – what kind of business could
they have at this hour?). The handsome, baby faced soldiers (played
by the real thing) checking papers and I.D.s have
an important job to do – they are defending lives - and they take
it seriously, but this one deranged newcomer has grown vicious and
frustrated and he intends to take out his aggression on the caravan
of edgy travelers. He forces drivers out of their vehicles at
gunpoint, makes them switch cars, confiscates one man’s leather
jacket, and dances around with one dumbfounded driver singing “Am
Yisrael Chai”. Then, as if the circus never occurred, he waves all
the vehicles through into the City of David – without checking an
I.D. This is a scene from the new film Divine Intervention dubbed by
the filmmakers as a “comic tale of life and love” and a winner
of the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002. A comic tale,
mind you. The film also has won the Best Foreign Film award at the
2002 European Film Awards as well as the Jury Prize at the Chicago
Film Festival. It is not some underground, amateurish diversion for
radical Palestinians – it is a mainstream and celebrated work of
art - and this is precisely why we specifically must deal with it.
Elia Suleiman, director, writer
and star of the film shot in France and Israel, once remarked that
“all the old Jews had to do was become Israelis, turning in their
Jewishness to us and off we went.” Without feigning ignorance, we
can easily presume what he is driving at.
Pianist, a tale of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust, there
is a scene taking place at the Ghetto wall where a gate is opened
occasionally so the Jews can venture in to town and scavenge for
morsels. While the Jews wait pitifully in filthy clusters, the Nazi
soldiers watch with disinterest until one soldier decides he would
like to create some amusement. “Why not entertain ourselves with
the caged animals?” he thinks. So while local street-musicians
play a merry tune, the Nazis begin forcing Jews from the crowd to
dance with each other in “comic” pairs. An old woman with a
young boy. A woman with a crippled man whom she must hold up or he
would fall into the gutter. “Dance faster!” the cheerful
soldiers scream as the dancers defy their weary bodies and hobble
onward, fueled by fear and dehumanization.
So is this Suleiman’s point?
That Jews, who have been subjugated to humiliation throughout their
history, have now that they are in a position of power in their
homeland, become those very subjugators whom they have always
vilified? We cannot be naďve. This argument is constantly
resurrected at every anti-Israel, anti-Occupation rally in the
world. Sharon is Hitler. The Israeli Army is a Nazi regime. Our
present enemies have turned our enemies of the past against us. They
say we are hypocrites, and worse than that, Jewish vengeful
Nazareth is a city located
physically within the borders of Israel, yet it has an
overwhelmingly predominant Arab population – it is Suleiman’s
central focus for the film. Strangely enough, Mr. Suleiman provides
us with a film that depicts, in absurdist fashion, Nazareth, while
melancholy in its self-perpetuating desolation and turmoil, as a
place, despite a complicated and disturbing situation, where life
goes on. Life goes on, mind you.
The life in the territory is
portrayed with a somber comedic touch that is essentially singularly
themed: life in Nazareth is pointless and meaningless. A man waits
for a bus that will never come. Trash bags are thrown casually into
a neighbor’s yard for the reason that it simply is a convenient
place to put them. An old gentleman stacks his mail in neat piles
and meticulously goes through each letter to pass the time. The
movie breezes along with similar vignettes and most of the
twilight-zone style set pieces are worthy of the description comedy
despite the Jewish nerves they attack. Because while every bizarre
defeatist action taking place in Nazareth is sadly amusing and
telling, we cannot help but take one mental step further and realize
that Suleiman is saying (without ever straightforwardly saying it in
the film) that the Israeli’s have directly caused this
Even beyond the more severe
lacerations dealt toward the IDF (the one at the checkpoint is a
standout) there are less harsh but nevertheless troubling sketches
portraying Israel’s arrogance and sense of selfish order amid
chaos with their apparent
robotic heartlessness. One scene involves a tourist asking an
Israeli police officer for directions to an Arab landmark and the
officer assists her by pulling his blindfolded Arab detainee out of
the back of the police truck and the blindfolded prisoner manages to
give perfect directions. Get it? Arabs are blindfolded so often by
the Israelis that their sense of direction has evolved beyond sight.
At one point, again at the checkpoint, we hear sirens approaching
from Ramallah in the direction of Jerusalem. It is an ambulance
apparently dealing with a medical emergency. The ambulance is forced
to stop and the driver and emergency workers must exit, show I.D.,
and are then allowed to carry on. A moment later sirens race from
the Jerusalem side of the checkpoint and enter Ramallah
unchallenged. Suleiman wants us to understand the double standard.
Intelligent reader, I do not need
to explain to you why this double standard is necessary, or why
detainees are blindfolded, or why Israeli soldiers sometimes need to
act in a way that outwardly appears heartless, yet those reasons are
utterly ignored in the film. And that is frighteningly dangerous
because a film like this will be taken at face value by those
“uninvolved” and used to breed fury against Israel. For Mr.
Suleiman, who has made a film that glorifies martyrdom, the
checkpoint is a bitter obstacle to his people’s fight for freedom
(at all costs) and therefore it becomes his favorite target for
scrutiny and ridicule.
The film, while constantly being
broken up by these short, rather dreamlike, scenarios (I will list
them below for those of you who have no interest in seeing the film
and/or cannot find a theatre playing it), tells one story
throughout, however interrupted, and it is about the love between a
man living in Jerusalem and a woman living in Ramallah. They spend
entire afternoons parked by the checkpoint, silently caressing each
other’s hands, and must eventually part ways because their love is
not geographically sound. Merely one tragic story lost in the
greater catastrophe that is the Arab-Jewish conflict in Israel.
Divine Intervention won the Jury
Prize because it is a beautifully shot, imaginatively directed, well
acted, and shockingly affecting motion picture. However, it is like
The Picture of Dorian Gray - the aesthetically pleasing exterior
merely distracts viewers from, or altogether hides, the pure hatred
with which Mr. Suleiman made his film. However, I do not blame him
for this hatred – I can hold him accountable for an irresponsible
film. In his filming notes, he tells of how his father was brutally
tortured and left for dead by Hagana soldiers in 1948 when they
entered Nazareth. Let me quote to you from these notes: “My mother
tells me that she and the family doctor spent a whole day using
tweezers to pull my father’s shredded shirt out of his smashed
flesh. Where the back of the guns fractured my father’s skull,
hair never grew, gradually forming a bold halo on his head. Oh
father! It is so great to be Jewish. To inherit all this culture.”
Elia Suleiman was raised by anger and frustration and I truly
appreciate and empathize with that, but to call himself Jewish? To
say he inherited our culture because his father was severely wounded
during a legitimate and recognized war? (He mentions proudly that
his father was a member of the resistance who was able to build
In another paragraph in the notes
he speaks about a call he recently made to his mother who currently
lives in Nazareth: “How is Nazareth?” I ask. “Calm and quiet.
Nothing happens here,” she says thinking she can lure me back to
Nazareth”. Later he comments, “Nothing ever happens there
anyhow.” Nazareth. Calm. Quiet. Nothing happens.
Now I ask you Mr. Suleiman, have
you truly inherited the Jewish culture? Do you know what it is like
to be Jewish because you have lived under “the terror” of
Israeli occupation? I ask you, were the pogroms calm? The Spanish
Inquisition quiet? Would you consider a concentration camp a place
where nothing ever happens? Is your view and knowledge of history so
warped that you do not recognize that calm and quiet is a rarity for
the Jewish people? If the IDF is a
Nazi regime headed by Hitleresque Ariel Sharon, do you honestly
believe that your mother would be trying to lure you back home?
Wouldn’t she be demanding that you run for your life, never to
return?! Wouldn’t she be thrilled that you managed to escape? By
the way - I don’t recall – maybe you can remind me – How many
anti-Nazi films were made by openly Jewish directors in Germany
starring actual Nazi soldiers during World War II? Because if your
allegory is accurate, you have just completed such a feat.
Elia Suleiman is a talented man
who made a striking film to voice the sorrows of his people and
there are sorrows to be lamented, but his film is drawn from an
ugliness and intellectual dishonesty that besmirches any lesson that
could possibly be extracted from the content.
Scenes from Divine Intervention
Note: These scene are isolated and
without interpretation so they are for the audience to comprehend on
an individual level. This is why I present them to you accordingly.
Santa Claus is chased by a group of Arab boys.
He throws gifts to appease them but they remain in pursuit. When
they corner him we see that he has been stabbed by a large
kitchen knife. The screen then says “Nazareth”.
An old Arab man spends the entire morning
placing empty glass bottles on his roof. When the Israeli police
come to arrest him he attempts to pelt the soldiers with the
A group of Arab men surround an unseen figure in
a yard and tirelessly pummel it with their fists and legs.
Eventually one man begins shooting at the unseen figure.
Eventually the victim of the beat down is carried away and we
see that it was a harmless garden snake.
Suleiman drives along hungrily eating a peach.
When he consumes all the fruit and only the pit remains he
discards the pit by tossing it out the window. The pit strikes
an Israeli tank and the tank explodes into a thunderous fire
An attractive Arab woman gets out of her car on
the Ramallah side of the checkpoint and walks as if on a
modeling runway toward the entranced Israeli soldiers. Enya
style techno music pumps hypnotically. She cruises confidently
house at night in a seemingly quiet neighborhood. A car
screeches into view and drives furiously toward the house. A
Molotov cocktail is thrown into the yard. It ignites and flames
rise up. The owner of the home comes out calmly holding a fire
extinguisher and pragmatically douses the flames until they are
gone. The screen then says “Jerusalem”.
At the aforementioned checkpoint lovers stare
into each other’s eyes. The man begins to blow up a balloon.
We see the face of Yasir Arafat form on the rubber as the
balloon expands. He lets the balloon go out the window and it
floats past the checkpoint and into Jerusalem. We follow the
balloon through the city, again as the Enya techno blares, and
the balloon finally rests by the Dome of the Rock.
Suleiman pulls up next to a Dati-Tzioni Jew
(bumper stickers and all) and they conduct a staring contest.
The Jew is ugly, unshaven, and mesmerized. Suleiman is slick in
shades and menacingly in control.
Israeli soldiers are training in a remote
outdoor facility. They are shooting automatic weapons at targets
that each have depictions of an identical veiled Arab woman. The
soldiers begin to dance like NSYNC as they conduct their
training and fire their weapons. One target refuses to fall and
this infuriates the drill sergeant. Suddenly, the target comes
to life and the woman is a super powered martial artist with the
ability to fly. She eliminates each soldier one by one as they
vigorously try to mow her down with bullets. At one point, the
bullets slow down as they approach her Matrix-style and form a
thorny crown around her temple. Then, using a sling shot and a
shield she defeats the drill sergeant. As she lands on the
ground, the earth is painted with a giant Palestinian flag.
Please note: Corrections were made to the review that reflect
factual miscues in the original as noted in comments below*