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by Jordan Hiller



Divine Intervention  

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.

In The 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 hypocrites.

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 hopelessness.

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 guns).

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 bottles.

  • 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 ball.

  • 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 into Jerusalem.

  •  A 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.

Laughing yet?

Please note: Corrections were made to the review that reflect factual miscues in the original as noted in comments below*


Reader Comments: Do you have any comments? send comments directly to Jordan Hiller
From Sarah*: 


I think there are some factual inaccuracies in your review of Divine Intervention I just wanted to bring to your attention.  First of all, there is no checkpoint between Nazareth and Jerusalem - it's all Israel.  The checkpoint is the Ar-Ram checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah.  The main character, who is from Nazareth, is there because he's seeing this woman from Ramallah and she can't leave, so they meet at the checkpoint.  He's from Nazareth, which is in Israel, so he's an Arab (or Palestinian) Israeli.  She, however, is NOT a citizen of Israel.  This is pretty key to the whole situation.  I think you totally misread the situation, and his take on it.  He is so much more understanding of the Israeli perspective than the director of Gaza Strip, who you apparently thought so much better of.  The whole thing about his equating Zionism with Nazism or whatever is totally unwarrented - pure imagination.  Which brings me to the second major factual inaccuracy about the death of his father.  His father was not killed in 1948, but rather only a couple years ago, between the making of his first film and this one - another incredibly major part of the film, where it obviously is dealing with the director's reaction to his father's death, which is dramatized on screen!  I mean, how can you miss that?  Here is a link to an interview with Filmmaker magazine that backs this up - and totally demolishes your argument that he's some kind of agitprop director, full of hatred and propoganda - he's something maybe you can't imagine a Palestinian being, namely, a talented artist who cares more about expressing his own unique sense of the world that caring one way or another about Israelis.
Reviews by Jordan Hiller

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L’chayim, Comrade Stalin
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Divine Intervention

The Pianist

Best films of 2002 1992

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The Oscar Preview 2002

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