Chronicles of Dark Humor: Palestinian Filmmaker Snubbed by Oscar

Judith Gabriel

Writer-director Elia Suleiman is now referred to as Palestine's first movie celebrity. His low-budget, darkly comic film "Divine Intervention" is winning critical acclaim and bringing audiences to their feet - and taking away many film festival trophies. But, like its creator, the film is "stateless," and as such, has been denied eligibility for an Academy Award nomination.

Suleiman's characters, on the street and on celluloid, silently rage against the very absurdity of their dispossessed status in a world that turns away from Palestinian reality, humanity-and film.

"Before this film, the average person in the West did not know of the existence of a Palestinian cinema at all," wrote Rania Samara in the Beirut based An Nahar Literary Supplement. "How would one then know of the existence of a Palestinian director of the caliber of Elia Suleiman?" she asked.

But with the success of "Divine Intervention," Suleiman has found a worldwide audience, prompting David Sterritt of The Christian Science Monitor to refer to him as the "only current Palestinian filmmaker whose work effectively reaches out to a wide international audience."

But while the film itself is winning praise, it has been snubbed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, left off the list of 54 entries for this year's foreign-language Oscar. According to the Los Angeles Times, Academy executive director Bruce Davis reportedly told film producer, Humbert Balsan, it would not accept the nomination, since it does not recognize Palestine as a country. The film was not deemed eligible ostensibly because each entry must be nominated by its home nation-and Palestine is not a nation. Critics have pointed out that neither is Hong Kong, but that region has been able to choose an Oscar candidate.

Explaining its position, the Academy says it consults the UN list of member nations when it determines if a film is eligible to represent a country, however, according to the Academy's rules, "Divine Intervention" also did not satisfy other requirements, such as the formation of a selection committee in its country and exhibiting the film in a native cinema for at least a week, according to the Guardian. The Oscar snub has started a grassroots backlash. "Obviously we are disappointed," said Feda Abdelhadi Nasser of the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the UN. "What it comes down to is that the Palestinian people, in addition to the denial of other right ... are now being denied the ability to compete in a competition that judges artistic and cultural expression." Palestinian human rights organizations are protesting the Academy's use of an out-of-date rule which they say amounts to censorship.

Meanwhile, other festivals have wholeheartedly embraced "Divine Intervention." It was the first Palestinian film to compete at the Cannes Film Festival, where this year it won the international critics' prize and the Grand Jury Prize. It also was named Best Foreign Film (Non-European) at the European Film Awards in Rome, and shown recently at the London Film Festival.

In North America, it won the Special Jury Prize at the Chicago Film Festival, and was an official selection at respected venues such as the New York and Toronto film festivals, where heavily attended showings paved the way for its American theatrical première earlier this year. It was shown at the AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles, and at other film major festivals in Denver, Santa Fe and Cleveland. Throughout the last few months, it has been heralded in the media: Richard Corliss of Time Magazine called it "one of the top ten films of the year!" and Newsday's Gene Seymour gave it four stars. The screenings drew large crowds, paving the way for its American theatrical premier a month ago.

"Divine Intervention," Suleiman's second feature film, draws much of its style from conventions of screen comedy, and has been likened to the style of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. Subtitled, "A Chronicle of Love and Pain," the film is an absurdist political satire. It is divided into three sections, each devoted to a troubled locale on the map of Israel and Palestine. The film follows ES, a character played by and obviously based upon Suelimann himself. Without speaking a word, in the manner of a silent movie, ES goes to a hospital to visit his father (Nayef Fahoum Daher) who has collapsed from the rage seething inside him. ES plays a film director who is struggling to finish his own film, and is also involved in an unrequited love affair with a Palestinian woman (Manal Khader) who lives Ramallah. Because of an Israeli checkpoint on the Nazareth-Ramallah road , the couple is forced to have their trysts in an empty lot. Their relationship in the midst of absurd situations serves as a metaphor for the madness of the political problems around them.

Suleiman adds other forms of comic relief, such as the release of a red helium balloon bearing a cartoon likeness of Yasser Arafat's smiling face, which floats over an Israeli checkpoint as soldiers debate whether or not to shoot it down. The balloon sails blithely past them into Jerusalem and alights on the Dome of the Rock. This is one of the scenes that elicited so much critical acclaim. The Christian Science Monitor's Sterritt noted "Suleiman's skill at conjuring up images from the political unconscious of people wracked by violence and insecurity. In this sense, 'Divine Intervention' is the 'Dr. Strangelove' of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, bringing barely acknowledged fears to the surface so they can be understood."

The understanding is gained by breaking down an audience's resistance, through the use of absurdity and satire. "The participants in the Cannes Festival were surprised with this film, which presented the Arab-Israeli conflict in a sarcastic way," noted An Nahar's Samara. "They were also surprised to know the director of this dark comedy who plays also the major character in his film and who was compared by the critics to Buster Keaton, the sad comedian during the time of silent cinema. Suleiman said many times that he is a Palestinian who loves Jewish jokes. He has the spirit of playfulness and sense of humor that allowed him to use the sarcastic, critical comedy instead of the images of political struggle and resistance that the people got used to see in the news."

Elia Suleiman was born in 1960 in Nazareth. "He was a poor boy that crossed his hands behind his back like a character of the late Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali," noted George Kidee, who interviewed Suleiman for An Nahar. "I did not have the money to go to college," Suleiman said. "I really left school when I was 16 years old because of the difficult conditions in Palestine back then, knowing that my personality tended to reject everything structured and confined. This is not a prerequisite. The creative academic may reject everything academic and sacred. And the rejection may exist outside the academy in the larger context."

But Kidee notes that Suleiman, who was "un-educated in his youth and in his early beginnings, became the best educated cinematographer in every field without letting go of the intuitive outlook, making cinema a way of life, discovering the power of the motion picture and its capacity to respond to his opposition, his national political and humanitarian commitment. It also responds to his inner violence armed with the weapons of criticism, cynicism, and bitter funmaking even marked with ridicule."

When he was 16 years, he immigrated to New York to live there for several years. He later went back to Palestine "because I was sick of working so hard in New York and not getting anywhere." Back in Nazareth, a recent article in Time Magazine recounts how he became intrigued by an old VHS camera his brother had bought. "I started by filming sheep," he said. "Somehow sheep manage to pose very well. A friend of mine was a Bedouin shepherd and I had an idea to make a documentary about his family, who lived in the only Bedouin tent left. I never made the film, because nobody trusted me. But I did offer to film all the weddings in the village for free. Then I went back to New York." Back in the Big Apple again, his "cinematographic journey took off by accident when he was asked to help translate some parts of a film by the Lebanese-Canadian filmmaker Jay Salloum," according to Kidee. Meanwhile, he directed his first two short films, "Introduction to the End of an Argument" and "Homage by Assassination," winning widespread recognition and numerous awards. While in the United States, he frequently served as a guest lecturer in many universities, art institutions and museums.

In 1994, Elia Suleiman moved to Jerusalem, where the European Commission asked him to initiate a Film and Media Department at Bir Zeit University. In 1996, he completed his first feature film, "Chronicle of a Disappearance," which won the Best First Film Prize at the Venice International Film Festival.

Suleiman now lives in France, where the most incendiary scenes of "Divine Intervention" were shot. In his filming notes for "Divine Intervention," he records with ironic satisfaction how he had just "exploded an Israeli tank. I could not do it in Israel due to the war. So, I did it in an Army camp in France. ... My father would've been very proud of me if he were still alive. He served in the resistance in 1948 and was tortured to a comatose state by Israeli soldiers for refusing to denounce El-Husseini, a Palestinian political leader back then."

Such real moments are translated through the craft of screen comedy, attracting international audiences. "'Divine Intervention' can make you laugh at the current situation in the Middle East without feeling much better about it," wrote A.O. Scott in the New York Times. And Palestinian author and director Liana Badr told Agence France, "The film succeeded in penetrating our hearts through a very simple means. It showed through sarcasm the stupidity of Israeli occupation."

This feature appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 41 (Fall 2002)

Copyright (c) 2002 by Al Jadid

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