Ninja in Nazareth

From the window of his mother’s house in Nazareth, director Elia Suleiman can look out on a breathtaking view. A stark contrast to the threatening chaos of the city’s main street, choked with cars and vendors, the tranquillity of the Suleiman family’s courtyard is almost surprising. Beneath the veranda, where the foreign maid is serving tea, the vista includes most of the landscape from the filming of “Divine Intervention,” Suleiman’s newest film, which opened in Israel this past weekend.

The reaction of Israeli viewers is hard to predict: Will they embrace the film, or feel threatened by its critical message?

Viewers in Europe and the U.S., where it was screened in cinemas catering to foreign and art films, have given “Divine Intervention” an enthusiastic reception. Entitled “The Hand of God” in Arabic, the film premiered at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival and captured the prestigious Grand Jury Prize. Last October it won a Silver Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival and, to general astonishment, even took Best Foreign Film at the European Film Academy, over competition that included Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” Joel Zwick’s “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and Curtis Hanson’s “8 Mile.”

“I work like a painter, putting down one layer after another,” says Suleiman. “I carry a notebook everywhere and write down my ideas - another image, another picture, a little more color. Each time, I take an overall look and then change things: take something away here, add something there. In the end, I have a scene and then another, until all together they create something called a film, but I prefer to call it an atmosphere.”

Life as protest

“Divine Intervention” has no coherent plot with a beginning, middle and end. The film supposedly relates a love story between E.S. (Elia Suleiman), played by Suleiman, and an unnamed woman, played by Palestinian journalist Manal Khader. He lives in Jerusalem and she lives in Ramallah - they’re separated by a military checkpoint.

In the film’s opening scene, a man dressed as Santa Claus (whose voice is that of French actor Michel Piccoli) flees a group of youths and is finally found dead with a big knife in his heart. After that, in long scenes that sometimes appear to have no relation to one another, the director portrays the Sisyphean lives of the residents of Nazareth: One arranges bottles on the roof of his house, another throws garbage into his neighbor’s yard, yet another weeds her garden, and some bored children are trying to play ball.

Throughout the film, Suleiman’s character remains at a distance, observing. The film deals with what is going on in Israel, but Suleiman left Israel many years ago. He lived for 12 years in New York and now lives in Paris.

It’s interesting to watch the critical portrayal of Nazareth’s residents who are presented as threatening and full of frustration, in contrast to their portrayal in Suleiman’s action film, “Chronicle of a Disappearance.” This earlier film, made in 1996 with the assistance of Israel’s Fund for Cinema and Television, drew an optimistic picture of the euphoric days of the Oslo Accords, and the city’s residents full of hope. That work won the Venice Film Festival prize for a first film and was screened for about a year in France.

The governing impression in “Divine Intervention” is that all is lost. Suleiman emphasizes the fractured reality by giving us almost no dialogue at all, as if even language itself - the ability to communicate - has been lost.

Was it hard for you to portray residents of your city in such an unflattering way?

Suleiman: “Some people find it pleasant to see me as the good Palestinian, because I present not only Israel in a critical way, but also my own people. Still, it’s clear where the frustration of the residents comes from and why they behave this way: the occupation. When there is no love, when people live in a ghetto, they start to fight each other. In every ghetto in the world, you can find people behaving maliciously to one another. When I was in New York, I would tell my friends: `Your Harlem is my Nazareth.’

“But when people ask me if the film is about the occupation of the Palestinian people, I say right away that this isn’t a film about anything. If it has to be reduced to one subject, I say it’s a film about occupation in the world as a whole - it focuses on Israel only because Israel serves as a kind of microcosm.”

Even for non-Israeli ears, Suleiman is in no hurry to make political statements. “I leave the talking to the politicians,” he says. “My work is in film. To me, to be pro-Palestinian means to become a better person. Only when you can appreciate your own life, and live a longer and fuller life, are you able to even begin to express an opinion.”

Role of the victim

Among the only scenes in which the protagonist E.S. shakes off the role of observer and exacts some small revenge is one that has him sitting in his car in a traffic jam alongside a car with a yarmulke-wearing observant Jew. E.S. opens the window and turns up the volume on his radio, which is playing Natasha Atlas, a leading figure in world music, singing “I Put a Spell on You.”

The real protest actually comes from a strong, fictional female figure. Her first appearance is in a scene in which Israeli soldiers are brandishing their rifles at Palestinians in their cars in a crowded queue at a checkpoint, telling them to back up. In contrast to the frightened drivers, who make haste to comply, suddenly a beautiful woman in a pink dress and sunglasses steps out of one of the cars. As if moving down a fashion runway, she walks right past the soldiers, standing there transfixed, and crosses the checkpoint.

Some people saw that powerful figure of a woman as the Palestinian people.

“I don’t agree with that conception. To me, the woman represents my other, feminine, self. E.S. imagines himself as a woman, as this sensual figure, because he isn’t able to get past all the obstacles. For me, a demonstration of feminine power and violence is aesthetic, while masculine violence is vulgar and pornographic.”

This same feminine figure appears in another impressive scene, six minutes long, which cost about half million dollars to shoot. Unlike the rest of the film, which is very understated, this scene has the impact of a punch in the face. At first we see soldiers practicing at a firing range, and suddenly this woman appears out of nowhere, wrapped in a keffiyeh. The soldiers begin shooting at her but she, like a character out of “Matrix,” flies through the air and the bullets become a kind of halo around her head. She throws stones at the soldiers, shoots them with arrows shaped like an Islamic crescent, and defends herself with an iron shield shaped like the State of Israel. Finally she kills a soldier whose Peace Now T-shirt may be glimpsed peeking out from under his uniform.

“The killing of the soldier was an in-joke for Israeli viewers,” explains Suleiman, “so I didn’t translate what is written on the shirt into foreign languages. For me, it’s the Peace Now people who are the real bad guys. They’re the ones who plan the airplanes that kill us, and afterward, they win Nobel Peace Prizes. One has to know the whole history and see that not only Likud governments have occupied us - Peace Now people are the best pilots, they plan the most successful wars and then try to expiate that with demonstrations in favor of peace and by wearing T-shirts with empty slogans.”

That scene could give people pause in terms of the message you are trying to convey.

“So long as I am describing the Israeli occupation, that’s okay for everyone, and I’m accepted as long as I remain the victim. But the moment I start to take action and kill Israelis, that’s over the line. People all over the world were put off by this part of the film. When a cowboy murders thousands of Indians, that’s okay, but as soon as one Indian does something, the audience automatically begins to criticize him. In my opinion, this is the first time in the history of cinema that the audience doesn’t automatically identify with a woman who is being shot at by six men. It’s because the audience isn’t ready to see us outside the role of victim.”

Another scene that Suleiman says evoked harsh reactions takes place when E.S., driving in his car and eating a peach, finishes the fruit and throws the pit out the window. The peach pit hits an Israeli tank and blows it up. “People everywhere asked me if I want to blow up Israeli tanks, and the answer is no,” says Suleiman. “I want to blow up all the tanks in the world. All human beings should hate these instruments of war. Beyond that, I am not willing to put up with being cast as the cause of Israeli paranoia about terror attacks. I’m not willing to have it said of me that I encourage hatred and suicide bombers. Neither I nor my films cause suicide attacks; that’s done by your government and its actions.

“Instead of criticizing these isolated scenes, maybe it would be worthwhile to take me as a case study. The film should raise questions - how is it that a filmmaker like me, who doesn’t even live here, and who was never hurt by Israeli forces, nor were any of his family - how come he creates such violent scenes? When people in the audience leave the movie theater and ask themselves these questions and begin to give themselves real answers, the dialogue I am looking for will have begun.”

Long live Israel

One of the few actors in “Divine Intervention” is Menashe Noi, who plays a drunken soldier at a checkpoint. The soldier forces the Palestinians to get out of their cars and then makes them dance, while shouting through his megaphone, “Oy, oy, oy, Am Yisrael chai” (“the People of Israel live”).

“That’s the most violent and threatening scene in the film,” says Suleiman. “The other scenes are fantasies - it’s clear that a peach pit can’t blow up a tank and that there are no ninjas in the real world - but in this scene, something very close to reality is depicted.”

Noi, in an interview with Yigal Ravid on Channel Two News, dissociated himself from the film. He says he didn’t read the entire script and would not have taken part had he known that the film supports the Palestinian Authority. Suleiman, meanwhile, is full of compliments for Noi’s acting. “I could not have found a better actor,” says the director.

About two months ago, after the film had won all those important international prizes, the people in charge of America’s Academy Awards were trying to decide if the film could represent the Palestinian Authority and compete in the category of best foreign-language film. They finally decided to go by the book and said no, because the Palestinian Authority isn’t a country.

If the budget for “Divine Intervention” had come from Israeli sources, like that for “Chronicle of a Disappearance,” perhaps the film could have represented Israel at the Oscars, but Suleiman says he wouldn’t have agreed to that.

“I carry an Israeli passport,” he says, “and I won’t give it up because then I couldn’t come to visit my family and my mother, but I don’t want any connection with Israel. For me, Israel is a fascist state. In `Chronicle of a Disappearance,’ I took funding from the cinema fund because it was a question of civil rights. I pay taxes and therefore I deserve the same treatment as any other local artist. But I no longer want to have any connection with the Israeli establishment.”