Oscar draws ire for snubbing Palestinian film

In the opening scenes of Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, two Palestinian boys silently chase a man wearing a Santa Claus suit up a hillside in Nazareth. Santa is breathless — and understandably: He has a knife in his chest.

That piece of celluloid surrealism has now been matched by the real-life kind. Although Divine Intervention has been draped with awards at film festivals, including the Jury Prize at Cannes last May, it is not eligible for consideration in the Oscar’s best-foreign-film category because Palestine is not a country.

In fact, the film’s producer, Humbert Balsan, did not even bother to submit it in advance of the deadline because he’d been told by Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences executive director Bruce Davis that the nomination would not be accepted.

The academy’s position is that eligibility is based on the United Nations list of member countries. Palestinians may occupy a hugely disproportionate share of the General Assembly’s time, but Palestine is not on the list. Ergo: ineligible.

But neither are Puerto Rico, Taiwan and Hong Kong UN members — and their films have in the past been accepted for Oscar consideration.

Ah, says the academy, but you see there were other reasons why Divine Intervention is film non grata. One is that, under its rules, a selection committee must be formed in the originating country. No such panel was formed to nominate Suleiman’s film.

Moreover, Divine Intervention was not screened for a week in a Palestinian cinema, the minimum requirement for entry in the foreign-film category.

Because the academy never received the film in nomination, there is no decision for the producers now to appeal.

On the other hand, it also means that Divine Intervention — subtitled A Chronicle of Love and Pain — could be formally submitted for consideration next year.

Suleiman himself cancelled an interview yesterday on the subject, but spokesmen for various Arab-American groups have criticized the academy’s selection process.

“I think it is unfortunate that such an acclaimed film is not being allowed to compete,” said Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington. “This is a surprising move on the part of the academy, given that events in Israel and Palestine are so sensitive. A nomination for Divine Intervention would have sent out a message of good intent.”

The tacit subtext of such comments is that the academy, heavily represented by Jewish voters, has conspired to reject the film because of its depiction of Israelis. Israeli checkpoint guards are portrayed as buffoons and, in one computerized fantasy sequence, a paper target used by a contingent of Israeli soldiers is transformed into a Kafiyyeh-clad Palestinian woman who blocks their bullets and kills them with a slingshot.

Divine Intervention is not the only foreign film ensnared in Oscar politics this year. A British film, The Warrior, set in the Indian province of Rajastan, was formally nominated in the best foreign-film category, but was disqualified because it includes six minutes of dialogue in Hindi, a language not indigenous to Britain.

Then the academy rejected Bloody Sunday, an Irish film based on the 1972 clash between civil-rights marchers in Londonderry and British soldiers in which 13 people died.

The rationale in that case was that the film had been aired on television in Britain and Ireland last January — a no-no under academy rules.

The singular benefit of these controversies, of course, is that when the films do open commercially in cinemas — Suleiman’s film opens in Toronto on Jan. 10 and New York on Jan. 17; dates for the others have not been set — they will reap the dividends of thousands of dollars in free publicity.

Not divine intervention, perhaps, but grapevine intercession.