‘When we started shooting, so did they’

‘When we started shooting, so did they’

It was never going to be easy for a Palestinian to film in the West Bank. Elia Suleiman tells Xan Brooks how he became a hit-and-run director

Monday January 13, 2003
The Guardian

When Elia Suleiman brought his film Divine Intervention to Ramallah he found the Israeli soldiers had got there first. The entrance to the cinema had been bombed, the cash till rifled, the Dolby stereo stolen. Storming the adjacent “house of culture”, the soldiers proceeded to gun down a row of costumed mannequins and shoot holes in a canvas that hung on the wall. “They executed a painting,” Suleiman says, before dissolving into giggles. “I thought that was so funny. I mean, it’s depressing when you’re there. I was in Ramallah only yesterday and I was completely devastated. But we all have our own mechanism to lift us up again. Yesterday was a nightmare. Today I’m laughing.”

Divine Inspiration is the Suleiman mechanism writ large. The Jury prize-winner at last year’s Cannes film festival, it is a 90-minute procession of comic vignettes that spotlight the absurdities of Palestinian life under Israeli rule. As you would expect of a film that opens with a panting Santa Claus being hounded through Nazareth and closes with a pressure cooker seething on a stove, Suleiman’s film goes heavy on the allegories. And yet Divine Intervention is finally too bemused to stand as a traditional satire, and too oddball to quite qualify as propaganda.

In terms of style and content, it swings in out of left field. Stumped by the film’s lugubrious line in comedy, and by the way its director doubles as its stone-faced, tragedian hero, critics have suggested Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati as possible inspirations. “Which is funny, because I’ve never seen any of their films,” says Suleiman. “My films have a silent movie aspect only because I don’t know much about making films, so there is a naivete and a literalness that’s similar to the comedies of the silent era. But because of all my cultural baggage, I suppose that I make films that are complicatedly simple, as opposed to simply complicated.”

Now 42, Suleiman has been making these films for six years. Before that he was working, as an illegal immigrant, initially in a London wine bar, later in a clippings library in New York (“Minimum wage,” he says. “And I was very lonely”). It was in New York that he began schooling himself in cinema: reading about Godard before actually seeing his films and cannibalising the back catalogues of Bresson, Ozu and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. “City of Sadness was a key film for me,” he says. “All these Taiwanese are so Palestinian it’s unbelievable. There’s something in their mannerisms, in the way that they sit on their balconies that seemed eerily close to home.” Returning to his native Nazareth, he took his experience of returning to a homeland that was only halfway home and farmed it into a semi-autobiographical feature, Chronicle of a Disappearance. Divine Intervention, he says, is just an extension of that inquiry. Sometimes wry, sometimes gloomy, its observations all have a basis in real events, from the Israeli soldiers who periodically release a prisoner to direct tourists to the Holy City, to the massed patients who chainsmoke in the hospital corridor, dragging their IV drips behind them.

The way the director tells it, the making of Divine Intervention was a weird mix of guerrilla opportunism and harmonious collaboration. Many of the cast and crew were Israeli, including Suleiman’s line producer (and close friend) Avi Kleinberger. This helped smooth things over with the authorities. But on other occasions, Suleiman was forced to resort to hit-and-run tactics, showing up, filming a scene and then piling back into the van. “It was very difficult. Once the authorities know that you’re a Palestinian and that the M16s the actors are carrying are real, then forget it. East Jerusalem was terrible to film in and Nazareth even worse, with all the trouble there. Whenever we started shooting, they started shooting.” One key shot of an exploding tank had to be staged on a back road in France.

Off-screen there were explosions, too. At Cannes the director was quoted as saying that he rejected the ideal of an independent Palestinian state. This enraged both the Israelis - who filed the words as a call for an end to Israel - and the Arabic press, which saw the director as tacitly condoning an ongoing ghettoised community. Neither, says Suleiman, is exactly what he meant. “What I said was that I want an end of occupation. That is what a Palestinian state should mean. I oppose the notion of statehood as it stands at the moment. And yes, I do think that Israel should cease to exist as a state for the Jewish people and commence to be a democratic, secular state for all its citizens, and that includes the one million or so Palestinians living there who are marginalised, with racist practices against them. What I want to see is this: no religion, multi-national, open borders.” He shrugs. “But I can see that this probably cannot happen for generations. When all the wounds have healed.”

The problem, Suleiman realises, is that the current climate makes it impossible to separate his film from its cultural baggage; to view it clear of the swarming suspicion and hatred surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off. In the eyes of the world, Suleiman can never simply be a humble film-maker with a semi-autobiographical tale to tell. He’s a spokesman for a culture denied a voice, and a crusader for a national cinema for a people without a nation. Inevitably, his film is read first and foremost as an impassioned broadside against Ariel Sharon’s policies.

Such a position clearly has him exasperated. When I ask how Divine Intervention has been received in Israel, he tells me that it has yet to go on general release. “But there are Israelis who love cinema, so people will go to see it when it does.” He shrugs. “And maybe they will love it, and maybe they will hate it. And who is ‘they’ anyway? These are individuals, with their own tastes and desires. The foreign press with their patronising, colonial discourse are always asking me: ‘What do you think the Palestinians will make of this film?’ What Palestinians? Which ones? It’s like saying: ‘What will the Jews feel about this or that?’ ” In his agitation, Suleiman fishes a cigarette from the pack before realising that he already has one burning in the ashtray. “It’s so patronising to assume that all Palestinians are the same. I had a screening of the film recently and one guy came up afterwards and told me that he didn’t like the film because of the cursing. He was an older man and he simply didn’t care to hear so many curses.”

That said, there is one common currency that Suleiman will acknowledge. “Answer me this,” he says. “How is it that, even with all the different cultural codes in the world, people will always laugh at exactly the same time in a film?” Do they, though? “Oh, they do. I know they do, because I’ve stood at the back of the cinema during every screening and I’ve heard them. And remember that every spectator is different from the one sitting next to him. But there must be some communal ritual at work. I’m not sure what it is, but if it gives everyone a sense of togetherness, if only for a moment, then it must have a good consequence.” He pauses to light the other cigarette. “That’s what makes me happy. It’s not about getting people to learn about Palestine, because I think that they learn about Palestine when they laugh. They become a little bit Palestinian, just by that.”