If Elia Suleiman’s face were a cartoon, then the single short, white brush stroke dabbed into his black hair would perhaps be the beginning of a thought balloon, perpetually forming above the left eyebrow. One after another, ideas pop loose from that creased forehead and float through his new movie, Divine Intervention.
His image of his hometown, Nazareth: the place where Santa Claus got chased down and killed. His picture of his father, late in life: a man who sits at the kitchen table, endlessly sorting a pile of mail. His notion of Palestinian romance under Israeli rule: a rendezvous at a highway checkpoint, where lovers separated by the Green Line meet in a car for an orgy of handholding. His metaphor for freedom: a balloon decorated with a life-size drawing of Yasir Arafat’s head, released from the West Bank to drift over Jerusalem.
Like a silent comedy–like Suleiman’s 1996 debut feature, Chronicle of a Disappearance—Divine Intervention is made up of an expertly timed series of such wordless, deadpan scenes. They make you recall that a gag is something that either incites laughter or else stifles speech. Not that the characters in Divine Intervention are entirely mute. The father (Nayef Fahoum Daher) can let loose an obscene, ear-scorching tirade against his neighbors in Nazareth, all the while waving a friendly good morning to each; an Israeli soldier at the checkpoint can decide to act like the emcee of an insane game show, in which Palestinian contestants must follow whatever instructions he shouts through a bullhorn. Language usually hurts in Divine Intervention. For laughter, and imagination, and maybe even hope, Suleiman needs to keep quiet, even though his silence is heavy with longing.
You will notice that his face seems older than its 42 years–older than the face of an American look-alike and contemporary, such as Robert Downey Jr.–with the jowls softening below the unmoving soft lips, the liquid eyes starting to droop beneath that hyperactive expanse of forehead. It must weigh on the flesh, to be a real Palestinian but have only a potential Palestine. Certainly a weight of some kind has brought down his father, who’s come to lie in a hospital ward. (Of course, in a Palestinian hospital, everybody smokes, doctors included. This, at least, you can’t blame on the Israelis.) And yet the smooth-faced love of E.S.’s life–the wonderworking woman (Manal Khader), the handholder–looks so fine that soldiers stand dumbfounded at the roadblock, helpless to stop her legs from scissoring past in a white Paris dress.
That’s how E.S. imagines her, anyway. As he did before, in Chronicle of a Disappearance, Suleiman has claimed the movie’s sadness and slapstick for himself, while making a woman responsible for all its beauty, vitality, worldly wisdom and effective political resistance. I assume he knows this choice is old-fashioned and romantic, in a Chaplinesque way. Out of love for Chaplin, who knew something about dispossessed people and what movies might do for them, I’m willing to play along–especially since the coolly self-assured Khader actually carries off the role.
The scene in which I hesitate to play along is the one where Khader turns into a levitating ninja, who strikes down a squad of Israeli soldiers with a magical barrage of stones. Yes, it’s another of E.S.’s fantasies; yes, he’s entitled to it; and yes, it brings to a new height the contrast between Khader’s buoyancy and the men’s heaviness. But when I think of how many Palestinian kids have been killed or maimed while throwing stones, when I think of how little the Palestinians have won through such flailings, I feel that this scene, alone among the fantasies of Divine Intervention, descends to the polemical and, worse, to intellectual dandyism.
But that’s one scene. As for the rest: Divine Intervention is a brilliant merger of poignancy and absurdity, humor and outrage, made by one of the most extraordinary writer-actor-directors in contemporary film. It’s the work of someone whose pained thoughts have burst loose from his forehead, only to be pinned down again as the yellow cards of a scenario writer; someone who nevertheless has learned he can shuffle those cards at will, or even tear them up, and so bring forth surprises. Maybe a lost father can come back; maybe love can end in something better than craziness. Such artistic reworkings of the yellow cards may not be truly godlike; but for anyone who watches Divine Intervention, they offer a release that’s like the first buoyant possibility of freedom.
While Divine Intervention enjoys its US theatrical premiere at the Angelika Film Center in New York, two remarkable documentaries about the Palestinians and the Israelis are on view down the street at Film Forum. The Settlers, Ruth Walk’s intimate profile of the Orthodox Jews in Hebron, and Close, Closed, Closure, Ram Loevy’s journey into the “prison with one million inmates” that is the Gaza Strip, are on view through January 28.
The Settlers takes us into the kitchens and living rooms of the Jewish women of Tel Rumeidah, a cluster of trailer homes established in 1984 on the presumed site of biblical Hebron. Through Walk, whose single biggest achievement in this film was to have gained the confidence of these women, we enter into conversation with Brucha, the mother of twelve, and Naomi, the mother of seven. We see them go about their daily tasks, such as bringing instant coffee to the soldiers who guard their enclave; we watch them pray, or take an art class, or go to a demonstration. And we listen as Brucha praises the beautiful landscape of Hebron: “Too bad it’s full of Arabs.”
With exemplary restraint, Walk allows these women to present themselves as they feel they should be seen–that is, as normal in their own terms. Out of this comes the fascination of The Settlers. What is normal about keeping tens of thousands of your fellow citizens under military lockdown, while you celebrate one of your festivals in the streets? What is normal about a religious shrine, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, that’s lit up and defended like a maximum-security prison, or about a city where loudspeakers are continually deployed as weapons? Although Walk is careful not to impose any judgments on her subjects, it’s safe to say that you and I will think their lives surreal. And yet, having been drawn in by the sweetness and candor of their manner, by the harmlessness of most of their doings, we may come to understand why these women feel as they do. We might even smile tolerantly at them–until they point out the bullet holes in a child’s bedroom, or speak again about clearing out their neighbors.
In Loevy’s Close, Closed, Closure, the focus shifts from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, from Israelis to Palestinians. As it does so, an element of self-consciousness enters the picture, with Loevy adding to his images a dryly embittered voiceover narration. He shows us Palestinian workers, returning from their labors in Israel with the goods they have bought, “carrying part of their salaries on their shoulders.” He takes us into a once-bustling truck depot, moribund now that the second intifada has begun. He speaks with the parents of a young boy, a double amputee, who had needed to get to a hospital in Israel but was turned back at the crossing. “I’m not sure you should be in our house now,” his mother tells Loevy. “I don’t know that I can talk to you anymore.” Meanwhile, just across the border in Israel, a few peace activists carry on with their weekly demonstration–“far from the centers of power,” Loevy says on the soundtrack, “but right where the usual arguments can be held.”
Let’s at least have some unusual arguments. Films such as Walk’s and Loevy’s don’t offer any solutions–they don’t even hold out hope–but they do bring us face to face with various people we might not otherwise listen to. Think of these films as the beginning of conversations, as breaks within normality. They’re sorely needed.
Short Takes: While we’re on the subject of Jewish homelands, let me recommend Yale Strom’s terrific new documentary, L’Chayim, Comrade Stalin! It’s the story of Birobidzhan, capital of what used to be the Soviet Union’s Jewish Autonomous Region. Before I saw the film, I knew that Birobidzhan had been built with considerable help from leftist, anti-Zionist Americans, and that it was officially established in 1934 as a dumping ground for the Soviet Union’s unalterably “bourgeois” Jews. How could I not have realized that Jews still live in Birobidzhan, way out in the farthest reaches of Siberia? Why didn’t it occur to me that they still might have their Yiddish-language school and their museum, and that they might even be experiencing a religious revival? Assembled with musical deftness from archival sources and present-day footage, L’Chayim, Comrade Stalin! is a polyphonic film étude about cruelly betrayed ideals and an amazingly persistent culture.
Also of note: the hourlong video documentary Hidden Wars of Desert Storm, made in 2000 by Audrey Brohy and Gerard Ungerman, which New York’s Anthology Film Archives has had the good sense to bring back for a brief run through January 26. Piecing together well-established information that is available in public sources but often overlooked, Brohy and Ungerman argue that the first Bush Administration invented the threat of an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia–and so pursued the Gulf War–for the purpose of establishing a military base in the region. Among the consequences: the strengthening of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the immiseration of Iraq, as economic sanctions deprived every group but the army of basic resources. In tone, the video is mercifully nonconspiratorial; in style, it’s free of rhetorical cheese. If you’re interested but can’t get to Anthology Film Archives, you can learn more by visiting www.arabfilm.com.