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Israeli Arab Stirs the Pot with Absurdist Film on Middle East

This article is reprinted with permission of JTA. Visit

LOS ANGELES, March 2 (JTA)--Divine Intervention, by the Israeli Arab filmmaker Elia Suleiman, has been embraced by most critics as a brilliant absurdist comedy, recalling the style of French director Jacques Tati and the silent movie skits of Buster Keaton and the early Charlie Chaplin.  

On the other hand, the film's glacial pace, repetitive situations and minimalist style may try the attention span of all but the most devoted moviegoers.

The film has also been the subject of an Oscar controversy.

The 89-minute movie was written and filmed just before the outbreak of the current intifada in September 2000. It unfolds as an impressionistic journey through contemporary Israel, as viewed through the eyes of Suleiman, a secular Arab born and raised in Nazareth.

A series of sketches are tenuously held together by a plot line involving three characters:
* E.S., a thoroughly modern but utterly silent resident of Jerusalem (portrayed by writer-director Suleiman himself);
* his beloved, defined only as The Woman, a strikingly beautiful journalist (Manal Khader), living on the other side of Israel's pre-1967 border in the West Bank city of Ramallah; and
* E.S.'s dying father (Nayef Fahoum Daher) in Nazareth.

Dividing the lovers, as a symbol of Israeli domination, is a military checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Arriving in their cars from different directions, the lovers rendezvous at an empty lot next to the checkpoint, where they spend a great deal of time in intricate handholding without saying a word. They have plenty of time to stare at the checkpoint, where Israeli soldiers (played by actual army veterans) halt, pass and humiliate Arab motorists, more or less arbitrarily.

Other scenes edge into sheer fantasies of Palestinian revenge. E.S., who logs a lot of miles between Jerusalem, Nazareth and the checkpoint, tosses an apricot pit out of the car window that explodes an adjacent Israeli tank.

In another scene, The Woman, looking every inch a French fashion model, flounces across the checkpoint line in front of the open-mouthed soldiers, with their guard post collapsing as she passes.

In the final, most spectacular, scene, The Woman is transformed into a whirling Ninja, deflecting the bullets of an Israeli platoon with a gleaming shield in the shape of pre-1948 Palestine, and casually destroying a helicopter.

While Suleiman has no love for the Israeli Jews, his take on his fellow Arabs is hardly more flattering. Speaking of his fellow Nazareth residents, Suleiman has described them as "occupied, not militarily, but psychologically. There is a total disintegration of any form of social communication or harmony among them."

Indeed, he says, they spend a great deal of time throwing garbage into each other's backyard, chain-smoking cigarettes, and cursing each other in the most pungent language.

Divine Intervention, in Arabic with some Hebrew and with English subtitles, is billed as a "France/Palestine co-production" and won two of the top prizes at last year's Cannes Film Festival, and another at the European Film Awards, beating out My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

The film's promoters say the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rejected the film as a contender for best foreign-language movie honors for this year's Oscars on the grounds that Palestine is not a country.

The Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee has intimated that pro-Israel sentiment in Hollywood played a part in the alleged rejection.

Academy spokesman John Pavlik rejoined that Divine Intervention was never submitted, and therefore was neither considered nor rejected.

Suleiman's previous film, the semi-autobiographical Chronicle of a Disappearance, was banned in Arab countries.

That film's final, and offending, scene, which the 42-year-old director said was misinterpreted, showed an old Palestinian man sleeping in front of a TV screen with an Israeli flag flying high to the strains of "Hatikvah," Israel's national anthem.

"I was termed a collaborator and a Zionist," Suleiman recalled. "I was booed in the screening room and tabooed in the Arab world."

In an earlier interview, Suleiman, who now makes his home in Paris and Jerusalem, had this to say about his work: "My films are first an expression of who I am--a little distant, a little alienated, very sad. And, at the same time, very humorous. Very Jewish, really."

For more information on where and when Divine Intervention will be shown, visit: .


A supporter of the ideal that Israel be defined as a Jewish nation state. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Tom Tugend

Tom Tugend is a contributing editor to the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

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