Divine Intervention (Suleiman, 2002) is a strange film, “a deadpan comedy of sorts, almost silent, with touches of Tati and Keaton – and certainly quite unlike anything you’ll see about this region on the news” (Bradshaw, 2003). It such a perfect exemplar of the Palestinian desire to blend realism with surrealism that at times it feels like two completely unrelated films have been spliced together in some projection booth error.
Most of the film is shot in an observational, documentary style, using natural light, static cameras and long lenses which don’t intrude upon the subject. But this realism is intercut with sequences which are so surreal as to be jarring. Static cameras are replaced by smooth, swirling crane shots; the editing is switches from detached long takes to fast, emotive cutting; and non-diegetic music exaggerates this altered reality.
In creating his film in this way Suleiman invites his audience to consider why he chooses to underscore certain sequences with this heightened unreality; what about them makes them surreal for him? Delving into them, we find that these fantastical sequences always represent moments when Palestine is strong or successful, for example when a Palestinian woman struts through an Israeli checkpoint leaving devastated guards in her wake, or when a red balloon painted with Yasser Arafat’s face similarly causes chaos by slipping through the same checkpoint and roaming free over Jerusalem, or in the final sequence in which a Palestinian woman single handedly destroys a squadron of Israeli soldiers in a stylised display of martial arts.
The fantastical nature of these scenes, and the presence of the same actress playing both woman, suggests that these scenes are not necessarily meant to be “real”, but instead are a representation of ES’ dreams; is the woman really his lover, or is she a figment of his imagination, a representation of the Palestine that he loves?
In contrast to the visceral, closeup nature of these fantastical sequences, Suleiman holds reality at a distance. The bulk of the film, outside of these vividly surreal explosions of cinematic colour, is shot with a remoteness that creates a strong sense of observation in the viewer. Scenes are framed as wide shots, filmed from a remote distance with a static camera. And the spartan dialogue only enhances this sense of distance between the viewer and the subject. Is this distance meant to confer on the audience a sense of omniscience, like the god who Suleiman hopes will provide the intervention that he hints at in the film’s title?
Adding to this voyeuristic tone is Suleiman’s choice of subject, he repeatedly shows people observing others, through windows, from cars or from roofs (the entirety of ES’ relationship with his unnamed lover seems to comprise them sitting in a car and watching the checkpoint). This seems to be a direct call out to the constant Israeli observation of every aspect of Palestinian life.
Another repeated theme is low-level violence, and its passive acceptance by those who see it. It appears when an old man bursts the child’s football with a knife, and when a petrol bomb is thrown into from a moving car into a domestic garden only to be calmly extinguished with the minimum of fuss. Violence is normalised in the Occupied Territories.
The lack of dialogue and the remoteness of the camera means that it’s often unclear what is happening in each scene and how it relates to the rest of the film. Suleiman’s uses his static cameras to exaggerate this, allowing his subjects to enter or leave the frame with no information as to where they’ve come from or where they’re going to. This lack of information serves makes the Suleiman’s repetition even more visible, because it’s the most tangible connection between scenes. As with his earlier film Chronicle of a Disappearance (Suleiman, 1996), Suleiman uses this repetition to shape his film. He repeatedly returns to the same scenes, and while each time the scene progresses or changes slightly, but remains fundamentally the same. The scenes of his father opening his morning post at the breakfast table, the tourist asking the Israeli police for directions and the boy playing football are all examples of these connecting repetitions. The cyclical effect created by these repeated scenes seems to reference the suspended state of Palestine; superficially things might progress, but the fundamental nature of their plight has not changed. It also seems to hint at their inability to move on from the effects of the Israeli occupation; they haven’t accepted their situation and instead are fighting to return to an increasingly distant past. This refusal to move forward leaves them trapped in a present which longs for the past but cannot reach it; a kind of cyclical limbo.
Another, more subtle, form of repetition appears in the words “I am crazy because I love you” (Suleiman, 2002). They first appear as graffiti on a wall in Nazareth where the first part of the film takes place. Then they appear as an intertitle which separates two sections of the film. Finally they appear on a post-it note which ES gives to his lover at their checkpoint rendez-vous. It seems to be a reference to, and perhaps an explanation of, the Palestinian refusal to accept Israel; they can’t give up because their love for their homeland is too strong.
A third form of repetition appears when Divine Intervention is watched alongside Chronicle of a Disappearance. Suleiman uses similar images and techniques in both; he appears as an actor in both films; both begin in Nazareth and end in Jerusalem; both feature significant driving sequences set to music. And both claim to be a “chronicle”, the earlier film is named as such in its title and the first act of Divine Intervention is titled “A Chronicle of Love and Pain” (Suleiman, 2002). This repetition across films, combined with an obvious desire to highlight a Palestinian experience, seems to suggest that Suleiman doesn’t feel that his message has yet been heard.
One final note on the film. I found it interesting that Suleiman has his character, ES, sitting in a car watching the checkpoint. Both the car and the checkpoint should be places of transience, but here they’ve both been turned into places that are inhabited and fixated upon. They’ve been resignified as places of meaning.
Bradshaw, P., (2003), Divine Intervention [online], The Guardian, Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2003/jan/17/artsfeatures7 [Accessed on 12 September 2016]
Suleiman, E., (1996), Chronicle of a Disappearance, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC)
Suleiman, E., (2002), Divine Intervention, Filmstiftung