CANNES, FRANCE—The Buster Keaton of the West Bank, the Jacques Tati of Palestinian society (as the French media proclaims him), Elia Suleiman was busy fingering some worry beads lent to him by his French producer, Humbert Balsan, during a black-tie dinner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. But Suleiman had no immediate cause for consternation. Days later, Divine Intervention—his second feature and the first film by a Palestinian director ever to compete at Cannes—won the Jury Prize.
Divine Intervention is an unlikely comedy set in the West Bank and in Suleiman’s hometown of Nazareth, Israel. The melancholic, baby-faced auteur plays E.S., an enigmatic hipster from Jerusalem whose father is dying, and whose fiancée (played by Palestinian journalist Manal Khader) lives across the border in Ramallah; her movements are restricted, so they meet regularly at a checkpoint between them. From this slender plot, Suleiman hangs a series of virtuoso gags like clothes flapping on a line stretched across Nazareth’s narrow alleys—encapsulating the absurdity and rage-filled fantasies that underpin contemporary Palestinian existence.
Is being funny, for Suleiman, a political strategy? “Not at all,” the 42-year-old director says. “In fact, as soon as you become strategic, you lose the gag. It’s all a question of tempo and choreography.” He adds, “I sucked from the street life of Nazareth a kind of ghetto humor.”
Eighty thousand people living within two square kilometers, rampant unemployment, and a general ambience of claustrophobia and impotence, he says, give rise to a desperate irony. “Unlike the Palestinians living in the West Bank, those in Israel today are occupied, not militarily but psychologically,” he explains. “There’s a total disintegration of any form of social communication or harmony among them. I see the burlesque in it—someone else would say it’s tragic.”
Suleiman grew up in Nazareth, escaping to London at age 17 and then to New York, where friends who attended NYU film school sneaked him into screenings. An autodidact, he learned about film by reading interviews with directors. “One day, I told someone I wanted to do cinema, and then I swallowed my own lie whole.” He spent 14 years as a grant-mongering independent filmmaker on the Lower East Side, returning intermittently to Nazareth, before moving to Jerusalem in 1994 to found a department of film and media at Birzeit University. Two years later his Chronicle of a Disappearance, in which he also starred, won the prize for Best First Feature at the Venice Film Festival.
“Perhaps my having so few reference points from the history of cinema makes my work close to silent film,” says the director, who now lives in Paris. “I started to know the films of Keaton and Tati after Chronicle, because people told me about them. And then, my films are just an expression of who I am—a little distant, a little alienated, very sad. And at the same time, very humorous. Very Jewish, really.”
Suleiman finished the script of Divine Intervention two years ago—then the West Bank exploded. The film shoot on location in Bethlehem, with an Israeli-Palestinian crew, was interrupted when combatants started firing around them. Suleiman considers himself a pacifist, but his film’s most disturbing sequences involve fantasies of extreme anti-Israeli violence perpetrated by his character. What’s a filmmaker to do when the turbulence of day-to-day reality catches up with his imagination? Suleiman says, “Well, think of me not as just a spokesperson, but also as a case for analysis.”