Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention opened last Friday in Manhattan in a single theater (the Angelika), a limited engagement that will determine the film’s prospects for a wider release. Divine Intervention‘s journey to America has been a bumpy one, especially when one considers its credentials; the Palestinian film won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year, and then went on to a wide release, thanks to Warner Bros., in parts of Europe. Suleiman says the film opened on over a hundred screens in Paris alone.
In America, the film has stirred up controversy even before opening. Last month, it emerged that Divine Intervention was snubbed by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) in its bid for Oscar consideration. According to a December 14 article by Lorenza Muñoz in the LA Times, in October, the film’s producer, Humbert Balsan, asked AMPAS executive director Bruce Davis whether Balsan could submit Divine Intervention for best foreign language picture; Davis is reported as having said that Palestine was not a country recognized by the Academy. As a result, says Keith Icove, president of Avatar, Balsan chose not to submit the film for the foreign-language Oscar.
But when the Voice contacted AMPAS about the story, spokesperson John Pavlik didn’t mention his boss’s conversation, saying simply that the Academy had never made the decision whether Palestine should be recognized as a country, because Suleiman’s film had never been submitted. But, he noted, “we let other people decide what an official country is,” referring specifically to the United Nations. Writers for the Palestinian activist site Electronic Intifada noted “this technicality is rather like a shopkeeper protesting that he has never refused to hire a Palestinian because none has ever asked for a job, while failing to mention the sign on his door stating ‘Palestinians need not apply.’ ” Pavlik also did not mention that Taiwan, Wales, and Hong Kong have all been deemed eligible to submit films for the foreign picture Oscar, without being recognized UN countries.
The hubbub has raised ire from Arab anti-discrimination groups, the Palestinian representative to the UN, and even James Longley, director of Gaza Strip, who has threatened to return his student Academy Award.
Suleiman’s not talking about the snub, in the hope that people will start discussing his movie again, and not Hollywood politics. But it shouldn’t surprise him. “The fact is, it is difficult here for films such as mine—art films, Palestinian films,” he told the Voice before the Oscar stink.
“America is one of the few countries where these films are belittled.” This happens, says the 42-year-old director, because “newspapers, distributors, and producers” set norms for film consumption, resulting in a kind of “auto-censorship.” In Israel, Suleiman thinks, this kind of censorship has lately become intense—and, indeed, one has only to remember the recent banning there of Jenin, Jenin, Mohammed Bakri’s film about last April’s invasion of the West Bank city. But in the U.S., he says, it is much worse—a bad environment made more dangerous for small, political films since September 11.
Divine Intervention, an absurdist portrait of Palestinian life, focuses largely on residents of the city of Nazareth (“A ghetto,” Suleiman says, “with the humor of the ghetto”), and on two Palestinian lovers forced to meet in a parked car at an Israeli checkpoint. The director abstains from what he calls the “first-degree readings of tragic situations” that typify some resistance cinema. “I hope it’s a meditative image that is free for interpretation,” he says. But Suleiman is well aware how charged the polemic surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the US, and how far from meditation the arguments have wandered. “There is a lack of knowledge here about the situation,” he says. Producing a recent review of his film from a U.S. paper, he adds: “You see, it’s castrated. It doesn’t say anything.” Suleiman says that such a review would never appear in an Israeli paper: “It would be much more sincere, much more blunt. They would say, ‘It’s a great film, though it hurts me very much,’ or ‘This film is disgusting.’ Here there’s no historical or critical approach.”
In the end, though, these concerns might be secondary to the director. “What spurs me to write is the tickle, the gag, the humor,” he says. “If the jokes are interesting, it’s because of the cultures I’ve consumed.” His humor gets him into trouble, and even though he understands this, he is unapologetic. Besides, he says, “I really love to laugh at my own jokes.”
J. Hoberman’s review of Divine Intervention