A Breakdown of Communication: Elia Suleiman Talks About “Divine Intervention”
by Steve Erickson
When Elia Suleiman’s “Chronicle of a Disappearance” hit the festival circuit in 1996 and 1997, it was a real revelation. The Palestinian director touched on the frustration of being an Arab in Israel, maintaining a strong sense of humor. Rather than agitprop, he made a witty, semi-autobiographical comedy, reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise” and Jacques Tati. Using himself as a silent protagonist named E.S., Suleiman treated the film as a fictional diary. In many ways, “Divine Intervention” is a close follow-up to “Chronicle of a Disappearance.” Once again, Suleiman stars and remains silent. He plays a filmmaker struggling to write a script, inspired by his experiences. It also begins in his birthplace, Nazareth, and ends in Jerusalem. However, “Divine Intervention” is likely to be far more controversial than “Chronicle.” That film’s gentle tone and ironic ending were taken by some viewers as signs of acquiescence; on the other hand, the violent revenge fantasies of “Divine Intervention” are in danger of being taken literally. indieWIRE’s Steve Erickson talked to him in New York in October; Avatar Films releases “Divine Intervention” on Friday.
indieWIRE: Was the two-part structure of both your films always key to your vision?
Elia Suleiman: I never really come to a film through the structure. I simply jot down notes and build a story through them. Then I compose tableaux. When I get a tableau that stands by itself, it becomes an image. Later, when you shoot, there are a lot of ever-present possibilities. I write a very precisely structured script, but then I leave that work alone and start the process again. I want to avoid archiving images. I always want to make the creative process continue and not simply shoot what I’ve written on the set. Also, something else happens through the montage. In terms of narrative structure, it’s because I see them in poetic montage. Even my shorts continue this process. The only similarity is that both two films are set in Nazareth and Jerusalem. “Chronicle of a Disappearance” was about a document about the time that I shot it. For me, it was the silence before the storm. This one, which also follows some of the same individuals, shows all hell breaking loose.
iW: Why does Santa get stabbed in the opening?
Suleiman: I wanted a B-movie introduction. It sets the mood both for a certain lightness and violence. It’s an introduction to the breakdown of communication that follows.
iW: Do you have any acting experience?
iW: Would you be interested in acting in other people’s films?
Suleiman: It depends on the role. I don’t have a desire just to act. But if a part seems intriguing, why not?
iW: Is E.S. ever going to speak?
Suleiman: Maybe he’ll go from silence to screaming. My presence in the film takes me in. I don’t cast myself in the films, I am casted. E.S. is only named in the synopsis and script, not only in the film. It becomes a necessity at some point that I’m in the film. I can’t say whether it will happen in the next one.
iW: E.S. is a very meek and passive character, yet the film seems to be about his explosive fantasies. Are you afraid that people will interpret these images, such as the scene where the tank explodes and the ninja attack, as condoning violence? You’ve said that you’re a pacifist.
Suleiman: First, I don’t think there’s anything particularly violent in exploding tanks. But I don’t think that tanks should exist to begin with. The question really should be reversed. Should tanks exist? In fact, I think they should explode all the time. I’m just not going to be the one who does it.
Second, multiplying the possibilities of reading my images gives me pleasure. As much as possible, I try to layer them. It’s a democratization of the image. Just as we have never arrived at a better political system than what we call democracy today, my images carry exactly the same risk as democracy. I’m taking the risk that some of them can be misread, but I can’t impose my own views.
iW: How have your films been received in the Arab world?
Suleiman: I had a very bad reaction at the Carthage Film Festival with “Chronicle of a Disappearance.” They misunderstood the irony of the use of the Israeli flag in the final scene and accused me of being a Zionist collaborator.
iW: Wasn’t “Chronicle of a Disappearance” funded by the Israeli Fund For Quality Films?
Suleiman: It was not really a choice. It was a big fight for me to get this money. They had never really sponsored an Arab or Palestinian film. For me, it was a civil rights fight. I wanted to fight that kind of apartheid. Finally I got the money, but they didn’t want to give me an entire grant. They wanted to give me only a little bit because I’m an Arab and thought I would shut my mouth. They hated the film entirely, and when I got the prize for best first film in Venice in 1996, they said I got the prize only because I’m an Arab. That was my fight with the Israelis.
Later on, I had a fight with the Arabs. Not so much with the spectators, but with critics who speak for the official non-democratic Arab juntas. They just use Palestine to distract their populations from changing the system in Arab countries themselves. I was stuck between two different kinds of juntas. There were some Arab journalists who wrote excellent things about it, but they were mostly in the diaspora.
iW: How was your film received by an Israeli audience?
Suleiman: Cinephiles loved it. It was in the Top 10 list for four months. But that segment of the audience is generally liberal to leftist. I don’t know how “Divine Intervention” will be received. I know that there are a couple of critics who saw it in Cannes and were completely anguished. Maybe the Israelis will hate it and Arabs will love it, for good reasons or for bad reasons. Who knows? At the same time that Arabs said I was a collaborator, one Israeli critic said that the final image was the most painful one in the history of the Israeli state. I’m sure it won’t go down their throats very easily.
iW: Have your shorts taken the same comic approach?
Suleiman: Not the same. My first work, which is a video, is called “Introduction to the End of an Argument.” It’s appropriated from other film and video clips. There’s not a lot of humor. It was a counterattack at misrepresentations of Arabs, and Palestinians in particular, in Western media and films. It ends up a bit nauseating. “Homage By Assassination” has an extremely severe, subtle sense of humor. I think it’s very funny, but as I went along making films, I stopped censoring myself. Not in term of politics, but in terms of cinematic possibilities. When you are young, you don’t know how safe you are expressing yourself in cinema. You’re on shaky ground. When I finished “Chronicle of A Disappearance,” I felt like I could do anything I wanted. That’s why there are different genres in “Divine Intervention”: appropriations of commercials and Sergio Leone. I approached the film from different angles. Before the scene at the checkpoint, there are static images. After that, it’s more like a movie than a film, with tracking shots and cranes. But I’m always trying to be sincere.
iW: How autobiographical are your films? Your description of Nazareth in the article which appeared in Cahiers Du Cinema and Filmmaker is exactly the way you depict in your films.
Suleiman: I hope so! In my opinion, Nazareth should be turned into a sea. Then we could go fishing there at least. I would change “autobiographical” to “self-portrait.” What you see is not just factual or my own experience. You start inventing things when you go over life. We invent our childhoods from what we remember. We’re always headed towards fantasy when we describe it. There’s also a lot of ambiance in my films, reflecting the reality that I watch. But I do deliver a lot of moments from things that happened to me. Many things in Nazareth did happen but in a different way. The scene at the checkpoint did happen.
iW: The meetings to hold hands with a woman in a car at the checkpoint?
Suleiman: No, she couldn’t cross, but I could. So she would park her car with a Ramallah license plate there, and I would come. She would jump in my car, and I would smuggle her into Jerusalem. We went through with the risk that they would ask for her ID. But that was how we did it. The hand-touching is totally fictional.
iW: Why did it take so long between your two features?
Suleiman: My family went into crisis. My father got sick. I took time off from cinema only for personal reasons. I left it entirely for two years. Then when my father died, I flew to Paris and started to write the segment dealing with my father’s sickness. I had fallen in love at the same time. All the scenes in the hospital were inspired by my experiences there.
iW: Did it have anything to do with trouble getting financing?
Suleiman: No. “Chronicle of a Disappearance” was my first feature film. I produced it when I lived in New York, so ITVS treated me as an American filmmaker. All these foundations were ones that I had to approach myself. When I show my scripts to someone, it’s really difficult because there’s so little dialogue in my films. I didn’t want to produce “Divine Intervention,” but I co-produced it. Because of the ninja scene, we needed more money. So I went to different sources and so did my producer, and we got the package together. There was an entire production company behind me this time.