Heard any good Palestinian jokes lately? In TV news clips, the inhabitants of the occupied territories don't seem to be a laughing people. That's one reason Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention is a cure for nagging ethnic generalities. This Palestinian sort-of-comedy has a sly wit that amuses and disturbs in equal, salubrious measure. From the Santa Claus who gets a cleaver in his chest to the Israeli cop who relies on a blindfolded Arab prisoner to give directions to a stranger, the film mixes the deadpan delight of Buster Keaton's classics with the elegant image framing of a Robert Bresson tragedy.
And here's the best joke. The film, which won the Jury and Critics' prizes at Cannes, is not eligible in the foreign-language Oscar category. The apparent reason? Each film has to be nominated by its home nation and Palestine is not a nation. (Neither is Hong Kong, but that region does get to choose an Oscar candidate.)
A helium balloon, with Yasser Arafat's smiling face on it, floats over the checkpoint, where soldiers frantically debate whether to shoot it down. It sails past them into Jerusalem and alights on the Dome of the Rock Ariel Sharon's favorite Muslim sanctuary.
The main plot is simple: two lovers live on opposite sides of al-Ram checkpoint; the man tries to be with the woman when he's not at his dying father's bedside. Since the man is played by Suleiman, 42, and his lover by his ex-lover, Palestinian journalist Manal Khader, and since Suleiman's father did die as he was writing the screenplay, this is clearly a kind of autobiographical satire. "Cinema is a form of striptease for me," says Suleiman. "I jot down very personal moments of everyday life when they tickle me. There is no message. The minute I try to preconceive one, I have failed."
There is a message: Palestine is a boiling pot that could explode while everyone sits and watches. But the movie's real juice is in its vignettes of life under the occupation. These Palestinians don't like the Israelis, but they're not crazy about one another either. One man waves at passersby while cursing them from the safety of his car. Another man throws bags of garbage into his neighbor's garden, then takes offense when she tosses them back.
Sporting their sunglasses and trim figures, smartly enduring and inventing indignities, these characters are a new breed of Palestinian: cool. (When a fire bomb is lobbed into his driveway, a man blithely turns on a fire extinguisher, as if terrorists were familiar household pests.) They also have an underdog appeal. That's one perk of being on the weaker side: you get to make jokes about the mighty. Short of a suicide bomb, what power have they?
The big showdown: five Israeli commandos vs. one Palestinian the woman, reincarnated as a Ninja babe. When the marksmen fire their Uzis at her, she twirls skyward, the bullets harmlessly haloing her head. She disarms two of the men with flying darts, evaporates two more with grenades, does in the fifth Goliath with her slingshot and destroys an Israeli helicopter with a metal boomerang shaped like the state of Palestine. Ninja! Gotcha! Intifadeh!
Suleiman was born and raised in Nazareth and moved at 17 to New York City (where, he says, "I practiced being an illegal immigrant"). In 1989 he went home and picked up his brother's old vhs camera. "I started by filming sheep," he says. "Somehow sheep manage to pose very well." Now he lives in France, where he shot his film's more incendiary scenes. In Palestine, you can't get a movie permit to blow up an Israeli tank.
If the film doesn't exude much hope, its director does. "I've had nothing but faith and love for this film from start to finish," he says. "I had no doubt this was a great film." Palestine's first movie celebrity has reason to feel buoyant. For all its death and despair, Divine Intervention has a pinwheeling, tragi-comic verve that leaves a complicitous smile on the viewer's face. Or is it a rictus?
Say, did you hear the one about the world-renowned Palestinian filmmaker?