Winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2002, Divine Intervention is a mosaic of vignettes set in Nazareth that concerns itself primarily with Palestinian life under Israeli rule. Which doesn't sound very funny, but it actually is. Here Jason Wood talks with the film's director and star, Elia Suleiman, about subversive humour, having shot someone as a pre-requisite for casting, and how people in Palestine, Norway and the US can find the same thing funny.
Jason Wood: Divine Intervention certainly has a precision and visual economy. Do you see yourself as a particularly visual director?
Elia Suleiman: I think that I have recently caught the thread of what it is that I should rely on to make a good image or a punch line to deliver a comic moment. You obviously gain experience in trying to translate and express yourself both filmically and technically, though I still envy some of the shots I made in Homage by Assassination (1992), one of my earliest shorts. When it came to Divine Intervention I felt very confident in terms of expressing myself totally uncensored. So, in this film there is a minimalist choreography and static framing but also the appropriation of commercials. There is also obviously the action scene at the end of the film so I approached the film from a variety of angles.
There was a lot of self-searching when I approached this film but I found myself coming back to what I consider basic values that long ago I shied away from because I considered them too simplistic. The relationship between the moment of truth that you capture and the moment of truth that the spectator captures is incredible. This is what I consider the godliness of communication. I still don't fully understand and I prefer not to analyse it, the notion that given that we are not living in any form of uniformity how is it that between Palestine, Norway and the United States people are laughing at exactly the same moment in the film?
Lately I feel like I am beginning to understand at least that in order to make a good image it means to better myself, I need to feel good, generous and loving to myself to release this to others. I must not shy away from these values and so I am going to rely on that for the meantime. I have perhaps resisted slogans such as 'make love not war' but I am now considering redefining the term because I feel it is worthwhile. This is partly why I have negations in the film and why I have the two lovers at the checkpoint. The checkpoint is a place where soldiers identify and love has no identification, it leaks and seeps and goes through any kind of checkpoint.
I have discovered that if the spectator catches this moment the truth then he or she may leave the screening room extending the pleasure beyond the one and a half hour feature film length. Having appreciated this moment of pleasure they will want a continuum and de facto may become more tolerant and will perhaps make love and not war. They see that it is precious to live this moment. This is perhaps what culture can do for us.
JW: The politics of life in day-to-day Nazareth and the restrictions imposed upon its people are dealt with in a very humanistic and non-didactic fashion.
ES: Many have reflected on this and I think this again has to do with a universality that I think the film has. A member of the audience in a screening in New York told me that she felt that my Nazareth was very much like her Los Angeles. I think that the spectator associates with a universal image in a self-reflexive fashion and participates with it. I think I attempt a kind of democratic reading and I want the spectator to react and feel according to his or her own emotions.
JW: With all due respect to the spectator in New York who empathsises, you depict a situation concerning people whose lives are being lived under enforced military occupation.
ES: I am not asking people to empathise with anything; this is not a demand or a desire. The first thing for the spectator to do is have pleasure. The fact that they go and aestheticise a life beyond the film is for me an expression of support for the Palestinian people. I feel Israel is a microcosm of occupation and I think that the world is being globally occupied and this adds to a self-reflexive reading on the part of spectators all across the world who relate to it through their own personal experience. There are illusionary checkpoints in Los Angeles. The film is not directly talking about Palestine, it is talking about that which imposes itself to negate and capture and protest love. Spectators relate to it because we all want freedom to eat sleep, make love and live better without imposition.
JW: You use a subversive humour to approach a very personal and difficult subject.
ES: This is I suppose a cliché but also true: I love to laugh at my own jokes, luckily some other people laugh at them too. With this also comes a more complex and conceptual and intellectual baggage that I have carried with me through the years, and the nourishment of criss-crossing all the different cultures and countries that I have lived in. I like the fact that you describe the humour in my film as subversive. Historically, there is something resistant about humour and even if talking in terms of a wider discussion of just my film, when people live for instance in a ghetto and when they produce black humour, I think this is a way to deter finality in some respects and a way of producing hope. I think humour can be a poetic sight with a poetic dimension and this is something that cannot be captured by the dominant order.
To negate all that however I must say that the humour is not a strategy; all that it takes for me is a notebook and a pen since cinema for me is not a profession but a way of life. I write whatever tickles me in terms of both what makes me laugh and also in terms of depicting through choreography the banality of daily life. I seem to be someone who is tickled a lot by ironies and absurdities.
With this film I also add an analytical element because in the first part of the film Nazareth is a ghetto and the humour comes from dealing with a population living in a claustrophobic state of stasis, an impotent inability to change the face of their reality. Unable to dislocate or shift the dominant power ruling they eventually unleash their frustrations against each other. Added to this is the film-maker, that is I, who has a particular sensibility towards these moments that I am picking up. I transform all this into a biography, or a self-portrait, if you want, which is the aestheticised, mediated territory which you see in the film. I work very hard, sometimes in utter euphoria and sometimes in angst trying to add multiple layers to the frame and the tableau until a moment when I feel that it pigments and matures.
JW: Some of the more bravura moments are extremely imaginative. Did such moments directly evolve from the writings in your notebooks?
ES: Well, I can say generally that almost all of the film comes from a departure point of something that happened. The scene where the balloon flies over a checkpoint, for example, comes from me buying a balloon for fun many years ago during a period when there were numerous gadgets produced with Palestinian symbols on. At the time when I was writing the script in France I opened my draw of gadgets and there the balloon was. Arafat's face had melted because of the heat and I thought that this could be funny because of the structure.
JW: In terms of both the structure of the film and the execution of the visual sight gags there are similarities with the work of Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton. Your performance in the film is also redolent of Keaton. Were these inspirations?
ES: It's very flattering to hear these comparisons now but I have to say that neither acted as inspirations to me. It's ironic that some of the people that I was inspired by have none of this humour. In fact I only heard of Jacques Tati when I was shooting Chronicle of a Disappearance (1984) and my soundman said you have to see Tati because what you are doing is similar. I do see the similarities and its not so odd that people have similar sensibilities.
The people I was inspired by are not known for their humour. Robert Bresson - whose work I do detect humour in actually - for example and Hou Hsiao Hsien. Both these directors emphasised to me the point that I could do what I felt or desired. From Bresson I took a lot of the tension of the frame and to this day I am fascinated by how tense and liberating Bresson's framing can be.
JW: Could you reveal a little more about Manal Khader who acts alongside you in the film?
ES: I have actually just come back from a screening in Ramallah which I think is one of the most memorable screenings and moments in my life. The people there are living a similar and much worse experience to that depicted in the film. They are privileged in that their laughter and angst is much more intense than that experienced by anyone anywhere else in the world. It is the only place in all the screenings that I have attended that the audience begins to clap at the exact moment that Manal's foot crosses the checkpoint; for them it is a very intense and physical experience. When the tower falls they are in euphoria. I wrote this scene ten years ago inspired by a moment when Manal and I had a rendezvous to have a coffee in Jerusalem. She wanted to defy the checkpoint and a soldier pointed a rifle at her, she said go ahead and shoot, I'm crossing. They didn't shoot. She is not an actress; she is a journalist who told me many of the stories and incidents that you see in the film. 90% of the people that you see are non-actors. When I first asked her to be in the film her initial reaction was that I must have been joking.
JW: I was interested to read about the casting process involving the Israeli actors who play the soldiers at the checkpoint.
ES: I cast in Tel Aviv and naturally what I wanted was Israelis that had served in the army. Most of the people I looked at were not actors; well, they were more than extras but not actors. I asked those that auditioned if they had served on a checkpoint and if they had used a gun. My casting took on an interrogative form as I began to ask if they had not only checked id's but also hurt and even shot people. Some of them had and some of them shied away from telling me the severe acts they had committed because they wanted the role whilst others exaggerated because they too wanted to act in the film. I became a little sadistic in my questioning of their moral standards.
JW: I enjoy the way you use music in the film.
ES: Sound and music are parallel to image as far as I am concerned. I use it for the humour and there is a second degree use of kitsch music. But I had a sense of the type of music I wanted often before I shot particular scenes which is why there is no original soundtrack because I like to compose or re-compose the songs of others myself. I detest film-makers who bring music because of their insecurity concerning the image; I prefer to have it as a parallel track. Sometimes telling its very own story. I also think that sound is so vital in the telling of the story. This film uses very particular bird sounds in certain sequences. If you listen closely there is a very sadistic bird, a 'mocking' bird whose sound appears every time the father opens the letters.
JW: What practical problems did you encounter when filming?
ES: One could be dramatic but in terms of filming Apocalypse Now (1979) then the making of Divine Intervention is not so dramatic. There were, of course, difficulties. Given the situation in which we filmed and the locations in which we filmed there were often other television crews filming. It was also not a particularly good ambience in which to film. It was also often difficult to get permission to film and we had to shoot several scenes on a hit and run basis. The authorities, of course, also detected the mocking aspect of the checkpoint sequences didn't like it very much. But generally I really loved making this film and if I understood them correctly the crew also enjoyed making it. Sometimes we even added an extra take because it was just too funny. We laughed a lot. I truly did this film with love.