Love and Longing in Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention

Parsa Sanjana Sajid


Elia Suleiman’s masterful meditation on love among the ruins, Divine Intervention (2002), marshals Israeli statehood and its consequent Palestinian dispossession to present a vision board of audacious, sometimes surreal escapades. The film unfolds like a dreamscape invigorated by a fantasy of escape. Eschewing a linear narrative for only a smattering of dialog, its emotional center is clarified in a series of engrossing vignettes. That center is not only the convulsions that upend Palestinian lives but also the attendant refusals to acquiesce to Israeli repression. Yet there are no broad strokes here. Instead Suleiman bears down on the minutiae of everyday life where his microscopic attention turns into a kaleidoscope of moods and longings, pain, affection and affectations, wordless exchanges, tragi-comic conversations, and assorted other routine activities paired with more ambitious renderings of resistance.

The film begins in Nazareth, birthplace of Jesus and of Suleiman, a predominantly Palestinian city in Israel not technically under occupation. But Palestinians in Israel fare no better with systemic, bureaucratic, and legalized imposition of discrimination, violence, and indignity. And it shows. Absence of overt confrontations doesn’t mean lack of violence; it’s akin to being held hostage in a room with lead paint. In one scene a boy balances and shuffles a football; it ends up on a roof nearby. Instead of returning the ball, the resident of the house punctures it, while two men from another roof silently witness as if watching a movie. The boy appears again a few scenes later carrying on his football shuffle. There’s no dialog but recurring scenes with slight variations like these draw us closer to the characters. We encounter another character that hurls bags of garbage into his neighbor’s yard as if that’s a thing one does.

At times amusing, these repetitive fragments turn out to be more revealing in the film because they offer an intimate glimpse into these characters’ lives. It’s not that they are merely resigned to their fate. Quite the opposite, life grinds on, but getting on with it means daily activities, as mundane as waiting for a bus, acquire a shade of the strange. However, these psychic displacements, performances of the weird are inscribed not as discrete, individuated psychoses but as disavowals. If we see them as merely eccentric then we accept as normal the Israeli state. When the state is perverse, the oddities of behavior aren’t really isolated anomalies but a collective backlash against accepting an imposed normalcy.

When the film moves to Jerusalem the register of strange shifts, along with tenors of desire and despair, of repression, of normal. When a tourist asks a policeman for directions to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City, the officer hauls out a blindfolded prisoner to help. The prisoner tells the visitor how to reach her destination using three separate routes, blindfolded all the while. In a later scene the tourist again approaches the police van for directions, only for the officer to realize the prisoner has escaped. One obvious way to understand these scenes is humor, but they don’t make light of the situation as much as they foreground cruelty, so even if you laugh at these absurdist, impressionistic scenes and I have, they are not funny.

It’s here we meet E.S. played by Suleiman. He has an ailing father to care for. A script to tend to. And a girlfriend in Ramallah. Unable to travel to each other’s cities, the pair meets in the parking lot of Al-Ram checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. They can’t travel to the other’s home without losing the rights to their own since Ramallah is in Occupied West Bank, Palestine and Jerusalem annexed into Israel. The result is a chaotic legal regime and a mess of identities for their respective Palestinian Arab citizens and residents. So where in Nazareth the Israeli state, although not absent, receded into the background, here it becomes more visible and checkpoints figure prominently in this segment of the film.

In a poignant and fantastical scene, E.S.’s girlfriend identified as the “woman,” disembarks from her car and walks through the checkpoint while staring down Israeli soldiers who point their guns at her but are unable to do anything else. As she crosses the checkpoint in defiance, a watchtower collapses leaving the soldiers in even more disarray. In another, while waiting at a checkpoint E.S. inflates and releases a balloon emblazoned with Yasser Arafat’s face. Unsure and befuddled, the soldiers fixate on the balloon and E.S. drives through the checkpoint unimpeded. We follow the balloon as it flies unrestrained over East Jerusalem and as if by will finally lodges itself on top of the Dome of the Rock. These visions of escape double as a dare. Ultimately Divine Intervention doesn’t attempt to separate the real from the imagined and the fantasies are not so much illusions as they are provocations, daring to provide an alternate to the suffocating status quo. They’re not so much “fantasies of symbolic vengeance” as A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times, as they are a reconceptualization.5

This reconceptualization begins as soon as we meet E.S. biting down an apricot while driving. When he’s done, he throws the pit away and an Israeli tank explodes in its and his wake. Asked about these visual prompts Suleiman directly challenges the premise: “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.” And then, “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.”6 So the inevitable query from critics and viewers is an occasion for Suleiman to expose the underlying assumption where the burden of explanation and the charge of violence are unevenly distributed. Where narrative influence is asymmetric those without power not only risk restrictions on their power, speech, pleasure, and every other action and emotion, paradoxically, they’re weighed down by the demand to rationalize and justify those emotions and actions at every turn. Why are you happy? Why are you sad? Why are you violent? Why are you even here?

Pressed against these opposing forces Divine Intervention offers an “anti-narrative” where “viewers need to fill the gap between the image” and “the content of what is recounted.”7 Visual snippets into the characters’ lives forgo explanations for an affective, emotionally resonant palette. As Refqa Abu-Remaileh contends “the presence of the checkpoint is resisted through a highly controlled film image, where the love story between E.S. and his West Bank girlfriend takes precedence over the inhumanity and cruelty of the checkpoint.”8 But Suleiman doesn’t disappear checkpoints altogether. The lovers remain hemmed in by the checkpoints and their breach takes center stage in conjunction with the love story.

Perhaps the best depiction of this reconceptualization and refusal occurs in the battle scene between the “woman” and a group of Israeli soldiers. It’s a shooting range and the soldiers are practicing on her image. As they blow the cardboard targets to tatters, one bullet-ridden image remains upright from which the “woman” emerges like an angel or a demon – depends on your preferences – a freedom fighter. It’s a stylized rendering, she in Palestinian regalia against them. She could be an apparition, their worst nightmare, or an evocation of the full force of justice. A. O. Scott describes it as “choreographed to resemble an over-the-top martial-arts music video” while echoing the “the chill of real-world violence.” Yet it’s not merely fantasy because there’s no clear line between what is or isn’t, so unencumbered from the tethers of “reality” these scenes become a manifestation, willed into existence. Desire, specifically desire for Palestinian liberation, is brought to life. The renunciation of exposition in favor of uncontained accounts and feelings precipitate this magical thinking. Consider the scene where the “woman” unleashes her keffiyeh to disarm the Israeli soldier-instructor or where she deflects bullets with armor shaped like Palestine. Ardently unsubtle in their symbolism, it’s not fantasy as delirium but a spell casting that manifests beautifully. Love and longing for Palestine embodied in her actions.

When Divine Intervention opened in 2002, the conflagration of September 11 was just underway. Little did we know that the aftershocks would stretch into perpetuity. Navigating checkpoints from airports to neighborhoods is commonplace now but were we ever so unfettered. September 11 didn’t wreck a canvas of innocence but was an effect of what came before. Likewise, checkpoints in Israel or elsewhere precede the beginning of the new millennia; the 80s were turbulent, so were the 70s, and before that the 60s, and we could rewind ad infinitum. It’d be wrong to collapse historically and locally contingent events into a featureless mass or to advocate a Hobbesian or Manichean understanding of them, but if we were to pick as disparate events – and they are disparate – as the movement for independence in East Timor, or the Naxalite uprising in West Bengal, India, or the urgency of the Black Panther Party in the United States, the unmistakable constant of state violence is the backdrop. And in Divine Intervention that backdrop is the spigot that spurs the individual stories.

[Image Credit: Raed Issa. Human and Place # 4, 2015. Courtesy: Artist]

  1. A.O. Scott. A Tangle of Middle Eastern Love and Hate. The New York Times. October 7, 2002.
  2. Steve Erickson. A Breakdown of Communication: Elia Suleiman Talks About “Divine Intervention.” IndieWire. Jan 15, 2003.
  3. Refqa Abu-Remaileh. Palestinian Anti-narratives in the Films of Elia Suleiman. Arab Media and Society. Spring, 2008. Issue 5
  4. Ibid.
  5. A.O. Scott. A Tangle of Middle Eastern Love and Hate. The New York Times. October 7, 2002.
  6. Steve Erickson. A Breakdown of Communication: Elia Suleiman Talks About “Divine Intervention.” IndieWire. Jan 15, 2003.
  7. Refqa Abu-Remaileh. Palestinian Anti-narratives in the Films of Elia Suleiman. Arab Media and Society. Spring, 2008. Issue 5
  8. Ibid.
  9. A.O. Scott. A Tangle of Middle Eastern Love and Hate. The New York Times. October 7, 2002.
  10. Steve Erickson. A Breakdown of Communication: Elia Suleiman Talks About “Divine Intervention.” IndieWire. Jan 15, 2003.
  11. Refqa Abu-Remaileh. Palestinian Anti-narratives in the Films of Elia Suleiman. Arab Media and Society. Spring, 2008. Issue 5
  12. Ibid.