Poetry in Palestine

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Review of 'Divine Intervention', director Elia Suleiman

What do we learn of the real lives of Palestinian men, women and children from the press? Not much. 'Divine Intervention' is a highly successful attempt to challenge this censorship by omission. Its form is reminiscent of 1980s Latin American magical realism. This is not accidental. In order for those voices to be heard, director Elia Suleiman has created an allegory, a pastiche of the sufferings of the Palestinian people which contains sublime moments of pathos, humour and love. Heavily influenced by the silent movie, there is little dialogue, but the deadpan delivery of what conversations do take place magnifies their significance and heightens their humour.

There is a sympathetic examination of the contrasting experiences of Palestinians living in the state of Israel compared to those in the Occupied Territories. The contradictions of their silent and tragic existence, dimly expressed through petty jealousies and trivial acts of revenge, is contrasted with the active resistance of the intifada by those living in Gaza and the West Bank.

We see life through the eyes of ES (also the director) a 40-something Palestinian man living in Jerusalem, and the two most significant people in his life--his dying father and his lover from Ramallah. His father, a fighter from 1948 and a continuing hardline political activist, is well respected in the local community but overwhelmed by a lifetime of struggle. The lovers are barred from crossing the checkpoint between the two cities so their intimate encounters take place on a patch of land overlooking the border crossing.

Symbolically, their freedom of movement and means of expression is restricted. Their relationship is yearningly portrayed in 'what if' and 'if only' imagery, simultaneously understated and totally over the top. We begin to question whether their relationship even exists at all. Like all life in Palestine, relationships are conditional, dependent on the whims of the occupying army and the demands of the Israeli state. The ennui of suburban living, the petty and not so petty challenges of dealing with neighbourhood disputes, are dealt with in bizarre, slapstick but incredibly touching ways.

Words are indeed weapons, but the visual imagery, the ambiguity and humour speak volumes here. The ways in which people attempt to take control of their lives in situations not of their own making are brilliantly conveyed. Visual witticisms portray the mood of the escalating conflict in the Middle East while the challenge of life under occupation is dealt with by revealing the day to day absurdities. From the outset the peace process is seen as a western 'gift' delivered by Santa Claus--unwanted, rejected and chased out of town by the youth, Palestine's future.

Yet the mood is not entirely dark and menacing. The security forces for the most part are portrayed as buffoons. The daily indignities they inflict on the Palestinians are revealed for the cowardly, stupid and bully boy tactics that they are. The music, as in silent movies, plays a significant role. The soundtrack, performed by a cross-section of Middle Eastern inspired artists including Natacha Atlas and Joi, provides a perfect backdrop. Atlas's interpretation of Screaming Jay Hawkins' 'I put a spell on you' in a 'stare out' between an orthodox Israeli and the main character is classic cinema and awfully funny.

Most of the characters in the film are men yet it is the female lover who symbolises the unfulfilled potential of the Palestinian people. The final sequence is a blinding example of this--the phoenix rising, the super-heroine conquering the baddies. But underlying the fantasy sequences and the humour is a terribly poetic sadness. This film is a classic--go and see it.