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Elia Suleiman

By March 19, 2015April 20th, 2015Blog

The scene takes place in a dry Mediterranean landscape: the hills of Nazareth: Father Christmas is chased up a hill by a gang of youths, presents dropping from his sack.

In another scene, a Palestinian prisoner blindfolded by the Israeli police is asked to give some lost tourists directions. In a Nazareth street, a series of petty neighbourly disputes follow each other in slapstick vignettes both absurdly comic and profoundly tragic.

These are passages from acclaimed Palestinian director’s film Divine Intervention, A Chronicle of Love and Pain (which won the Jury’s Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002). It’s a farce about life under military occupation in the West Bank, and also a romantic drama: the central plot-line is a love story, a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ tale of a man from Jerusalem and a young woman from Ramallah who regularly meet by an Israeli military checkpoint, where they witness scenes of daily humiliation.

Only a series of miraculous ‘divine interventions’ can solve each problem experienced by the characters: aggression, intolerance, violence, turmoil. Suddenly, in scenes of breathtakingly unexpected comedy, the absurdity of life is transcended by the magic of fiction. And so in this world it so happens that a beautiful Palestinian woman can test the mettle of the soldiers at the checkpoint tower…which ends up collapsing as she defiantly strides by. In a parody of Chinese martial arts films, with a supernatural grace and power, a female freedom fighter triumphs single-handedly over both an Israeli battalion and a helicopter. A grinning Yasser Arafat balloon floats towards Jerusalem and the Al Aqsa Mosque, defying the boundaries imposed by occupation.

In Suleiman’s world, only inventiveness can provide solutions: the fertility of a witty, provocative imagination becomes a remedy to the sterility of routine powerlessness. Thus the frustrations of reality are transcended by the triumphant release offered by love…and humour.

Divine Intervention is the second part of Elia Suleiman’s trilogy about Palestine. In the first opus, Chronicle of a Disappearance, Elia Suleiman also uses absurdity in structure as well as content: he deconstructs the traditional narrative structure of film, and uses a disruptive, non-linear structure to highlight the fragmented identity of Palestine.

Rashid I. Khalidi explains in his essay Contrasting Narratives of Palestinian Identity that any understanding of Palestine and Palestinian identity is comparable to one of “a distant example”; (…) It is certainly possible to read Chronicle of a Disappearance as a series of somewhat incomprehensible events, understood only through a combination of passion and ignorance. The viewer is challenged to seek meaning for themselves from a series of events in which no apparent coherence exists. The viewer must be ‘ignorant’ to the idea of a unified linear narrative and ‘passionate’ about understanding this series of seemingly unrelated and incoherent events.

Chronicle of a Disappearance: The Scared and The Mundane Palestinian Satire (Lindsay Campbell for Offscreen)

In The Time that Remains, which concludes the trilogy, Suleiman applies his technique of successive comic scenes to the story of his father from the 1940s to the present time. The bitter irony of these scenes (which seems to suggest that in the time that remains there is little to hope for but the continued absurdity of oppression) is tempered by gentle passages of tenderness and compassion, both humorous and poignant. Again here despair is tempered by a redeeming cocktail of wit and empathy.

In Suleiman’s style of dark comedy, in his particular form of slapstick, Buster Keaton’s influence (which Suleiman acknowledges) is clear to see, for example in the deadpan sad-clown face of the main protagonist. Like the characters played by Keaton, he never smiles or says a word: a silent, expressionless witness to a world so absurd it defeats commentary

This type of comedy both underlines the cruelty of life situations, and transcends that cruelty…perhaps because in the end, only humour can convey the absurdity of daily existence under military occupation. Yet this humour goes beyond the description of situations: Suleiman himself described his use of wry irony as a way of “giving hope” when mired in stagnation.

In the words of famed existentialist thinker Albert Camus, who dedicated a whole work to absurdism:

To work and create ‘for nothing’, to sculpture in clay, to know that one’s creation has no future, to see one’s work destroyed in a day while being aware that fundamentally this has no more importance than building for centuries- this is the difficult wisdom that absurd thought sanctions. Performing these two tasks simultaneously, negating on one hand and magnifying on the other, is the way open to the absurd creator. He must give the void its colours.

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

This is what Suleiman’s Cinema of Absurdity does: as an absurd creator, he “gives the void its colours”. What remains with the viewer in the end is not grinding despair, but an indomitable buoyancy of spirit. The vitality of love and humour are antidotes to annihilation, and life is not only merely accepted but embraced. They are the ultimate defiance in the face of absurdity: Suleiman’s art is one of survival – and resistance.

Samiha Abdeldjebar
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