Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention is the Closing Film of this year's 16th Singapore International Film Festival (May 3). In the film's production notes, Elia gives an acerbic, tongue-in-cheek account of his film, which manages to be romantic, funny, black and political all at the same time.
I just exploded an Israeli tank. I could not do it in Israel due to the war. So, I did it in an Army camp in France. Still, it was timely. I carried forth my mission during the visit of Ariel Sharon to the Elysees. Seventy-five kilograms of plastic explosives mixed with six kilograms of black powder - a clean job and no traces. Tank no longer. My father would've been very proud of me if he were still alive, He served in the resistance in 1948 and was tortured to a comatose state by Israeli soldiers for refusing to denounce EI-Husseini, a Palestinian political leader back then. There were some nine cameras on the set. Three of them were ours, and the rest, including an infrared camera, belonged to the Army. The participation of the military was made possible by chance, good will, and our need to shoot this scene. Since this was the center of France and not the Holy landscape, the Army's Department of Deception was brought in. It's what cinema folks term the "an department".
The landscape needed "camouflaging" to look like home, and the road had to be made steady for tracking the camera. The chief of the Department of Deception, our set decorator - nicknamed Picasso - painted the tank a desert yellow to fit an Israel colour. He did not forget to add a black V - a mark found on certain Israeli tanks - on its side. As the colonel and I had agreed, I was the "chief of operations" on the set; it was I who gave the orders, and it was I who did the countdown for the explosion and said "Action," which in this case was rendered, "Fire!". While I was busy destroying Israeli tanks, a demonstration against the visit of Ariel Sharon was taking place in Paris. Why are pro-Palestinian demonstrations so unattractive and poorly attended? Why, I ask myself, are just causes like fashionably un-updated fashions? And why did the French take the risk and let loose Ariel the Terminator in the streets of Paris? The Americans, after all, employed maximum security on Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Have the French learned nothing from history - even their own?
Back in Paris, the film's cinematographer, Marc-Andre Batigne, my assistant Rania and I went for sushi and recounted the amusing incidents from our day of victory, I couldn't suppress and so let loose a euphoric sensation and perverse pleasure from all the power and destruction. But this is not the time for an evaluation of the soul. It's total recall. We are at war. I just did in an Israeli tank. Father, lie in peace of which they will have none. And there is more to come.
waitress heard Rania and I babble in a Babel language and asked my nationality.
"Palestinian," I proudly said. "What's that?" she asked. "Palestine is
a country that was and will be. Sometimes it seems it will always be that
way. "I'll click it on the Internet tonight to see where it is," she said.
I tried that once before myself. "Save yourself from one more rejection,"
I replied. I go home after the sushi. I pick up the phone and ring Tel
Aviv. I phone Avi to brief him on the tank shoot. Avi is the head of production
of the film and is also my friend. But first I ask him about the news
at his end. Avi gives me a brief report on the situation. "It's very depressing,
and I'm scared to death". There are a handful of people like Avi in Israel
today, although less and less, as those few like him are shifting towards
the majority who, shyly or not so shyly, are behind Sharon's policy of
a total solution. "Anyhow, forget all that shit now. Tell me, how did
the tank explosion go?" Avi asks. "It was sensational. I loved it. The
tank blew to pieces - one hell of an explosion. You should try it sometime",
I said. "Great! Send me some rushes", Avi replied.
I hang up with Tel Aviv and dial Ramallah. Adania, a close friend of mine, is a very talented writer. The last time I remember talking over the phone to Ramallah, I heard a machine-gun soundtrack in the background. The tempo and pitch of the hardcore frequency was now gone down to a slow alto in a low-filtered rhythm. The Apache copters and tank gun barrels now pound the city in an attack (the musical term only) of an even measure, confident in spirit. Adania changes phones by going to a quieter room in the back of the house. "The Israelis have become really cheap lately, and their occupation has become a cheap occupation," she says. "They are blocking the Palestinian cities with economy. They deposit a mountain of rubble and stones at the entrance road of the city and position one tank not too close and not so far on a little hill across. This way they pick and choose, and without soldier labor incentive."
I call my mother in Nazareth. "How is Nazareth?" I ask. "Calm and quiet. Nothing happens here, she says, thinking she can lure me back to Nazareth. My mother misses me a lot. Of course nothing is happening in Nazareth, I say to myself. Nothing ever happens there anyhow. Dead quiet is the right term. I hate my birth town with a vehemence. It's the place that never stops trying to pull you back and suck you dry. Jesus was lucky to have been condemned elsewhere. I moved to Jerusalem wishing at the worst to have a similar fate, when it became "at best," I left.
We, Palestinians living in Israel, are the shy ones. The inhibited. We act as if we were closet-case Palestinians. Our Palestinian sisters and brothers in the West Bank and Gaza generally ignite uprisings first, and then we join in, but not without our additional original ghetto aesthetics of Israeli department store burning. It is our sisters and brothers who keep reminding us of our silent and tragic existence. But the ritual lasts only a short while. We lose a few souls and the uprising loses momentum. Then, dead quiet again. There is a reason why, we reason. We do not show our dark side because our dark side is the darkest of them all. It's a fear that our dark side is transgressive to extremities of unknown territories and where that might lead us. It's the fear, partial suspicion and even unconscious certainty that it would lead to the black hole: the either we and/or Israel no longer. A grave loss of gravity; a Toho Vavoho as described in the Old Testament, a chaos similar to the one talked about in the beginning of the world. Israel knows that, Israel knows: This, or give up. Or turn truly democratic. Or give Us up. This and that, Israel refuses to face. So every time, right before Nazareth screams as Samson did, "Upon me and my enemies, my Lord," Israel comes in to do a little hair trimming.
A number of actors, who acted in the film I am presently working on, are Israelis. They acted as soldiers on a checkpoint. I auditioned them in a casting agency in Tel Aviv. One by one, the auditioners entered. They sat on a couch, and I sat opposite in an armchair. I asked each and every one of them if they served in the army; if they ever served on a checkpoint, if they ever asked for IDs. If they ever arrested a Palestinian, and if they ever beat up one. Except for the last act, these were the basic criteria in order to qualify for the role. The auditioners were put in a very ambivalent position. To get the part, they had to show their best to the director, meaning that they could convincingly do evil to Palestinians. But then this director is himself a Palestinian; he is one of Them! Meaning evil-doing to Palestinians might not win them the part.
I heard a whole lot of stories about, more or less, the same kind of evildoing, from liberal, guilt-ridden confessions to "I only obeyed orders" to "I am defending my country, proud and would do it again" frankness. At certain moments, I took advantage of my power position. I shifted roles from silent listener to blunt interrogator. I did not stick to checkpoint stories and inquired instead about some of the auditioner's criminal roles in Lebanon; I was pained by what they recounted, yet perversely enjoyed the feeling of uneasiness they experienced. One actor did not serve in the army, and out of my political sentiments I took him instantly. On the set, I had to tone him down as he slightly overacted. The other auditioners I chose who had served in the Israeli army acted their soldier very well and very professionally.
When the Hagana forces occupied Nazareth in 1948, the soldiers came straight for my father. Besides being a member of the resistance, my father was able to build guns, which he made himself by imitating the English Sten. Only, the barrel of the gun was modeled after the German guns. The reason was that the English bullets were all going to the Hagana forces, and the Palestinian resistance was only left with black market German bullets. The soldiers caught my father next to our house. They took him up the hill in the neighbourhood and put him in a low ditch. One soldier dug the gun barrel in my father's chest and asked him to count to 10, presumably the number when the soldier would pull the trigger. My father counted one, two, three, and took the gun barrel from his chest and repositioned it on his temple. My father then skipped the count and went directly to 10. A single bullet was not going to fill the thirst of the angry and frustrated soldiers. A bashing ritual ensued, and the soldiers thought they had finished my father off. Hey, they threw him off a cliff. My mother tells me that she and the family doctor spent a whole day using tweezers to pull my father's shredded shirt out of his smashed flesh. Where the back of the guns fractured my father's skull, hair never grew, gradually forming a bold halo on his head. Oh father! It's so great to be Jewish. To inherit all this culture. All that the old Jews had to do was become Israelis, turning in their Jewishness to us and off we went.
There was a cease-fire in 1948. Israel became. It's becoming still. And the wars followed. One of them continues up to this day. The film shoot stopped short due to the war. We were not given permission to fly and film over Jerusalem, The helicopter tours over Jerusalem were halted, forbidden since their routes have been taken over by unmanned surveillance planes. It's these planes that are surveying the movements of the Palestinians whom the Israelis are now nest hunting. As part of their economising, they are launching more accurate rockets that squeeze themselves through windows and explode in living rooms. The Palestinians don't have to leave their homes to be assassinated any longer. It's home delivery. But the film would not be completed without this aerial shot over Jerusalem. It's a continuity shot. And there is one other scene to be shot, but we can build a set and shoot it elsewhere, as we did with the tank explosion scene. I just met the German special effects crew for this shot. The problem is the cost of building a maquette for the Israeli fighter helicopter that is in the scene. The Germans suggest that, it we can get a real helicopter it would be a lot cheaper. I phone Humbert Balsan, my producer, after the meeting. "Humbert," I say, "I need a real fighter helicopter to explode in midair." "Sure," he says. "We'll get you a real one. I'll get right on it."
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