"Like any "minority artist", [Elia] Suleiman finds himself speaking for a whole minority when he basically wants to speak for himself" says Gary Indiana in Film Comment, commenting on Suleiman's Divine Intervention. But this doesn't stop Richard Kelly in Sight and Sound chastising Suleiman for his "erasure of context" in a scene where a balloon with Yasser Arafat's face on it "triumphantly soars over the checkpoint and into Jerusalem". When speaking for yourself in a context where it appears that you can't ignore others, are viewers going to read more intently into your aesthetic gestures than they would if you were from a majority culture, and a majority culture that hasn't been metonymized at that?
There are a couple of things that we need to work through here to get a handle on Suleiman's film. The first is the idea of 'minority' art as framed by Deleuze in a number of his works, and chiefly through Kafka, and also Christian Metz's notion of metonymy and toponomy. Where Deleuze and Guattari say in Toward a Minor Literature that Kafka suggested 'major' literatures always maintains a border between the political and the private, "in minor literatures...everything in them is political." At one stage in his Diaries (Dec. 25, 1911) Kafka says, talking specifically about literature, "a small nation's memory is not smaller than the memory of a large one and so can digest the existing material more thoroughly." There is a strange anxiety of influence, here, and one of the problems Indiana addresses, and maybe Kelly takes for granted, is the limits of what an artist is allowed to say in working from his or her particular cultural milieu.
This leads us to Metz. In Psychoanalysis and Cinema he says, "I shall choose the French word 'Bordeaux'. This is first of all the name of a town (= metonymy). Then it begins to denote the wine produced there: a classic development, a textbook example of metonymy" as we see it shift from the topos of place to the metonymy of singularity and thus becomes a toponymy. Obviously this is similar to what happens to war zones: to cities like Sarajevo, Beirut, Belfast, Baghdad; and to the countries themselves: Bosnia, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Iraq. But in each instance, in the idea that you are a minority expected to speak for the people, and in the toponymic that allows you a ready story as your country gets reduced to a metonymized subject like war, how much freedom does this allow the artist? Beware the danger of speaking for others, Foucault once suggested, but where in a majority culture this might seem arrogant, in a minority culture does it seem almost obligatory?
These are the sort of questions Suleiman hardly ignores, but they are in many ways eschewed. To ignore and eschew however are not one and the same. In ignoring lies the dangers of ignorance and denial; to eschew is, according to the dictionary, "to avoid habitually" - to make a choice in what to renounce. Is Suleiman not making these types of choices, and is Kelly perhaps ignoring the complexity of Suleiman's position for a metonymic oversimplification of his own? When Kelly says for example that in the penultimate scene where the central character's lover takes on the Israeli army, "this Matrix like idiom serves only to remind one of Hollywood's woeful ignorance as to what bullets and bombs really do to flesh and bone." Yet such a statement will be made not in relation to a Hollywood blockbuster (where Kelly's comments would probably be passed off as irrelevant), but in a critique of a Palestinian film where Kelly doesn't feel the film has adopted the appropriate tone. It is as if there are certain things a Palestinian film is obliged to do; other things it ought to avoid. Kelly seems to believe that Suleiman is under certain obligations; but, taking into account what Indiana says, and that we believe Suleiman's more inclined to eschew than ignore, Divine Intervention works with tonal shifts that try to find a first principle within the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, thus allowing Suleiman to speak for himself about a political situation. Central to the freshness of the film is this capacity for the artist not so much to speak for a people, but to observe a situation. Certainly Suleiman admits, in Film Comment, "I totally embrace a Palestinian identity", but that doesn't mean being obligated towards it.
For central to Suleiman's aesthetic is an absurdist freedom of expression, and at the same time to see influence not as a source of minority culture anxiety, but international aesthetic freedom. The influences here come from far and wide: Tati, Bresson, Godard and Kaurismaki all seem to be in the mix, and Sulieman has said "I read all these cinema books because I was so marginalized when I was young, and didn't have any cultural background at all." (Film Comment) He also adds though that "I was introduced to the work of Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton during the shooting of my first feature, so I can say I've never been influenced by these guys." Some might insist that Suleiman removes the cultural context by aping other styles, but he would suggest far more that the way he films comes from what he perceives in the everyday reality around him. "I carry notebooks everywhere I go. I write all sorts of things in them - all the realities I pass through." Some of these realities that he passes through would seem to coincide with the realities other filmmakers like Tati have passed through also. It is as though we need to look not at genealogies, which is depressingly linear, but at coincidences of sensibility. As Suleiman says, he first watched Tati after his soundman insisted he see Mon Oncle, and Suleiman said "that I realised that in Tati's Mon Oncle there were two vignettes that were absolutely the same as in my film." Or, in terms of viewer perception, he has talked of how "a lot of the reactions have been self-reflective" "In New York a woman told me 'your Nazareth is a lot like my Los Angeles'. "In Montreal they felt they were seeing something of their own." This is coincidence of feeling, not genealogical expectation, nor political contextualization that we are expected to sympathize with at one remove.
Thus the most important element to look at in Divine Intervention is Suleiman's sensibility, a sensibility that lends itself well to both a partiality of perspective and at the same time a capacity to reflect much more than the specific event. Gilberto Perez in The Material Ghost suggests in 'The Narrative Sequence' that there are certain filmmakers like Renoir whose perspective is not omniscient as Hitchcock's often is, but partial, yet this is not "a Jamesian camera that limits itself to what one character knows. Renoir's style of narrative is singular in that it stays with not one character but ranges everywhere, and yet everywhere it makes us feel the limitation of our view." This could well describe Suleiman, except where Renoir's partiality nevertheless often utilised a roving camera, Suleiman is interested much more in the fixed frame, in making each shot a component of the partial view of the world, and herein lies much of the irony and also both the inexplicability and the generality in his work. Take for example the scene where a teenage boy plays football in the street. Suleiman cuts from the boy playing to a shot from behind a flat roof that two men sit on and where they watch the world go by. As we watch the ball bouncing up and down in the air, and as the two men seem to look on, the ball bounces onto the road opposite. A man comes out and in long shot with the camera still placed behind the two men, we see the man puncture the ball and throw it down onto the street. We know neither how the two men react, for we are given no frontal close up, nor how the boy responds - who remains out of shot presumably still standing in the street. The shot choice maximises the deadpan irony as Suleiman captures less the motivations of characters, than the absurdity of a tense situation. This isn't so much about why somebody does something, more about what sort of events take place in a pressure cooker atmosphere. Suleiman's aloof style whilst capturing 'hot' events gives the film its humour. When an interviewer suggests to him what we see and hear is very precise, Suleiman replies "I am very precise - and my cinematographer knows it!" This needn't be seen as anal retentive perfectionism; it is that Suleiman is well aware that this type of cinema is a balancing act, where what is out of the frame is far from irrelevant to what is in it.
This is most obviously so in the scene in long shot where we see a group of youths hitting something over and over again with a stick, before eventually shooting it with a gun. In the realm of the metonymic and the expectations within metonymy - taking into account Metz's comments - we may be led to believe this is a partial view of a Palestinian being beaten by an Israeli, or vice versa. However it turns out what they've been beating, and that they eventually kill, is a snake. Obviously if Suleiman had framed it differently we would have been fully aware of its meaning, and it would have been metonymically exact: this is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Instead by utilising off-screen space Suleiman allows the viewer to be either metonymically prejudiced or metonymically open. Is it simply about the Palestinian/Israeli situation, or is it about violence more generally? Watching the scene might invoke images of Rodney King's beating in Los Angeles, and may have been why the New York woman believed that Nazareth resembles LA. Here Suleiman is very precise in his framing, but at the same time gives flexibility to metonymic meaning.
This doesn't mean of course that he ignores the political conflict; what seems to interest Suleiman is the capacity it gives him to offer observation and provoke thought. When he was asked what he can do when faced with Sharon on the one hand and Hamas on the other, he replies "personally, I wouldn't do anything. I'll continue to make films. But I hope that all of these religious ideologies, this kind of fanaticism, will eventually evaporate." It's as though Divine Intervention is in this sense an evaporative piece; it is an attempt to work outside binary opposition and find absurdist crystallizations. We can see this in the opening scene of the film where Santa Claus is being chased by a group of youths in Nazareth. There is the absurdity of a heavily dressed, white bearded Santa Claus in hot weather, but at the same time the appropriateness of having Santa in a town where Jesus was born. There is also the absurdity of the youths chasing him and the presents that drop out of his sack as he runs up the hill. But there is also the horrific within the absurd as we realize at the end of the scene that he's actually been stabbed and the youths have been trying to kill him. It's a sort of reversal of the later moment we quoted above with the snake, where we fear the worst and what is revealed is nothing more than the death of the snake. In this opening scene our thoughts are on the absurd over the tragic until the enormity of the situation is revealed.
Yet maybe even to suggest enormity of revelation is to miss the point, for Suleiman interestingly mentions Maurice Blanchot and his idea that there is a "silence we must maintain if we don't comprehend certain historical events." However, Suleiman respects this statement less in being silent than in offering an aesthetic equivalent: the partiality of perspective we've already invoked when quoting Perez. As Suleiman says "it's...a question of how can we in fact depict the extent of pain and violence within the frame. You can hint at the extent of pain and violence, but as soon as you contain it within the frame, there is an assumption you know its extent." We can see this in the checkpoint scenes where the character E.S. (played by Suleiman) and his lover sit in the car and watch Israeli soldiers abusing Palestinians as they wait to go through. We watch less at a safe distance than a hapless one: the sort of distance that doesn't remove us from the situation but implicates us in passivity. If someone once suggested that the humorous can be especially funny from a cinematic distance, interestingly violence and abuse can be equally effective when presented at one remove. Here we identify neither with hero nor victim, bully or oppressed, but at an 'implicative remove' - the distance that asks the observer neither to be adrenalised or pitying, but physically removed and ethically active. Once again Suleiman invokes a question out of his framing, as though he demands an ethical intelligence that comes not from Blanchot's silence, but from questioning the capacity of the frame to contain events, and showing the horrible passivity of the characters to what surrounds them.
Nevertheless there are scenes that have nothing to do with passivity and at the same time don't obviously conform to identificatory action either. What are we to make of the moment where E.S. tosses the stone of his apricot out of the window and it blows up a tank, or more especially the scene near the end that Kelly has so many problems with? Are they fantasies, and is this a useful word to throw at them? Again we can usefully quote Suleiman. "This is a rare film in which, within a genre sequence, you're not encouraged to totally identify with the heroine...It's totally artificial and the audience should be laughing." But we might ask what sort of laughter should this be? How to achieve the laughter that is ironically removed and yet not quite politically detached? Shortly before we move into the Ninja scene, with E.S.'s girlfriend as the heroine who takes out swathes of the Israeli army, we see E.S. looking at a billboard advertising a film that seems to show none other than his girlfriend appearing in it. If the ninja scene is a fantasy sequence, it is surely so from a position that isn't especially asking us to identify with a beautiful young woman taking out the Israelis, but more a sequence representing a certain longing for recognition and empowerment. It may be one thing to ask for the Palestinians to possess an avenging angel who can take out dozens of soldiers; it is something else to ask for no more than a fantasy cinema where one can take out one's feelings of disempowerment. Suleiman says "the two people today who are suffering lack of recognition and humiliation are the Palestinians and the Kurdish people." When E.S. looks at the billboard this is wish-fulfilment fantasy on a par with the blown up tank, but in the realm not of a make-shift Bondian weapon where an apricot stone becomes a grenade, but of a cinematic representation that can at least allow a suppressed nation its own emotional catharsis. When Suleiman insists that he wanted to ask those who attacked the penultimate scene "How could someone who, up to now, has been making such a subtle film, come to such a blunt, simplistic solution?" - surely, he proposes, they should be looking to see what is going on beyond the representational violence?
Suleiman has talked about his own 'inner violence' and maybe what he taps into in the apricot stone scene and the Ninja sequence is an inner violence given outer form - but that is healthily balanced between a kind of cancerous unreleased rage and pragmatic power fuelled violence. Where we see E.S.'s father driving through the streets muttering to himself insults to passers-by, watch as his garage business is taken off him, and see him later collapsing in his kitchen, as well as seeing various characters offering unreleased rage, and the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints attending to pragmatic violence, are E.S.'s invocations a sign of mental health in an environment where the options are so often internal collapse or resorting to external aggression? Here, taking into account this point, the two scenes - the ninja sequence and the apricot stone - are consistent with two others. One is where E.S. sits in his car at the traffic lights and an Israeli idles in the next lane. E.S. looks across and turns his music full on as it blares out 'I've put a spell on you". The other has E.S.'s girlfriend nonchalently crossing the border as music blasts out on the soundtrack, and we watch as the guard-tower collapses in her wake. All these scenes are less about violence, per se, than disquisitions on wish-fulfilment coming from a position of helplessness. When Suleiman wants to show violence that has little to do with Hollywood and at the same time talks about the problems of an under-representation of a people, then what better way of illustrating this under-representation than through a hypothetical aggresion that captures the feeling without toppling over into obviously represented violence. Where Hollywood usually represents violence, Suleiman wants to hypothesise it. In representation lies the ready assumption of a culture that can show anything; in hypothesis lies another variation on Blanchot's notion of silence. The hypothetical here works like the out of frame: it proposes rather than represents. As Suleiman says: "Multiplying the possibilities of reading my images gives me pleasure. As much as possible, I try to layer them. 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."
Thus Divine Intervention is a great propositional film, consistent in many ways with Godard's work as a subjunctive, incomplete project. When at the end of the film we notice E.S. arranging the post-it notes that make them consistent with the narrative we've just seen, there is the air of arbitrariness that the film could have been otherwise. Undeniably there is temporal progression - at the beginning of the film the father is alive and driving around Nazareth; at the end he has passed away - but there is a strong sense that the propositional is more important than the narrational. Suleiman offers us scenes that don't only gain their significance from one scene following another in plot logical terms, and where the scene gains justification from its obligatory place within the whole, but especially from the propositional logic of disjunction and conjunction: how do certain scenes sit next to each other; and what is the relationship between them? For example the opening scene of the kids chasing Santa Claus is followed by the scene where E.S.'s father curses to himself the passersby. In plot logical terms we might expect the scene after Santa Claus's stabbing to be one that gives us more information in relation to the previous scene, but any connection here is thematic rather than narrational, so we may understand the tension in the situation over the drive of the plot. Obviously many European and American films have also lateralised narrative - and this is central to the network narratives and fractal filmmaking present in Haggis's Crash, to Magnolia, to Amores Perros, Babel, The Edge of Heaven and numerous others. But this is jigsaw narrative, where the parts are in disarray only to be shaped later on in the story. Occasionally a network narrative possesses the propositional - Haneke's Code Inconnu for one - but the lateral obviously doesn't necessitate the propositional. In the latter we must feel the scene needn't have been there, necessarily, and that its presence must generate a thought rather than further an action.
It is this propositional reasoning we've been trying to explore here, as Suleiman offers up a film not especially about the Israeli/Palestinian crisis. As Suleiman says, "My tastes don't really seem to have much to do with mainstream Palestinian or Arab cinema" - as if to say the conventionally representational doesn't much interest him. This returns us to our initial point about Suleiman's desire to speak for himself but where one might feel an obligation to speak for others. In the propositional approach the filmmaker speaks for himself through what Sartre would call one's facticity - through the unavoidable fact that Suleiman is a Palestinian colonized by Israel, and the thoughts that such a position provokes. When Sartre talks of facticity he means the elements of our being that we can't readily existentially change: the colour of our eyes, the place where we were born, our height, our bloodline. Yet the factive and the existential aren't one and the same, and Suleiman's propositional reasoning is his way of escaping the factive through the creative. Palestine becomes less a painted picture to be put up on the wall; more a choice of colours with which to paint one's own picture. This is the propositional logic which will wonder how a viewer will respond to a snake being killed in Palestine if the framing doesn't allow the viewer to see what is being killed. This is the propositional reasoning that wonders what happens when you withhold the reactions to a scene (like the ball being burst) that would demand an immediate response. Our relationship with the image changes by virtue of what is left out. As it loses its metonymic justification so the viewer creates a sort of sub-metonymy evident in the claims above that one woman saw Nazareth resembling Los Angeles; others saw similarities with Montreal. Rather than the assertive metonymy that Suleiman feels other filmmakers of the region practise ("there seems to be an unconscious deliberation of what the Occident wants from these filmmakers and these films"), he offers a sub-metonymy which gives both Suleiman the artist and the viewer the space for metonymic subjectivity. For if Metz is correct that in many instances the metonymic replaces the toponymy of a place, how can a filmmaker wrestle out from under that metonymic significance and create a sub-metonymy of their own? If many filmmakers accept simultaneously their facticity in Sartrean terms, and the metonymy of their topos in Metzian terminology ("the exotic form of representation you find in many of these films", as Suleiman says), then Divine Intervention is a radical film. It works with Palestine undeniably, but focuses upon it in such a way that to comprehend the film it isn't enough to understand the Palestinian/Israeli situation, but instead to have a fresh relationship with the images so that we can make them our own. As Suleiman says, "the film isn't an historical or anthropological study"; and hence "a lot of reactions have been self-reflective".
This is the opposite of the assumptive, and we may wonder that when Kelly in his review gives us so much socio-historical information about the situation, that he at the same time consequently lacks the self-reflective dimension Suleiman searches out. For example, Kelly tells us that Nazareth is the largest Arab town in Israel "where around 65,000 people make their homes on 2,750 acres of land," that 'Israeli-Palestinians' comprise "20% of Israel's population, but as non-Jews in a Jewish state they are denied full political rights", and are not allowed "to buy or sell land". Another article by S. F. Said in the same issue of Sight and Sound insists "though Suleiman's film stands on its own merits, it's richest when read against the history of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict - especially the wars of 1948 and 1967, in which Palestinians became subject to Israeli rule." In each instance there is this need to prop up the work with socio-historical fact. Would the same be necessary in films from other parts of the world? Do both critics miss the fresh metonymic possibilities by too determinedly grounding the film in its historical dimension? It isn't that such details should be ignored, but could they not be utilised in describing any film from the region; is there not a way of using the details to point up Suleiman's originality; in how he reconstitutes the political and subsumes it in the aesthetic?
To conclude let us look again at the opening scene. Suleiman creates a rich texture of assumptions and absurdities at the same time. It makes sense that Santa would be stabbed in Nazareth if anywhere, from the point of view that it is Christ's birthplace, and that Santa is the patron saint of Christmas. But Santa is also a northern hemisphere icon, a cold climate hero of sleighs and reindeers. Suleiman works with the assumption of the iconographic, in relation to Santa Claus and Christmas, but subverts it firstly by showing Santa running up a hill in heavy sunshine, and secondly showing the benign figure with a knife in his chest. Conventional historical information about the region can help us little; what is more important is to find ourselves located less in the region of the socio-political, than in the region of the propositional where we can run with Suleiman's absurdist humour and lateral connections. This is a region that is only partially to do with Palestine and Israel, and one may be tempted to argue that it is finally as important to know a little about the filmmakers with whom Suleiman shares an affinity (from Godard to Jarmusch, from Hou Hsiao-Hsien to Tsai Ming-Liang) as the soio-political world from whence he comes. That is if we are to comprehend the work of a filmmaker who, as Gary Indiana suggests, "wants basically to speak for himself."
© Tony McKibbin