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EDITIONS
 Thursday, 16 January, 2003, 17:48 GMT
Oscar rejection for Palestinian film
Manal Khader
Manal Khader stars in Divine Intervention
Nick Higham

An Israeli checkpoint, somewhere on the road between Ramallah and Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank.

The checkpoint has been closed. Jumpy Israeli soldiers have been forcing cars at gunpoint to turn round and drive away. But one car doesn't move.

The door opens and out steps a glamorous woman, in pink dress, high heels and sun glasses. She begins to walk down the road towards the checkpoint.

Balloon
A balloon baffles soldiers in the film
The soldiers watch her. As she comes closer one cocks his gun and points it at her. The others follow suit.

She briefly raises her sun glasses to look one soldier in the eye. He lowers his gun. So do his colleagues. She strides unhindered past the checkpoint's watch-tower.

Cut to a long shot of the woman's retreating back and the four stunned soldiers watching her walk away from them. Suddenly, slowly, the watchtower collapses.

Divine Intervention is that rare thing, a Palestinian film.

Though there is no such thing as a Palestinian film industry - no studios, no cameras, no technicians - the film's director, Elia Suleiman, has managed to produce a surreal comedy about the absurdities of life under Israeli occupation.

As the sequence of the woman and the checkpoint implies, parts of the film suggest the only sane response to the grimness of existence is a retreat into fantasy and wishful thinking.

Explosion

Near the end of the film a woman in a distinctive black and white checked keffiah (the Palestinian headscarf) steps out of a target being used for shooting practice by a bunch of Israeli policemen.

She transforms herself into a superhuman Ninja, spinning high above the policemen, evading their bullets and killing them off one by one.

Elsewhere the film gently satirises the underlying tensions in the West Bank.

A man appears beneath his neighbour's balcony to ask him to move his car, which is blocking his garage.

Elia Suleiman
Suleiman wrote and directed Divine Intervention
The neighbour asks the make, the model, the date and eventually the registration number.

The man walks out of shot. There is the sign of rending metal and a car alarm going off.

The man walks back, holding a registration plate, reads out the numbers, then throws the plate on the ground.

Elia Suleiman himself plays the hero in a deadpan style reminiscent of Jacques Tati or Buster Keaton.

He is conducting a love affair with a woman barred from travelling to visit him: they are forced to meet in a parking lot next to the checkpoint.

His father is in hospital after his business collapsed and his possessions were seized to pay his debts.

The film's French producer, Humbert Balsan, says the film isn't really a comedy.

Critical acclaim

Even as they laugh (and an audience last month at a screening in Ramallah reportedly laughed enthusiastically) the audience are made aware of quite how terrible the situation is for many Palestinians.

The film, subtitled "A Chronicle of Love and Pain", has already been seen in France and goes on release in London and New York on 17 January.

It was acclaimed at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the international critics' prize.

It might have been a contender for an Oscar as well - except that Hollywood's Academy of Motion Pictures refused to accept it as a candidate for the best foreign-language film.

The reason: the Academy, taking its cue from the United Nations, doesn't recognise Palestine as a nation.

Sensing a political motive for the film's rejection, some pro-Palestinian voices have pointed out that the Academy has accepted films in the past from other territories not recognised by the UN, like Puerto Rico, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Girl in film
One character transforms herself into a superhuman Ninja
Ah, the Academy says, but there were other reasons why this film wasn't eligible.

It was put forward by its producers and not by a properly-constituted selection committee in its country of origin and it hadn't been released in its home territory either.

Balsan says it hasn't been released because there are few cinemas in which to show it.

But, though he is sorry that a film he helped make has been denied a chance of further international recognition, he refuses to see the rejection in political terms.

To him the Academy's response was "purely a bureaucratic answer".

The Academy's staff insisted on playing by the rules, rather than making cinema their priority, he says.

Now the film's American distributor is talking about trying to get the rules changed, so the film can be entered next year.

Meanwhile cinema-goers in Britain and America now have the chance to see for themselves a film, part satire, part propaganda, part absurdist comedy, which reveals the human reality behind the news pictures of the Middle East.

See also:

21 May 02 | Entertainment
01 Jan 03 | Entertainment
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