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ELIA SULEIMAN, Divine Intervention, 2002, still from film: 92 min. Courtesy the artist and Pyramide Films, Paris.

Bani Abidi on Elia Suleiman

Also available in:  Chinese

During the opening credits of Elia Suleiman’s 2002 film Divine Intervention, a middle-aged Arab man drives down a street in Nazareth. Along the way, he passes relatives and neighbors who wave to him as he smiles and waves back, a cigarette dangling from his lips. The soundtrack softens and you hear him mumbling something under his breath. He is cussing at each and every one of them, while gesturing back warmly, each profanity worse than the one before.

I saw Divine Intervention at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center in 2002. I had just finished my MFA at the school affiliated with the Art Institute, and was living in Chicago, working an administrative job to pay off student loans. We had entered the 21st century but the definition of “international art” in the United States was limited to the practice of a few token, stereotype-peddling artists with foreign passports who lived in the country. I was uninspired, ready to stop making art and move back to Pakistan. The only thing that I was excited about in those years was the fact that I had started making videos, informally. Having never studied video or film during all my years at art school, the moving image had me engaged in a way that painting or drawing never had. 

Another one of my favorite scenes from Divine Intervention features a couple who meet regularly in a parking lot next to an Israeli checkpoint. The woman lives in Ramallah, the man in Nazareth. The pair sit silently, side by side in his car, slowly caressing each other’s hands. Their gazes remain fixed on the endless array of interactions between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian commuters that unfold in front of them. One day, the man rolls down his car window and lets out an inflated red balloon with Yasser Arafat’s face printed on it. The balloon slowly floats out and through the checkpoint. Confused soldiers run around, shouting orders and snatching their rifles, wondering whether they should shoot down the airborne object. Amid the mayhem caused by the balloon, the couple drive through the checkpoint unnoticed.

This film sealed the deal for me. It was like nothing I had seen before. The humor and choreography reminded me of that in the films of French director Jacques Tati, but it was extremely political, and, ultimately, dark. I realized that this was how one could speak about “big” things most effectively—through quotidian gestures. One could employ silent, repetitive frames that sat comfortably in time, demanding to be watched, much like street scenes that play out as one waits for a bus at the same bus stop everyday. That is how Suleiman’s quiet, barely noticeable narrative functions, making us follow his characters and their subtle relationships and preoccupations, only through recurring acts and appearances. The film, which was about something as ugly as the Israeli occupation of Palestine, was able to direct the audience to look at the situation farcically, contemptuously, and, in the right moments, lovingly. We all laughed quietly at the way tensions and contentions played out between neighbors, and between Israeli settlers and local Arabs, only because the scenes were so familiar and identifiable in their ordinariness. But as the film continued, our hearts broke slowly and repeatedly, for as in life, the film offered no solutions. It was just a couple of days in the life of a place. 

What follows is a scene from my film RESERVED (2006). The
city appears to be one in South Asia. Traffic on a busy street has been stopped to allow for the passage of a VIP’s motorcade. It is hot. People are stuck. One man opens his car door and asks the
man in the neighboring vehicle for a cigarette. Another man absentmindedly cleans his ear with his car keys while listening to music on his radio. A couple appears to be involved in an argument. A rickshaw driver uses this pause to step out and clean his rickshaw. A family of four struggles to stay seated on a motorbike. As they all wait, a vendor selling a large red balloon moves through the cars.

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