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Coming home: A film bares Nazareth’s soul

International Herald Tribune – 11 February 2003

It’s strange to watch a film surrounded by most of the cast, especially when the presentation is not at a glittery London or New York première. But in the case of Elia Suleiman’s surprise hit movie, “Divine Intervention,” in which a fair proportion of Nazareth’s 70,000 inhabitants feature, it was difficult to avoid cast members at a screening in the city last week. Like everyone else, they paid to get in.

Many critics have mistakenly assumed that the movie, a surreal and comic attack on the Israeli occupation, is set in the Palestinian territories. That is why, although it charmed audiences at Cannes, winning the Jury Prize, it disturbed the Oscar committee, which banned it from the competition on the grounds that its country of origin, Palestine, is not a “legitimate nation.”

But the audience in Nazareth, the capital of Israel’s 1 million Arab citizens, grasped immediately that the film is about their city.

The organizers’ problem finding a venue in Nazareth might have been a scene from the film. Nazareth has been without a movie theater since the city’s porn cinema closed in the late 1980s.

In the end, the city’s one pub, the Frank Sinatra, which is attached to a large art center, came to the rescue. The building is so named because the singer donated it to encourage Jews and Arabs to meet.

The screening was a big event in a city where most people consider renting a video to be a night out. The French ambassador was on hand – the film was partly French-financed – to give what became a lengthy speech, as it was translated into Israel’s two official languages, Hebrew and Arabic, although it was an Arab-only audience.

Nazareth was last the center of so much cinematic attention in the 1960s, during a spate of religious Hollywood epics.

Suleiman, who was raised in Nazareth, understands well the city’s problems. Whereas the West Bank and Gaza suffer from an oppressive territorial occupation, Nazareth suffers from something more subtle: an occupation of the soul.

Israel’s Arabs have been starved of a national identity since the creation of Israel in 1948: They are not Jewish, and so can never be properly Israeli, but they are not Palestinian, either. Today, outside the narrow confines of their towns, they live a half-life: whispering in public places, avoiding the eyes of others. Yet were there ever to be a Palestinian state, they would not be among its citizens.

It is this dislocation that leads Nazarenes to refer to their city, half-jokingly, as the Independent Republic of Nazareth. The joke is that there is nothing independent about it: Decades ago Israel confiscated all the city’s outlying lands, ensuring that the growing population rapidly exhausted its reserves. Petty arguments flare frequently in the resulting claustrophobic atmosphere.

This is well conveyed in the movie. The man who impassively throws his rubbish each morning into the garden next door, the woman who obsessively clears her large, empty yard as if to taunt her space-starved neighbors, the man who rips off the license plate of a car blocking his way – none of this is surreal if you live in Nazareth. They are the power games of those suffocated by a sense of their own irrelevance.

There have long been rumors that Nazareth’s male population has the highest incidence of heart attacks in Israel. It is not surprising, then, that this fate befalls the father of the film’s protagonist, played by Suleiman.

Relief for Suleiman’s character is not only his escape to more cosmopolitan Jerusalem but also his flight into a make-believe world where an apricot pit thrown from his car blows up an Israeli tank and a balloon bearing Yasser Arafat’s face floats over Jerusalem to settle on the Dome of the Rock.

Finally, a fantasy Palestinian girlfriend, protected by an impregnable shield in the shape of Palestine, turns into a ninja warrior to defeat an elite squad of Israeli soldiers.

Not a few in Nazareth’s audience understood that their unique predicament had been captured on celluloid: a desire to join the historic Palestinian struggle frustrated by the more pressing need to squabble over parking spaces.

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