Palestinian director Elia Suleiman was the president of the jury at the 54th International Antalya Film Festival that took place from Sept. 21-27 this year. Born in Nazareth in 1960, the director has been inspired by the Palestinian cause, the post-1948 Israeli occupation and injustice around the world. Unlike many, the director makes films using dark humor skillfully. Best known for his film "Divine Intervention," which won the Jury Prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, the director sets an alternative example by portraying tragedies in a comedic light, which he considers a way to overcome despair.
Daily Sabah conducted an interview with Elia Suleiman to learn more about his perspective on cinema, humor, occupation and resistance.
DAILY SABAH: In some platforms, people associate your dark humor style with Jim Jarmusch's cinema. How would you describe your style and why did you choose it?
ELIA SULEIMAN: I think that no one chooses their style. It comes from inside. Style is your language, through which you express yourself. You might try to change some things and then you go other places, but there is always a place where you like to tell your story.
D.S: So, is humor your style in your wider life?
Yes. It and this style also reflects itself in my films. There are other influences, of course. I would not say Jim Jarmusch is my inspiration but rather older filmmakers like Japanese Yasujiro Ozu who was my first inspiration. People always refer to Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati but it is not true, as I had made films before I watched them. However, of course, I like Jim Jarmusch. And my wife, Jasmine Hamdan acted in one of his films.
D.S.: How have your Palestinian roots affected your filmmaking and your perspective of life in general?
This is a very good question. I think the fact that coming from a place forms itself as a central point for resistance. This influences your view on the world. The fact that I am Palestinian has given me the ability to identify with all the resisting people and associate myself with causes where justice is sought. So, being a Palestinian has opened my eyes to the injustices of the world, not only to the injustices in Palestine.
D.S.: You take side with the resistance. Is your dark humor a kind resistance?
Yes. It has never been a strategy but it is part of my expression. Humor itself is a form of resistance. When you make an audience laugh, you actually open their eyes to the issue on the screen. Laughter is against despair.
D.S.: In one of your former interviews, you stated that you are still angry about the year 1948; namely the Nakbah incidents, and that you cannot cool down. How do you feel now, is this feeling something permanent?
I think the center of pain does not go away. When you start to think about what Israel did to Palestinians and how they occupied the Palestinians' country, how they expelled them and how now, 70 years later, it is going on, if it does not make you angry, then there is something insensitive in you. When you are there, and you look at all those houses that now have Israelis in them, how can you not be angry? Of course, it makes you feel crippled when you cannot do anything for a family that is thrown out of their home and becomes a refugee.
D.S.: Can we say that your anger against the Israeli occupation is a compelling power in your art?
Even though I try hard to hide it, sometimes I cannot fight it completely. My anger seeps into the frame, yes. I think there are specific points in my films where the anger reflects itself quite obviously. For instance, in "Divine Intervention," it is very obvious.
D.S: When it comes to "Divine Intervention," it was awarded at the Cannes Film Festival. Later, the Oscar Academy did not include it in the list, announcing they do not recognize Palestine as a state?
Actually, they said "Palestine is not a nation." This is even worse. The stance is a very ignorant one and it was so embarrassing for the Oscar Academy. It was not me who attacked them, but the press, because there are other entities that are not nations. So, when you ask "If Palestine is not a nation, what about this and that?" then they said "Ooo, it is a technical mistake." They opened the applications. Now, Palestinians can go for it.
D.S.: What about Hollywood's stance on this in the context of Jewish domination in Western film is considered?
I think Hollywood is not dominated by Jews; rather it operates in line with American strategies. I think there is a very strong Jewish-American lobby, but not necessarily in Hollywood. It exists in institutions across the U.S. On the other hand, there are a lot of Jews in America who are entirely pro-Palestinian and who fight for the cause of the Palestinian. I think it directly has something to do with commerce and injustice. There is a connection between them. And Hollywood makes very commercial films. So, by nature of their narrative, there is always a hero and the hero kills terrorists. It is full of racist stereotypes. The American machine produces ignorants. When I first landed in the U.S, a taxi driver asked me where I was from. When I said Palestine, he asked me if it was Pakistan. He did not even know where Palestine is.
D.S.: Is it a strategy to control the masses?
Yes, I think there is a system in place. However, I think what has happened over the last 10 years is quite interesting. The American people have started to identify the Palestinian cause with their own, especially in the latest movements against Wall Street, like anti-capitalist movements. They started to see the relationship between the Israeli occupation and their cause. A lot of Americans now visit Palestine. It is changing. Particularly the Jewish community is becoming more and more aware.
D.S.: Do you mean the Hasidics, the radicals who already resist the Zionist regime?
No, I am referring to the intellectual, liberal and wider Jewish community in the U.S.
D.S.: How do you evaluate the current situation in the context of the development of Middle Eastern film? Do you think regional cinema bears transformative power?
Cinema is slow because it requires contemplation. It is an art form. So it does not generate an immediate reaction to military machines. I think cinema simply maintains the hope for change. On the other hand, I am not sure that film has the power to change a situation by itself. We hope that, in a historical context, art is there to reflect on certain situations. I am hopeful but I cannot say it immediately changes very much.
D.S.: What do you think about Turkish cinema, artists and directors?
I do not recall specific names except for major directors like Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who is a master. However, I saw very interesting films produced by young directors. For example, when I was jury president at the Sarajevo Film Festival, I awarded a film called "Album." I think there is interesting movement among young Turkish directors.
D.S: Could you tell us about your upcoming projects?
I am now trying to raise money for my next film. It has been difficult because cinema finance is in bad shape. Hopefully, if there is enough money by next year, I will be shooting a film about a character who lives in his hometown in Palestine and is in search of an alternative homeland. Every place he goes, he finds himself in Palestine again. It is really going to be a film that depicts the global tension of today.