No Room for Palestinian Film at the Oscars

In a snugly fitting mini, with her stilettos clanking a beat to the soaring music score, a young Palestinian woman sashays slowly past a checkpoint while the security-obsessed Israeli soldiers, their walkie-talkies emitting robotic voices, watch stupefied at this magnificent transgression.

Festering rage morphs into burlesque fantasy in Divine Intervention, a Palestinian feature film directed by Elia Suleiman that has won international acclaim for its wry examination of life under Israeli occupation.

Subtitled A Chronicle of Love and Pain, the film takes a look at the daily nightmares of Palestinian life in the region, where neighbors dump garbage in each other's yards, lovers are reduced to holding hands in cars parked in the twilight buffer zones at checkpoints, and balloons soar gloriously free over a land troubled by watchtowers, barbed wires and weaponry staring in every direction.

But there was no heavenly intercession for Divine Intervention this year at the gatepost of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), the selection committee behind the Oscars.

During a conversation with the film's producer Humbert Balsan in October, Academy Executive Director Bruce Davis informed Balsan that the film was ineligible for consideration in next year's Best Foreign Language Film category because Divine Intervention emerges from a country not formally recognized by the United Nations.

It was a decree of cinematic statelessness that sparked a furor in the international film world, a controversy that raised troubling arguments about the politics of art, identity, nationhood, and the dogged bureaucratese surrounding the most coveted cinema awards in the world.

‘In the Service of Politics’

Shot in Israel and France by an international crew, Divine Intervention has been doing the rounds at international film festivals this year, picking up fans, promoters, distributors and an impressive array of awards including the prestigious jury prize at the 2002 Cannes film festival and the European Film Award.

So when word of its stymied Oscar aspirations spread — mostly on the Internet — many independent filmmakers and Palestinian rights activists launched a heated cyber protest, with action alerts calling on people to write protest letters to the Academy.

Enraged filmmakers from across the world denounced the move, saying that art had been "put in the service of politics" while producers noted that the Academy had, in the past, considered entries from territories the U.N. did not consider countries such as Wales, Puerto Rico, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Experts also noted that unlike Taiwan, which has no official recognition at the United Nations and is considered by Beijing to be a wayward province of the People's Republic of China, Palestine has had observer status at the United Nations, where it has had a Permanent Observer Mission since 1974. Palestine is currently recognized as a nation by more than 115 countries.

In a statement released earlier this month, Feda Abdelhadi Nasser from the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the United Nations expressed dismay over the decision. "It is truly regrettable that the Palestinian people, in addition to being denied the most basic of human rights under Israel's occupation, are being denied the opportunity to participate in competitions judging artistic and cultural expression," he said.

All on the Phone

In its defense, the Academy has maintained that Divine Intervention was never formally submitted for consideration.

"The film was never actually submitted to us," said John Pavlik, an AMPAS spokesman. "It was never anything beyond a couple of telephone conversations in which, from what Bruce [Davis] told me, he indicated the film will probably not be eligible because there are several problems that remain to be solved. But the Academy did not have to make a decision on whether or not to accept a film from Palestine — because nothing was submitted."

But Keith Icove, vice president of Avatar Films, the movie's U.S. distributor, maintained that it was the response from the Academy that prompted the producers not to submit the film for consideration.

"Yes, the film was not formally submitted, but underneath that decision was the fact that it was not recommended," said Icove. "It wasn't like we were told 'well, submit it and we'll see what happens.' We were emphatically told that a film from Palestine would not be eligible."

Ruling on the Rules

Among the many tricky issues surrounding the entry is an Academy rule that countries submitting entries for the best foreign film category should submit an entry after a selection is made "by one organization, jury or committee which should include artists and/or craftspeople from the field of motion pictures."

"We try to make sure that committees are made up of filmmakers, artists and craftspeople so we don't have a situation where ministers and bureaucrats are trying to make committee referrals," said Pavlik. "Of course, some countries are good about it, others aren't. But there has to be a committee that can decide and send a selection as the country's best picture of the year."

The rules also state that the film must first be released in the country of origin and publicly exhibited for at least seven consecutive days at a commercial theater.

Rights groups, however, charge that with the West Bank and Gaza under Israeli occupation since early this year and with curfews a daily facet of Palestinian life in the territories, cinemas in the area have been non-operational, if not destroyed.

But the Academy's special rules on the foreign film category makes no mention of any U.N. recognition of a country and by all accounts, the Academy has been accepting selections based on earlier precedents. "Taiwan and Hong Kong have been submitting entries since the '50s — they have a precedent that has been established," said Pavlik.

Taiwan was expelled from the United Nations in 1971, when the People's Republic of China was recognized as the island's legitimate authority. Hong Kong was a British territory for 100 years before it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

A Matter of Identity

But while Taiwan and Hong Kong have an established cinematic tradition, Palestinians in the territories have not managed to develop a robust film industry.

The reasons, according to Hussein Ibish of the Washington-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, are not hard to arrive at.

"I think it's very difficult to produce a thriving national film industry under a military occupation where there is no independent state as a reference," he said.

Although a new generation of female Palestinian film-makers have been making their mark — largely because women in the territories find it easier to maneuver restrictions than their male counterparts — Suleiman's success with Divine Intervention is by all accounts a first for the Palestinian community.

Painful Issues

But when it comes to matters of categorization and identity of the filmmaker and his film, there are several complex issues at stake.

Although Suleiman spent his early years in Nazareth, a northern Israeli city with the largest Arab population, he came of age in New York City, where he lived for 12 years before returning to Nazareth to make his first film, Chronicles of a Disappearance.

And though he is a citizen of Israel — a minority called 'Arab-Israeli' by most Israelis — Suleiman considers himself a Palestinian.

But the 42-year-old filmmaker, who is also the lead actor in Divine Intervention, has never lived in the West Bank or Gaza, territories under the official control of the Palestinian Authority.

For Suleiman, the ruckus over his second feature film has been particularly troubling. Reached on his cell phone in Paris, where he is currently promoting the film, the director-star said he preferred not to dwell on the controversy.

"I'm outside the terrain of such a discussion," he said. "I myself have not lived in Palestine, but the title of Israeli doesn't fit me — I have nothing of Israeli culture. And aesthetically and culturally, I keep trying to cleanse myself from this political rhetoric. I really stand outside it. I'm resisting it," he said.

Alarm Bells

Although Suleiman rejects attempts to slot him, the Academy's verbal deterrent to having the film admitted has raised alarm bells that the organization might be operating under double standards in several film and activist circles.

When James Longley, producer-director of the recently released documentary, Gaza Strip, first heard about the fracas through e-mail, he immediately got in touch with the Academy, threatening to return his 1994 Student Academy Award for his earlier documentary Portrait of Boy With Dog unless he was satisfied with the explanation provided by the Academy.

While Longley said he was currently corresponding with the Academy, he maintained that, "if the Academy does not make a statement to the effect that in the future they would accept official entries from Palestine in the same way that they have accepted films from other entities that are not officially recognized as states, I will send back my award."

On his part, Pavlik insisted that it was "not in his place" to provide any reassurances about future Academy decisions.

The Battle Lines Are Drawn

But Longley warns of the political aftershocks of the incident.

"This spins out of the realm of films and into the realm of politics and in this case, very contentious politics," he said. "It brings out all the stereotypes about Hollywood and the whole discussion about to what extent the Academy is a politically motivated body. Because of America's enormous cultural and political influence around the world, it is important that the Academy be perceived as fair and honest, and not just a protector of particular political viewpoints."

"Sometimes Hollywood tries to be more royal than the king about the Mideast conflict," said Ziad Doueri, the Lebanese-born director of the acclaimed feature film West Beirut and former camera operator of Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino. "The United States talks about Palestine, [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon talks about Palestine, but in Hollywood, the Middle East conflict is the last taboo."

But David Horowitz, co-founder of the Los Angeles-based Center for the Study of Popular Culture, angrily refuted allegations of Hollywood's anti-Palestinian bias.

"Anybody who makes such charges is anti-Semitic," he said. "I think that Hollywood has bent over backwards to protect the Palestinians and the Muslims. They just can't handle the difficult truth that we're in a religious war where the religious fanatics have declared war on us."

Icove is optimistic that Divine Intervention still has a chance at the Oscars next year. "The issue has been raised," said Icove. "And hopefully, it will be eligible next year."