Whenever discussing the efficacy of political satire, it’s hard not to think about that withering Peter Cook line about “those wonderful Berlin cabarets, which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the second world war”.
Cook clearly didn’t think satire was useless: it’s less often mentioned that he said this when opening his Establishment Club, hoping to emulate the cabarets of 1960s London. The implication, rather, is that satirists must be realistic about the possibilities of their art, and that satire is worth making even if a situation seems hopeless, a cause seems lost or even if an event has passed.
For me, the best satirical novel about the first world war is The Good Soldier Švejk by the Czech anarchist Jaroslav Hašek. First published in four parts over the course of 1921-23, follows a conscript who convinces his superiors that he is too stupid to run into a hail of machine gun fire to claim a few inches of mud for the Austro-Hungarian empire. Švejk was a strong influence on Joseph Heller’s equally absurd second world war satire Catch-22, published eight years after the end of the conflict.
Neither novel did anything to stop such brutal wars from happening again – in any case, Heller said Catch-22 was attacking the Cold War and McCarthyism more than the second world war. What they did do, however, was educate their readers on the conditions of industrial warfare and encourage them to think about who enables it.
In the case of Israel and Palestine, satire can convey the absurdities of life under occupation, whilst offering catharsis and comfort to those living it.
I want to consider two films made in the West Bank, nearly 20 years apart: Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, a comedy-drama released in 2002 during the second intifada; and Mayor (2020) by David Osit, a documentary comedy about the mayor of Ramallah. First, though, I want to consider the limits Israel places on Palestinian film production.
The Palestine film unit.
Palestine’s nascent film industry was destroyed in 1948, when the handful of films made before the Nakba were lost amidst the Irgun’s bombardment of Jaffa; for years afterwards, works were mostly made and shown in exile. Domestic production resumed after 1967, under the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The following year, a group of young Palestinian filmmakers set up a film production outfit, the Palestine Film Unit (PFU), with the support of the PLO faction Al-Fatah.
Mustafa Abu Ali was one of them; his They Do Not Exist (1974), a simple documentary about life in the West Bank that used footage shared by other PFU directors and was named after Israeli prime minister Golda Meir’s notorious remark about the Palestinians, was a landmark in Palestinian cinema.
The PLO – and with it, the PFU – moved to Lebanon after Black September in 1970: in this atmosphere of constant uncertainty and conflict, the group found it difficult to produce much, and was forced out of Beirut in 1982, just after Kassem Hawal completed his Return to Haifa, the only dramatic feature film of the period. The PFU was disbanded, and their archives mysteriously disappeared from their storage facility in the Red Crescent hospital during Israel’s siege of Beirut in 1982; several films were later found in an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) archive in Tel HaShomer.
It was not until 1996 that a film from the West Bank garnered significant international attention. Chronicle of a Disappearance, about the loss of national identity in Israel’s Arab population, brought Elia Suleiman, a Palestinian émigré then living in New York, to the notice of global cineastes; Divine Intervention confirmed him as a unique filmic voice.
Squabbling under apartheid.
Divine Intervention, subtitled A Chronicle of Love and Pain, approaches the occupation obliquely – as Israeli dissident documentarian Avi Mograbi said in an interview with me in 2018, for a Palestinian to film any confrontations with border guards as he did in Avenge But One of My Two Eyes (2005) would be to risk execution. Like his subsequent The Time That Remains (2009) and It Must Be Heaven (2019), Divine Intervention – which won the jury prize at the 2002 Cannes film festival and remains Suleiman’s best-known work – is a slow series of interconnected sketches with little dialogue. Its main character – a man named ES, played by Suleiman, who lives in Nazareth, trying to spend time with his unnamed girlfriend, played by Manal Khader, who lives several checkpoints away in Ramallah – says nothing at all.
Suleiman’s main influences are silent comedians such as Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, whose deadpan style of physical comedy he brings into a context full of cruelty and sadness. The opening scene, however, is perhaps more reminiscent of some of the UK’s weirder sketch shows of the early 2000s such as Attention Scum or Big Train. A man dressed as Santa Claus races up a hill in Nazareth, chased by teenagers. As he reaches the summit, the scene ends. It’s hard to parse at first – is it a comment on colonialism, or the nativity as the Christian origin story? An attempt to sidestep conventional readings of Israel and Palestine as a conflict between Muslims and Jews by bringing in Christianity?
Such profound questions are soon drowned out by the sights and sounds of everyday life. A taxi driver waves and smiles at acquaintances, murmuring slurs (“Collaborator, go and fuck your mother”). A man waits for a bus he knows will never come. An old man deflates a boy’s football kicked onto his roof. Neighbours argue over a car parked in front of a garage and about who has thrown whose rubbish into whose garden. The irresistible bathos of squabbling under apartheid.
Suleiman himself plays the central character, who never speaks and barely displays emotion. Preternaturally calm – or, more likely, utterly desensitised – ES spends much of the film in his car. First he drives along an empty road, then passes a tank. It blows up as spectacularly as it might in an American action film. ES does not flinch, just like Buster Keaton doesn’t when his house collapses around him in One Week. Soon after, a car stops outside a house, and a passenger throws a Molotov cocktail at it, setting it ablaze; later, gunmen riddle it with bullets. He doesn’t flinch.
There is something striking about how ordinary it seems, the violent oppression of Palestinians. Another scene finds ES’s father in a hospital. The father smokes, and no one cares; the man in the next bed gets up, and no one remarks on him being an amputee.
ES’s unflappability, and his girlfriend’s refusal to cave in to the IDF, are most striking in the scenes at checkpoints. In one, ES’s girlfriend walks towards the Israeli guards in sunglasses, dress and high heels. The guards argue about how to respond. She nonchalantly passes them and the sentry tower collapses. The guards are even more confused when ES, trying to impress her, blows up a balloon with Yasser Arafat’s face on it and lets it out of the car’s sunroof and over the walls into Jerusalem.
The absurdity of their panicked reaction to “a balloon trying to get through”, training their guns on it, provides a comic counterpoint to ES’s blankness and his girlfriend’s fearlessness. It shows just how ingrained the instinct to shoot at anything that comes from the West Bank is in the troops. It feels like a wry comment on why the peace talks failed in the 1990s. The micro-aggressive enforcement of the regime is strikingly apparent in a more realistic checkpoint scene, where the Israeli guard humiliates another man who wants to visit a lover, with some rare dialogue: “He wants to get laid in Jerusalem! But it’s Ramadan! No fucking!”
Witnessing this petty cruelty, with such military might behind it, the film escapes into fantasy, as the girlfriend destroys a garrison of armed IDF soldiers with the only weapons available to her: ninja kicks and a handful of rocks. Suleiman brings us back down to Earth by resolving the storyline around ES’s father: the final emotion is one of real sadness, although, as throughout Divine Intervention, it is more implied than shown.
Mayor follows the tradition of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1963), adapted from Peter George’s novel Red Alert about mutually assured destruction during the Cold War, a situation that Kubrick found too absurd not to ridicule. Mayor starts with a similar absurdity – the attempt to run a city without a state.
Mayor opens with a reminder of how the map has looked ever since the six-day war of 1967, when Israel took a huge swathe of land allocated to Palestine in 1948. Ramallah is established as the “epicentre of Palestinian commerce and culture”, and Mousa Hadid its mayor (Hadid served from 2012 until 2022, when Issa Kassis succeeded him).
The film painstakingly follows the banalities of urban management, starting with a meeting between Hadid and a branding consultant about a city slogan to replace the current uninspiring “WeRamallah” (Hadid rejects “Gateway to Palestine” as too political). As the conversation continues, the question poses itself: aren’t such branding exercises pointless at the best of times?
In a warzone, bureaucracy seems particularly pointless. Standing under an illegal Israeli hillside settlement, someone files a report against the settlers for polluting the water, but everyone knows nothing will change. After all, it has taken 15 years to get permission from the Israeli authorities to open a cemetery, and Palestinians are not allowed to use the local airport – Hadid is fully aware that another violent flare-up will only result in further suppression and more deaths.
Hadid goes to Germany, the US and the UK to discuss the conditions of occupation, getting such suggestions as sending a Palestine football team to the UK as a bridge-building initiative. Prince William visits Ramallah, to no effect. The conflict intensifies. The town square Christmas tree is a symbol of the attempts to recognise the city’s Christian community and move beyond the Arab-Jewish conflict: IDF soldiers surround the city hall and take gloating selfies with it.
The people of Ramallah hold their ground and have muted celebrations outside city hall as the IDF retreats. Like Divine Intervention, Mayor draws much of its humour from its skill in showing how, much of the time, the occupation is like the weather: something that changes to some extent from day to day, but only becomes a serious consideration when there’s a storm. When they’re not in crisis mode, the overall situation is too much to think about: the documentary becomes more farcical but more relatable when Hadid is considering trivialities like a water feature or city slogan.
These breaks from the sensory overload remind me of The Good Soldier Švejk, whose attempts to escape physically and emotionally from the front lead Švejk to squabble with soldiers in his unit or people he meets in alehouses, the absurdity of these altercations magnified by the carnage that surrounds them. Sharing this harrowing yet humane affect with Hašek’s novel allows both Divine Intervention and Mayor to become part of a satirical canon that will hopefully survive the current attacks on Palestine. Like Peter Cook, neither Suleiman nor Osit expects their work to save lives, but their refusal to stop making it – to lose their sense of humour – certainly makes living more worthwhile.