In his fourth narrative feature film, It Must Be Heaven (2019), Elia Suleiman – forever a protagonist in his features, a mute spectator known as ES – stages a scene in a production office. ES is in Paris, in the middle of a wide-eyed global journey echoing the filmmaker’s own years in exile from his homeland, Palestine. A French producer (played by real-life producer Vincent Maraval, of Wild Bunch) responds to ES’ presence, weighing up a film-production pitch that we haven’t heard but that is, presumably, for the very movie we’re watching.
‘Mr Suleiman, thank you for sharing this project with us,’ begins the producer, proceeding to describe the film as ‘the type of project that interests us’ and his company as having ‘a certain sympathy for the Palestinian cause’. But he politely rejects it anyway. ‘It’s not at all that we want a film that would be too didactic, or exotic, about Palestine,’ he says. ‘But we could almost say your film is not Palestinian enough […] It takes place in Palestine, but it might as well be elsewhere. It could even take place here.’
It Must Be Heaven takes place here, there, everywhere. In journeying from Palestine to Italy, France and the USA, it’s a wandering travelogue that reflects the life of its maker – Suleiman has lived in New York, London and Beirut, and calls ‘this nomadic experience’ a privilegeElia Suleiman, quoted in Anne Bourlond, ‘A Cinema of Nowhere: An Interview with Elia Suleiman’, Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 29, no. 2, Winter 2000, p. 96. – as well as ‘the diasporic experience’ of Palestinians, people scattered and stateless.Elia Suleiman, quoted in Linda Butler, ‘The Occupation (and Life) Through an Absurdist Lens: An Interview with Elia Suleiman’, Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 32, no. 2, Winter 2003, p. 73. Where his three prior fiction features, Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996), Divine Intervention (2002) and The Time That Remains (2009), were all set in the Occupied Territories, here Suleiman expands the canvas to look at both the global political situation and his own life as an internationally renowned filmmaker. In another scene of comic dismissal by a producer, It Must Be Heaven features Gael García Bernal, playing himself, pitching Suleiman to a character known only as ‘American Producer’ (played by another real-life producer, Nancy Grant, who’s actually Canadian). ‘He’s a Palestinian filmmaker,’ García Bernal says, ‘but he makes funny films.’
This has effectively been Suleiman’s rep his entire career, the director making ‘funny films’ whose absurdity reflects the absurdity of life in the Occupied Territories. ‘I didn’t go to study the occupation,’ Suleiman has said. ‘I just happen to live it.’Suleiman, quoted in Butler, op. cit., p. 72. As a comic voice articulating a tragic situation, he’s representing a culture often silenced, becoming a notable Palestinian figure on a global level. ‘Because we still live in this postcolonial discourse, being Palestinian is always attached to my filmmaking,’ the director observes.Elia Suleiman, in ‘Elia Suleiman: “The World Today Has Become a Global Palestine”’, YouTube, 3 December 2019, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CVkkpJMDa8>, accessed 3 August 2020. This makes him important in terms of both his output and his existence: an acclaimed filmmaker from a nation whose very existence is called into question. When producer Humbert Balsan attempted to submit Divine Intervention for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars, he was told that the Academy didn’t recognise Palestine as a nation.The film was allowed to be considered the following year, but didn’t receive a nomination; Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now (2005) and Omar (2013) would later go on to receive Academy Award nominations, the former as a submission from the ‘Palestinian Territories’ and the latter simply as from Palestine. For more on the initial snub, see Benjamin J Doherty & Ali Abunimah, ‘Oscars’ Double Standard Turns Palestinian Film into Refugee’, The Electronic Intifada, 10 December 2002, <https://electronicintifada.net/content/oscars-double-standard-turns-palestinian-film-refugee/4264>, accessed 3 August 2020.
Divine Intervention was the film that announced Suleiman to the cinematic world at large. The movie opens with a sequence in which a group of kids chase a man dressed as Santa Claus; they eventually leave him, stabbed and bleeding, on a hillside outside an abandoned, decaying church. The tone is tragicomic, and the symbolism is palpable – especially when a title card simply announces ‘Nazareth’. That’s Suleiman’s home town: a city in which three religions uneasily coexist, in a tiny enclave surrounded by an ever-encroaching occupying power. Here, we see tiny domestic squabbles – men argue over cars blocking in other cars; an angry old coot and council workers fight over every centimetre of a contested road repair; a resident throws his rubbish over a neighbour’s fence – that loom suggestively when depicting daily life on contested land (the film ends with a shot of a pressure cooker simmering; woah, symbolism).
Divine Intervention’s main ‘narrative’, amid an episodic work of fragmented scenes, finds a pair of lovers from either side of the divide (Suleiman’s ES and an unnamed woman played by Manal Khader) rendezvousing at a car park by a checkpoint, where they sit silently, surreptitiously holding hands. Telling stories without much dialogue, Suleiman says, ‘allows space for the spectator’, creates ‘a place where the poetic can reign’ and ‘fits the idea of Nazareth as a ghetto’, depicting ‘the tension, the powerlessness, the potential of explosion’.Suleiman, quoted in Butler, op. cit., pp. 68–9.
In turn, the two most famous/infamous scenes from Divine Intervention – striking sequences of impish dissidence through which Suleiman made his directorial name – feature little dialogue but a grand explosiveness. In one, ES and ‘The Woman’ sit in a car by a checkpoint. ES inflates a red balloon with a drawing of Yasser Arafat on it, and releases it through the sunroof of his car. The balloon floats towards the border, causing commotion among the Israeli soldiers on guard before passing through the checkpoint and heading straight towards Jerusalem, eventually settling on the golden turret of the Dome of the Rock, the smiling face of Arafat beaming out in the heart of Zionist-claimed territory. In another scene, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers at a firing range shoot at human-shaped targets in Jihadi threads, their military formations becoming comic choreography. Soon, one target comes to life as a magical ninja, hurling star-and-crescent darts and rocks from a slingshot, wiping out a whole IDF troop in a fantastical sequence of sated bloodlust. She levitates Christlike, dodges bullets Neo-like, and even evokes Mortal Kombat as she disappears in puffs of smoke. And when a keffiyeh covering her face unwraps, we see it is ‘The Woman’, and thus ES’ own fantasy. There’s another moment of comic fantasy earlier in the film, in which ES, driving along a highway, tosses an apricot stone out his car window and it blows up an Israeli tank (‘I don’t think there’s anything particularly violent in exploding tanks,’ Suleiman says. ‘I think they should explode all the time.’Elia Suleiman, quoted in Steve Erickson, ‘A Breakdown of Communication: Elia Suleiman Talks About Divine Intervention’, IndieWire, 15 January 2003, <https://www.indiewire.com/2003/01/a-breakdown-of-communication-elie-suleiman-talks-about-divine-intervention-80022/>, accessed 3 August 2020.).
As with all Suleiman’s movies, Divine Intervention consists of a series of discrete comic tableaux and interludes, told with little to no dialogue and a sense of deadpan absurdity. Suleiman is a recurring figure, sitting at the centre of these scenes, at once wide-eyed mime, deeply indebted to Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton; silent observer; and visual totem of his absurdist pictures’ roots in reality. His films are an ongoing ‘self-portrait’, Suleiman offers, albeit one ‘reflecting the reality’ that he sees. ‘What you see is not just factual or my own experience,’ he explains. ‘You start inventing things when you go over life. We invent our childhoods from what we remember. We’re always headed towards fantasy when we describe it.’ibid.
Suleiman was born in Nazareth in 1960. In his childhood, there were ‘lots of taboos about Palestine from our parents and the whole community’, Suleiman recalls. ‘Shin Bet was very powerful in those days, and anybody who so much as mentioned Palestine or Arab nationalism or anything like that would be harassed and could even lose their job.’Suleiman, quoted in Butler, op. cit., p. 67. At twenty, he moved to New York City, and, across years split between the US and Palestine, went on to learn about cinema as a kind of autodidact, cribbing from books on filmmaking from libraries in New York and Haifa. He read about Jean-Luc Godard’s radical thoughts on cinema while still barely acquainted with the artform, and was eventually inspired by directors like Hou Hsiao-hsien, Yasujirō Ozu, Robert Bresson and Michelangelo Antonioni.Dima Choukr, ‘Elia Suleiman: Pure Cinema Is Spontaneous’, The New Arab, 13 October 2015, <https://english.alaraby.co.uk/english/artsandculture/2015/10/13/elia-suleiman-pure-cinema-is-spontaneous>, accessed 3 August 2020. His first directorial works, the short films Introduction to the End of an Argument (1990) and Homage by Assassination (1993), were both essay movies, critiquing American foreign policy regarding the West Bank and the 1991 Gulf War, respectively, through a mixture of appropriated media clips and personal anecdotes.
Suleiman’s first feature, Chronicle of a Disappearance, minted the filmmaker’s particular style. It’s at once a hugely personal portrait of life under occupation for his own family (his real-life parents play his on-screen parents), a heavily symbolic treatise on Palestinian identity and a deadpan comedy of absurd situations. The film is disorienting at first – we begin with an extreme close-up of an old man’s face, barely visible in the darkness – and there’s never any real narrative to speak of. But, through recurring scenes and locations (replayed not just in this movie, but also in future Suleiman films), clarity emerges both in its comic landscape and in the intentions of its director. The discrete tableaux are broken up by endless use of title cards, sometimes on black screens and other times just filmed from lo-res computer monitors. The film is segmented into chapters (‘Part 1: Nazareth, Personal Diary’ and ‘Part II: Jerusalem, Political Diary’), and within there are moments named ‘Tel Aviv: A Stroll Along the Beach’, ‘A Stop at the American Colony’, ‘To Be or Not to Be Palestinian’ and ‘The Hidden Conscience of Estimated Palestine’. That last title turns out to be the name of a never-seen film-within-the-film, which ES is to talk on at a press conference. ‘He chose his homeland for his new film about the peace [process],’ a moderator explains, by way of introduction. ‘We’ll ask him to tell us about his film’s subject, his narrative technique and the cinematographic language he’ll be using.’ Except, when ES is about to begin, the microphone endlessly feeds back, babies start crying and mobile phones ring (one reporter answers it and lies that they’re ‘just having dinner with some friends’), and we never get to hear this silent filmmaking figure actually speak.
Throughout Chronicle of a Disappearance, images of domestic banality (local gossip, old men smoking, people waiting for buses and sitting outside cafes) are offset by news reports detailing, with due symbolic weight, foreign conflicts in Yugoslavia and Algeria. At one point, we overhear conversations among intellectuals at a cafe in Israel. ‘I think that the psychological barrier for the Palestinians is less than that for the Israelis,’ says someone in English. ‘There’s a reality here that is difficult to grasp,’ another offers in French. ‘Never forget, this has been a land of conflicts from the beginning.’ This is Palestine as philosophical conversation, an ‘issue’ to be talked about: a conceptualisation that stands in contrast to the often-banal reality of life under occupation. A young woman, Adan (Ula Tabari), battles a more direct prejudice: she’s unable to find a room to rent due to the fact that she’s an Arab (even though she ‘speaks Hebrew so well!’). Later on, she comes into possession of a lost police walkie-talkie (first found by ES) and starts calling in false reports, sending soldiers on wild-goose chases as a form of impish civil dissidence. In their first attempt to seize the rogue device, these forces raid ES’ house; he sits comically eating spaghetti while his belongings are turned over (this echoes other scenes of over-the-top militarism in Suleiman’s films, such as in The Time That Remains when a tank on a suburban street follows a man with its giant mechanised gun turret as he takes rubbish out to his bin and then answers a phone call; and in It Must Be Heaven, when five French police officers tail a slow-walking geriatric woman, or when a girl wearing angel wings in Central Park is pursued by an all-American SWAT team for daring to sport a Palestinian flag on her costume).
Chronicle of a Disappearance ends with a glorious, droll sequence wherein the local TV broadcast is shown closing down for the night, signing off with a proud rendition of the national anthem over an image of a fluttering Israeli flag. After we take in the whole patriotic spectacle, Suleiman stages a comic reverse cut to reveal his parents asleep on the couch, oblivious to the whole thing. The film’s final title card is a dedication: ‘To My Mother and Father, the Last Homeland’. His parents return in Divine Intervention, in which his father (played, this time, by Nayef Fahoum Daher) has, like the man in the Santa Claus costume, been hospitalised. In a meta-movie gesture that’s hugely poignant, we see ES at home in front of a wall of post-it notes, which seemingly stand in for scenes in the movie we’re watching. Early on, we see him move a note that says ‘Father falls sick’; later, when he tearfully pulls off a note that reads ‘Father dies’, we intuit that the latter has indeed passed away, both on screen and off. ‘When my father died, I flew to Paris and started to write the segment dealing with [his] sickness,’ Suleiman explained. ‘All the scenes in the hospital were inspired by my experiences there.’Suleiman, quoted in Erickson, op. cit.
In The Time That Remains, he draws from his father’s journals and his mother’s letters, turning family history into a history of Palestine (though the film’s subtitle, ‘Chronicle of a Present Absentee’, also nods at his many years in exile). After a symbolic prologue in which a taxi driver, car running on empty, gets lost in the newly razed landscape of annexed land – ending up repeating, ‘Where am I?’ – we go back to 1948. There, we see Israeli soldiers marching upon Galilee as an invading army, offering ‘liberation’ (‘Rid yourself of the armed gangs who are oppressing you and help the Israeli Army to bring peace to this part of Palestine!’ loudspeakers trumpet) in the form of occupation. While scenes of Nazis marching, jackboots gleaming, had long reached a place of filmic familiarity by 2009, Suleiman’s image of invading Israeli forces was a defiant, never-before-seen riposte. Early scenes in The Time That Remains are based on first-person testimonies of life on the ground in 1948: from soldiers looting houses to the virtuous suicides of local revolutionaries (‘I want no life if we’re not respected in our land,’ one says) to the experiences of Suleiman’s father, Fuad (Saleh Bakri), covertly arming locals.
But, soon, we jump forward in time, to little ES’ (Zuhair Abu Hanna) misadventures in school (saying America is colonialist in class? That’s a paddlin’), and to a new, neutered era in which threatening self-immolation for the glory of Palestine is something old windbags do but never follow through on. As we see the same locations (houses, cafes, auto-repair shops, the Holy Land souvenir stand) from previous pictures, the static lives of those living in Palestine are juxtaposed against the remorseless forward march of time, both personally (his parents ageing, then dying) and nationally (from invasion to intifada). ‘I refuse linear histories,’ Suleiman says. ‘I depart from a certain grounding of truth into an aesthetic dimension.’Elia Suleiman, quoted in Steve Rose, ‘Elia Suleiman: Stories My Father Told Me’, The Guardian, 16 June 2010, <https://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/jun/15/elia-suleiman-interview>, 3 August 2020. The Time That Remains is a film, the director explains, about ‘an occupation of the geography of Palestine, and an occupation of the souls of those who live there’.Elia Suleiman, quoted in Sabah Haider, ‘“A Different Kind of Occupation”: An Interview with Elia Suleiman’, The Electronic Intifada, 1 February 2010, <https://electronicintifada.net/content/different-kind-occupation-interview-elia-suleiman/8654>, accessed 3 August 2020. Its title hangs heavily, suggesting things beyond its own existence: the dwindling days of Suleiman’s own life, of the dream of a free Palestine and of life on Earth. ‘It’s a warning sign regarding a global situation […] of things running out. Of time running out. Of the fact that maybe it’s already too late. From the melting ice to the cleansing of any form of justice,’ the filmmaker says. ‘The Arab–Israeli conflict is the world’s conflict and vice-versa […] Palestine has multiplied and generated into so many Palestines.’ibid. Emphasis removed.
Though it arrived a whole decade after The Time That Remains, It Must Be Heaven picks up on this thematic idea. If all of Suleiman’s films are ‘chronicles’, this one is of what he calls the ‘global “Palestinianisation” of the state of things’: the rise, and perpetuation, of state violence, police states, surveillance of citizens, discrimination against ethnic groups. ‘Basically, the class and economic gap, migration, anxiety and violence [… and] discrimination,’ Suleiman says.Elia Suleiman, quoted in Kaleem Aftab, ‘Elia Suleiman • Director of It Must Be Heaven’, Cineuropa, 25 May 2019, <https://cineuropa.org/en/interview/373270/>, accessed 3 August 2020. ‘The situation doesn’t look really great for whatever department you consider, if it’s from the political to the economic to the ecosystem,’ he describes, elsewhere. ‘There’s tension everywhere, and there’s states of emergency everywhere, and there’s police everywhere.’Suleiman, in ‘Elia Suleiman: “The World Today Has Become a Global Palestine”’, op. cit.
With frontal tableaux and endless visual uses of frames-within-frames, It Must Be Heaven’s grim portrait of contemporary life is, of course, comic and symbolic. There’s a New York City in which every citizen is armed with assault weapons, and a Paris where tanks roll down streets, skies are filled with watching helicopters and stealth fighter planes, and open celebrations of militarism reign. Back in Nazareth, neighbours squabble over lemon trees and ill-prepared chicken while the watchful occupying forces forever linger in frame, routinely making meaningless shows of force by way of their flashing sirens.
In New York, ES is set to talk to a class of film students (all in Halloween costumes), though, of course, we never hear him say a word. Instead, it’s left to others to say aloud the sentiments carrying the movie’s themes. A local barfly says, in Arabic, that ‘everyone else in the world drinks to forget; [Palestinians] are the only ones who drink to remember’. ES gets his fortune told by a tarot reader (Stephen McHattie), who does no less than divine the future for a Palestinian nation. ‘There will be Palestine,’ he says. ‘It’s gonna happen. But it ain’t gonna happen in your lifetime, or mine.’ The film, in turn, ends with ES having come full circle, now back home. After he crosses paths again with colourful neighbourhood characters and local authorities, the final scene finds him sitting – silently, as ever – in a bar. As ES looks on forlornly, a host of young people dance to Yuri Mrakadi’s perennial pro-Arabic dance hit ‘Arabiyon Ana’. In their revelry, these young folk possess the joy and optimism that ES has lost; they are the ones who may get to see the liberation that Suleiman will not. As they dance into the night eternal, a simple title card announces the end of the film: ‘To Palestine’.
|1||Elia Suleiman, quoted in Anne Bourlond, ‘A Cinema of Nowhere: An Interview with Elia Suleiman’, Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 29, no. 2, Winter 2000, p. 96.|
|2||Elia Suleiman, quoted in Linda Butler, ‘The Occupation (and Life) Through an Absurdist Lens: An Interview with Elia Suleiman’, Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 32, no. 2, Winter 2003, p. 73.|
|3||Suleiman, quoted in Butler, op. cit., p. 72.|
|4||Elia Suleiman, in ‘Elia Suleiman: “The World Today Has Become a Global Palestine”’, YouTube, 3 December 2019, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CVkkpJMDa8>, accessed 3 August 2020.|
|5||The film was allowed to be considered the following year, but didn’t receive a nomination; Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now (2005) and Omar (2013) would later go on to receive Academy Award nominations, the former as a submission from the ‘Palestinian Territories’ and the latter simply as from Palestine. For more on the initial snub, see Benjamin J Doherty & Ali Abunimah, ‘Oscars’ Double Standard Turns Palestinian Film into Refugee’, The Electronic Intifada, 10 December 2002, <https://electronicintifada.net/content/oscars-double-standard-turns-palestinian-film-refugee/4264>, accessed 3 August 2020.|
|6||Suleiman, quoted in Butler, op. cit., pp. 68–9.|
|7||Elia Suleiman, quoted in Steve Erickson, ‘A Breakdown of Communication: Elia Suleiman Talks About Divine Intervention’, IndieWire, 15 January 2003, <https://www.indiewire.com/2003/01/a-breakdown-of-communication-elie-suleiman-talks-about-divine-intervention-80022/>, accessed 3 August 2020.|
|9||Suleiman, quoted in Butler, op. cit., p. 67.|
|10||Dima Choukr, ‘Elia Suleiman: Pure Cinema Is Spontaneous’, The New Arab, 13 October 2015, <https://english.alaraby.co.uk/english/artsandculture/2015/10/13/elia-suleiman-pure-cinema-is-spontaneous>, accessed 3 August 2020.|
|11||Suleiman, quoted in Erickson, op. cit.|
|12||Elia Suleiman, quoted in Steve Rose, ‘Elia Suleiman: Stories My Father Told Me’, The Guardian, 16 June 2010, <https://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/jun/15/elia-suleiman-interview>, 3 August 2020.|
|13||Elia Suleiman, quoted in Sabah Haider, ‘“A Different Kind of Occupation”: An Interview with Elia Suleiman’, The Electronic Intifada, 1 February 2010, <https://electronicintifada.net/content/different-kind-occupation-interview-elia-suleiman/8654>, accessed 3 August 2020.|
|14||ibid. Emphasis removed.|
|15||Elia Suleiman, quoted in Kaleem Aftab, ‘Elia Suleiman • Director of It Must Be Heaven’, Cineuropa, 25 May 2019, <https://cineuropa.org/en/interview/373270/>, accessed 3 August 2020.|
|16||Suleiman, in ‘Elia Suleiman: “The World Today Has Become a Global Palestine”’, op. cit.|