It Must Be Heaven Elia Suleiman

Palestinian director Elia Suleiman on playing himself in It Must Be Heaven

Suleiman on his new film, his legacy and making comedy from a place few expect laughs to spring from.

Elia Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven is very much along the lines of the Palestinian director’s other works. In it, Suleiman plays a version of himself: a silent, deadpan filmmaker who, more often than not, exists in the world without exactly affecting it. Suleiman’s character, whom the filmmaker refers to as “director” in conversation, observes the world around him silently. It Must Be Heaven unfolds as a series of vignettes that’s ostensibly about the director wanting to leave his native Palestine and find a place to live, which at least partially hinges on which country might give him the funding to make his next movie. He goes to France and eventually New York (most of those sequences were actually shot here in Montreal, as the film is a co-production with Possibles Médias) in search of funding, observing droll and unusual situations from coast to coast.

In one sequence, a French producer (played by Vincent Maraval) explains that he has chosen to pass on Suleiman’s project because it doesn’t deal with war and armed conflict — in other words, it just isn’t “Palestinian enough.” 

“Oh yeah, big time,” says Suleiman when asked if he faced similar struggles. “It was at the time where I was trying to produce my first film. And, actually, this kind of “not Palestinian enough” stuff happened in France. My films don’t necessarily talk about things that happened recently, but they can be transformed into some kind of present. So it becomes about the premise of the narrative — the director is not only trying to find a home for himself, but also trying to make a film, which is a film about exactly that subject itself. In the New York segment, there’s this art school — also something that happened. You can say that something happened and none of it actually happened, it doesn’t matter. Everything in my films has some kind of roots in reality. It’s transformed into something else.”

Suleiman’s films are unusual in their unorthodox orthodoxy, meaning that they are all more or less paced similarly and hold the same sense of humour, but adhere to particular rules. Some of the scenes are a clear setup-punchline-joke system, while others are simply wry observations. It’s not unlike the work of Roy Andersson in its construction, though the filmmaker that Suleiman is most often compared to is Jacques Tati. Nevertheless, watching his films, one gets the idea that they are a careful curation of a well of endless ideas — like Suleiman simply gathers ideas and molds them into a film, rather than sitting down and writing a series of comic observations and visual setpieces. (Suleiman’s writing process is literalized in the film, though I could not guess exactly just how accurate it turned out to be.)

“I wish you were right!” he says. “It’s completely the opposite. I have so few ideas. I wish I was someone else! The closest resemblance is imagining a painter in a gallery that has like 150 or 200 canvases and he’s going from one place to another and he keeps just painting and scratching and pigmenting. That’s exactly how I write the script. I have notes which I put on the wall on little Post-Its, and I sit down and imagine it. (…) I’m always in close proximity of the narrative with this filmmaker as well. The director is always Palestinian, always on some kind of voyage. The voyage in (It Must Be Heaven) is a very geographic one, whereas before the voyages were more interior.

“There is a very precise direction, and I would even say some very precise movements, that I jot down into the script,” he continues. “X goes from right to left, or whatever, can sometimes be indicated already. What’s left is what’s normally left for many directors — the possibilities and the limitations on the set, because the set itself might inspire something for the movie or a part of the gag that becomes more inspired before the shoot. That’s when there is stuff added — and gets everybody in trouble, actually. (laughs) It costs time and money, and everyone just goes ‘Oh, here he comes again!’”

I bring up seeing his film Divine Intervention in 2002, at a screening at the university in Chicoutimi, where I remember palpable discomfort from the older, tonier, white crowd who had clearly not expected this “Palestinian movie” to be a quirky, deadpan comedy. It has been almost 20 years and yet I still vividly remember the crowd’s reaction when the film revealed itself to not be at all about war, turmoil and torture.

“The world moves in very funny directions,” says Suleiman. “For some reason, we’re always hoping for something better — and we get something better. We cannot say that we don’t. There is a way that all the things we are talking about — post-colonial history, let’s say — you think that we’ve gotten rid of some of that. And we have, in some sort of way, but then it enters from another window. I’m not surprised of your story, or of the story of the guy in the movie who says that the movie is not Palestinian enough, or even of people who saw this movie and thought, ‘Oh, well, the Nazareth part isn’t long enough, I would have liked to see more of that.’ We’re not rid completely of post-colonial discourse, and of course it’s everywhere we go. Not just in the Occident — I can tell you, self-colonizing is also happening in the Orient.”

The particular nature of Suleiman’s work has drawn controversy mainly due to people’s expectations of what Palestinian cinema should be — that this kind of conflict and turmoil could not possibly be depicted as a comedy, even one as guarded and deadpan as It Must Be Heaven. (It must be said that the film is, obviously, not entirely devoid of politics — but that Elia Suleiman is not exactly Oliver Stone, either.)

“I’m not exactly a victim,” says Suleiman. “Maybe my first film. I suffered a lot from this kind of aggressive attack. In the Occident, they thought, ‘He’s faking, because it’s funny. How come it’s funny? Palestinians are not supposed to laugh.’ In the Arab world, the establishment accused me of being a collaborator with the Zionist entities and all of the clichés that that entails. I was fatwa’d for my first film! (laughs) Now, I still see the residue of how people kind of thought that as long as I remained in my own sort of compartment out there in the jungle, it was fine. If I left my geography, so to speak, and made a movie in the land of those who ‘run the show,’ that produces a few problems, probably. You have your borders and now you’re transgressing. I have to say that I did not face that with the public. I faced it in a very convoluted fashion with the gatekeepers of cinema. They were sort of… ‘Okay, it was funny when you were back home, but don’t get funny over here.’ (laughs)” ■

It Must Be Heaven opens at Cinéma Moderne (5150 St-Laurent) today, July 3. Watch the trailer here:

It Must Be Heaven by Elia Suleiman

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