It Must Be Heaven, directed by Elia Suleiman (2019)
On stage at a New York film school observed by sulky students dressed in animal onesies, the film director Elia Suleiman, playing himself as the film director Elia Suleiman, is being interviewed.
The long-winded, nose-blowing interviewer asks Suleiman to speak about the ways of being and feeling that have, or have not, permitted him to achieve the conditions of becoming what he could call a citizen of the world.
Could it be, asks the interviewer, as a man dressed as a badger walks in, cocks back his head and walks out again, that Suleiman’s sense of identity and place is a thing of the past? Has his nomadic existence extinguished his love of one place and extended it to a love of all places?
In other words, the man questions, his finger pointed straight at the camera and at Suleiman’s polite but vulnerable face, has this, in fact, made him a perfect stranger?
There is much in Suleiman’s latest film that is perfect, and as much that is strange. It articulates through silence with a moody, funky soundtrack assembled by the singer Yasmine Hamdan (Suleiman’s longtime collaborator and spouse). The gentle narrative functions like a slow-burning short story: Suleiman handles poignancy like a drug, administering it in small doses.
It Must Be Heaven, Suleiman’s fourth feature-length film, once again sees the director as the protagonist, moving between Nazareth, Paris and New York.
Suleiman is introduced in his hometown of Nazareth, in a flat lined with sepia portraits. A clock ticks. He transplants a potted lemon tree into the garden. An older man stops him in the street to tell him of a snake that he met while hunting that bows to him after the animal inflates the tires of his jeep. Energetic movers empty the flat with checklists as Suleiman looks on, irrelevant.
The room Suleiman left in Nazareth wordlessly reveals a death after protracted ill health that occurred before the story begins: a wheelchair is folded against the wall, a drip stands like a gallows. If it must be heaven, maybe Suleiman has departed already or it could be it is the loss that has underscored the sense of an ending.
With the Nazareth flat cleared out, Suleiman leaves on a journey of observation across seas where settings change, but his outfits (straw hat, waistcoat, jacket), props (cigarettes, glass of alcohol) and sense of alienation remain the same. The film imbues its audience with a sense of disorientation and loss, laughing at the familiarity of the uncanny, the ubiquity of the absurd.
Suleiman, resembling Charlie Chaplin or Jacques Tati in his silent observation of the world unfolding around him, is often seen waiting. Time shifts, jumps and expands in his films and is mentioned explicitly in the title of his last Cannes Film Festival entrant, The Time That Remains (2009). That was the final film in his semi-autobiographical trilogy, following Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996) and Divine Intervention (2002).
Mortality weighs on the way that time is measured in Suleiman’s films, and death is omnipresent.
Like in Nazareth, death appears in New York, this time in fancy dress, where a man dressed as the grim reaper eats a falafel sandwich, his stare fixed on Suleiman. Its shadow alters the quality of time and sharpens the harshness and beauty of that which remains.
There are fences, guns, police and all the other machinery of state in Paris and New York as well as in Suleiman’s Palestine. The lost world in this film is not just Suleiman’s national homeland as referred to obliquely by the interviewer at the film school, the Palestine to which the film is dedicated, but a place of deeper human connectivity, a past world.
Love, beauty and freedom are ever-present in Suleiman’s film, but they are walled off, criminalized, surveilled and tightly controlled. A young Ahed Tamimi-like girl with pre-Raphaelite curls sits blindfolded in the back of an Israeli police car. A lone man holding a bunch of roses is chased by Parisian police riding one-wheeled Segway Ninebots. An angel is pinned to the ground by armed police in New York’s Central Park.
The fractious mental jumble that globalization gives rise to is shown in curious juxtapositions throughout the film. African pilgrims film each other praying at shrines in Nazareth and a New York cab driver gives Suleiman a free ride because he loves “Carafat” (a mispronunciation of Arafat).
Global current of dispossession
Suleiman is not the first to take up the interconnected, disjunctive world of a 21st-century privileged wanderer. But his Palestinianness, the fact that his homeland is being distanced from him, systematically and brutally, adds a greater potency to what has become a familiar trope. Palestinians appear as forerunners in a global current of dispossession, suffering not just politically but personally as a result.
In Paris, Suleiman meets with a producer wearing a T-shirt adorned with a carton of french fries reading “TELL ME.” The producer rejects Suleiman’s film concept because it is just not Palestinian enough to comply with their editorial policy.
Here, the demand placed on artists to universalize and humanize the particularities of their cultural experiences is thrown back at Suleiman. For the problem is, the producer explains, “the events in this film could take place anywhere, even here!” The producer, getting no response, asks Suleiman, “Did you get it?”
Yes, even here, Suleiman seems to say as he directs the camera to hone in on people across the globe whose lives seem held together by their dependence on booze and cigarettes. Signs of community, noticeability and harmony among people are the precarious manifestations of inebriated jubilation, barely concealing the violence and bitterness that is ready to burst forth.
Only the state’s apparatus, and catwalk models on screens, move with confidence, order, purpose; all else is unsteady, messy, isolated. In his Paris room arranged with obsessive neatness, Suleiman gives water to a sparrow that befriends him. But when the bird gets too needy, it is too much of an attachment for this protagonist to bear and he shows it to the window.
Selma Dabbagh is a British-Palestinian writer of fiction.