“Palestinisation is everywhere”: Elia Suleiman on It Must Be Heaven

The deadpan tragi-comedian talks about his new film It Must Be Heaven, the violence and trauma that has followed him from Palestine to Paris, and why he finds hope in his younger post-national compatriots.

15 June 2021

By Nick Chen

Elia Suleiman as E.S. in It Must Be Heaven (2019)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ It Must Be Heaven is screening in UK cinemas and streaming on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema from 18 June 2021.

While some writer-directors give themselves the best lines, Elia Suleiman has uttered three words in his four self-starring, feature-length films.

Significantly, those trio of words all appear in the Palestinian auteur’s latest tragicomedy, It Must Be Heaven. As usual, Suleiman plays his alter ego, E.S., except here he breaks his silence when questioned about his home country by a New York taxi driver. “Nazareth,” E.S. replies, then adding, “I’m Palestinian.”

For the rest of It Must Be Heaven, which won the Jury Special Mention award at Cannes in 2019, E.S. slots neatly into meticulously choreographed mise-en-scène as a hat-wearing, eyebrow-raising observer. The loose plot consists of E.S. flying around the world to pitch movie projects. In Paris, Vincent Maraval of Wild Bunch, satirising himself, complains, “Your film is not Palestinian enough… It takes place in Palestine, but it might as well be everywhere.”

But like Divine Intervention (2002) and The Time That Remains (2009), It Must Be Heaven is really a series of comic vignettes that juxtapose everyday poetry with everyday violence. In one whimsical sequence, a bird refuses to leave E.S.’s laptop; in another, two soldiers trade sunglasses in a car until the camera reveals a blindfolded woman in the backseat.

Meanwhile, E.S. observes that the violence of Palestine is following him across the globe. Or, as the real Suleiman told me, pre-COVID, at the 2019 London Film Festival, it’s “the Palestinisation of the world”.

Here, in an edited transcript, Suleiman proves to be so chatty in person that he makes other directors look like E.S..

Nancy Grant as a film producer, Elia Suleiman as E.S. and Gael García Bernal as himself in It Must Be Heaven

Gael García Bernal introduces you to a producer with: “He’s a Palestinian filmmaker, but he makes funny films.” Are these exchanges real quotes?

Absolutely. This is a direct quote from a huge American producer who introduced me to Clint Eastwood. He was the head of Warner Bros, and told Clint, “He’s Palestinian, but he makes funny films.” Clint winked at me and said, “Well, shit happens.”

Were you pitching a film to Warner Bros?

Warner Bros wanted to produce a film of mine. I said, “Why do you want to do this?” They said, “It’s good for the catalogue.” It’s not feasible that Warners, in America, would want to produce a film of mine unless I made a film that is theirs, you know? So I cut it short.

It Must Be Heaven is kind of a New York film, though.

It’s still not the commercial film I would have been asked to make. But literally every single line you hear in the film is something I’ve heard. I just transfer them cinematically.

So in your film, the world is connected by violence.

It’s what triggered the making of it. Global violence is the state of exception that everyone lives in. And having myself lived everywhere, I’ve taken in this Palestinisation of the world, where it’s no longer just in local geopolitical areas – it’s actually everywhere you go.

We’ve become traumatised by the sound of sirens. I wait sometimes to see that it’s an ambulance or the fire department, and not a police car. Because when you live in Paris, after we’ve witnessed what we’ve witnessed [in November 2015, when coordinated terrorist attacks killed 130 people] – it’s still with me now. When I’m in the apartment and I hear a siren, I say, “Oh, no, please, not again.”

This film speaks about how hell broke loose in Palestine, where now we’ve had, for so many decades, a very well-composed and mature form of fascism that the world still treats as if it was normal day-to-day life. And then this character turns his back to this violence, and goes to see an alternative place to live in. As I did.

I’m talking about things I’ve lived through, like what happened in Paris. You’re traumatised, because now the violence is chasing you wherever you go. I was really traumatised. I have not spoken about it too much in person. Maybe with my wife. But not really deeply enough to scrutinise the emotion that I still maintain out of what happened in France in that moment. You live a double trauma.

Elia Suleiman in It Must Be Heaven

You show both sides of Paris. There’s the fashion show with Cara Delevingne, but also homelessness.

He comes to see paradise, and it turns out to be another form of global violence. It’s a pretext: fashion and beautiful girls. But the day after, the streets are empty. He doesn’t realise it’s the 14th of July [France’s Bastille Day holiday]. It’s a pretext to establish the bond with Paris – with Arabs running away from the police, and tanks roaming the streets.

The silences, and the breaking of the silence, in your films always add a lot of tension to the humour.

There’s so much pleasure in composing the sound. Many times, it’s the sound that actually stays in your mind, from the souvenir of an image. I always think of sound as not the background, but parallel to the image.

You get compared to Jacques Tati. Can you tell a lot about someone by who they bring up? Like, if I said Mr Bean…

[Shakes head.] No. He’s too clichéd. I’m more Tati and Buster Keaton. I’m not inspired by them – everybody thinks that. I made films before I knew who they were. But I love what they do, and it’s very flattering.

So me saying Mr Bean, you take as an insult?

I don’t care for him. Maybe if you’re watching him on TV while eating Chinese noodles. Some of his stuff is funny. But Peter Sellers is someone whose films tickle me, because they’re sometimes really complex gags.

Elia Suleiman as E.S. in It Must Be Heaven

When your character visits the gay bar at the end of It Must Be Heaven, it reminded me of the clubbing scene in The Time That Remains. It’s very cathartic to see people jumping around.

The last scene in the film comes back to my identification with the new generation of Palestinians who have stripped themselves of nationalism, and have become activists. It’s exactly the concept that I’ve been toiling with myself all these decades of becoming a citizen of the world. They have become citizens of the world, actually, from their own positioning, without having to travel, because they’re now conscious that Palestine is a concept of gender equality, a concept of being progressive, and a concept of building identifications with all injustices in the world.

I look at them with a positive sense of hope, because they are manifesting their resistance with cultural diversity and with the manifestation of, let’s say, festive ambiences. So their resistance to occupation is dancing against the oppressors. You cannot arrest people who are being creative. Of course, you can always put a poet in jail. But you cannot arrest the poetry.

So you think young people are going to save the world?

I wish I were 30 years younger. What the younger generation are doing today, I’m envious of. The people you see in the last scene are people I witnessed myself during the shooting. Something synchronised between the emotion I was building inside of me, and then confronting them. I had not met those people.

Other people on the shoot told me Haifa has the most beautiful bars. We went on a tour and I got so slammed. At 3am, at the end of the night, the last bar was a gay and lesbian bar. I kept on drinking and watching. And I thought, “This is the last scene of the film, for sure.” It was great. It was completely in sync with my feeling and sentiment. It came to me like a destined scene.

Further reading

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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