Elia Suleiman’s fourth fiction feature in 23 years (he has also made a documentary and a handful of shorts) is perhaps his most beautiful and most perfectly formed yet. It won a prize at Cannes in 2019 and finally reached the UK in Summer 2021. The film works on two levels. On the surface it is a deadpan, absurdist silent movie which follows Suleiman himself (‘ES’) as the central character, a filmmaker who travels from Nazareth to Paris and to New York/Montreal. But this ‘comedy’ is underpinned by a sometimes obvious, but often disguised, critique of not just the Israeli occupation of Palestine but also the ways in which Palestine’s situation is viewed in Europe and North America. There is also a ‘third dimension’ in which the kinds of oppression felt in Palestine are also spreading in other cultures but are not always understood in the same way. Suleiman himself offers us this explanation:
If my previous films tried to present Palestine as a microcosm of the world; my new film It Must Be Heaven tries to show the world as if it were a microcosm of Palestine. (from the film’s Press Pack.)
This statement perhaps doesn’t make immediate sense, but it is worth pondering and thinking through as the incidents during Suleiman’s journey play out. I suspect that different audiences will react differently towards what they see on screen. Some of these differences are evident in the (generally very positive) reviews of the film. However, a good example of what I mean is that some reviewers and scholars still persist in referring to Suleiman’s comedy as based on or similar to Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati. I like Keaton very much and though I don’t know Tati’s films very well, I can understand to some extent why these references are used. But there are three problems here.
The first is that Suleiman himself says that he has not been influenced by these two film artists and that if he has been influenced by other directors it is Ozu and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Second, Keaton and Tati have been seen as creating ‘universal’ characters understood through their mute responses to the trials and tribulations of the situations in which they find themselves. It is often their actions that trigger the chaos around them. Suleiman is quite different. He is a passive observer, he doesn’t get involved – the craziness is ‘out there’ and he just watches. In this film he speaks just once, to a taxi driver, and acts only to command a small bird to leave him alone when he is writing. Significantly, he breaks his rule of passivity on only one other occasion when he engages with a security official at the airport in a hilarious spoof of martial arts combat. I think this might be a reference back to one of his earlier films in which he pole-vaults over the security wall which divides Israel from the West Bank.
Elia Suleiman has an unusual history. He was born into a Palestinian Orthodox Christian family in Nazareth in 1960. He has always maintained his Palestinian identity. He lived in New York as a young man (1981-93) where he began his involvement in filmmaking. Later he set up a Film and Media course at Birzeit University in the West Bank as part of a European-funded project in 1994. His feature films from 1996 onwards have been funded from various international sources and usually co-ordinated through Paris where he has based himself for the last twenty years or so. It Must Be Heaven thus presents not a ‘voyage of discovery’ but rather a set of observations linking contemporary Nazareth with what Suleiman sees as the changing worlds of Paris and New York (I’m assuming some of the New York scenes were shot in Montreal for funding purposes). Anyone who has seen Suleiman’s earlier films will also note that he makes references back to his own films and his own history and to his collaborations with others.
The character Suleiman plays in It Must Be Heaven is perhaps a version of himself, as a filmmaker travelling abroad and looking for funding. There is the suggestion that someone in his Nazareth family has died and this refers us back to his previous film The Time That Remains (2009) which engages with his family history from the time of the 1948 war which saw Nazareth ‘incorporated’ in the new state of Israel. Suleiman is an actor in several of his own films and also one of the guests in a fantasy sequence featuring in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako (Mali-France 2006). It’s no surprise then to find other directors and film industry figures popping up in Suleiman’s films. Vincent Maraval, the co-founder of Wild Bunch and a prolific producer ,appears as a film producer and Grégoire Colin, an actor associated strongly with Claire Denis, as a menacing man on the Metro, both appear in the Paris segment of It Must Be Heaven. In New York, Suleiman is greeted by the actor-director Gael García Bernal in the foyer of a film production office. This is an important scene partly because of Bernal’s dialogue (he refers to his friend the ‘Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman’).
It Must Be Heaven has a very distinctive aesthetic. The cinematography by Sofian El Fani is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.66:1 according to IMDb. This is wider than even original CinemaScope (2.55:1). El Fani’s work on Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (2014) included some memorable compositions in ‘extreme long shots’. In It Must Be Heaven, there are many wide shots, though perhaps not so many extreme long shots. But many compositions are geometrically designed with Suleiman himself central in the image, i.e. either central in the frame or with a POV which is from a central position. Suleiman’s aim as stated in the Press Pack is to present:
. . . the moment in the margin, the trivial, or that which is usually out of focus. Consequently, it approaches what is intimate, tender and touching. It’s the personal and human stories that are based on identification which raise questions and raise hope.
A good example is the sequence in Paris which focuses on a square with an ornamental pool and fountain around which various people are enjoying sitting in the sunshine. Suleiman watches on as others arrive and try to find an empty seat, sometimes moving the chairs around. There are small acts of rudeness and meanness in this sequence, as well as less offensive struggles to find a chair. Any reading of the film has to try to connect together the different observations in Paris and New York with those in Nazareth. To give just one example, in Nazareth Suleiman watches as his neighbour steals/takes without permission lemons from Suleiman’s tree. This has obvious connotations about the daily small acts of theft by Israelis, supported by their government, which sees Arab houses in the West Bank demolished, especially currently in East Jerusalem, and eventually replaced by houses for Israelis. Suleiman is arguing that some similar kinds of issues to those in Palestine are beginning to be experienced by Parisians and New Yorkers. They are relatively benign at the moment but the connections are there. I should emphasise that Suleiman doesn’t speak during his observations but some are accompanied by an eclectic range of music tracks including a song by his partner Yasmine Hamdan and other Arab performers plus Leonard Cohen and Nina Simone (singing ‘I Put a Spell on You’ – the same song appeared in an earlier Suleiman film sung by Natacha Atlas). It Must Be Heaven is a film to watch, admire and re-watch. The trailer below offers glimpses of several of the extended sight gags, pointing to another issue – how Suleiman’s films are promoted to international audiences. The film is on several streaming services, including MUBI – which also offers 7 Days in Havana (Cuba-Spain-France 2012) including a segment by Suleiman which in some ways pre-figures It Must Be Heaven.