For more than twenty years, the Palestinian director Elia Suleiman has been developing one of the most fascinating bodies of work in modern cinema. On the one hand, his movies—including Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996), Divine Intervention (2002) and The Time That Remains (2009)—are droll, deadpan comedies that at times recall the films of Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati, with Suleiman himself often at the center as a quiet, bemused, occasionally melancholy protagonist and observer. But the absurdities in these pictures come from somewhere deadly serious: the surreal texture of life in Palestine under Israeli occupation.
The director’s latest, It Must Be Heaven, which just premiered at Cannes, remains true to his offbeat sensibilities while expanding his canvas. The film finds Suleiman’s character leaving his home in Nazareth to live in France and then the United States. But what he finds on distant shores is just as bizarre as life back home. In Paris he sees military parades and silly displays of patriotism alongside cops dancing on Segways, while in the US, he finds a supermarket filled with shoppers nonchalantly carrying assault rifles, machine guns, and six-shooters. Although the director often pushes these vignettes to extremes, he also notes that most of them come from real experiences in his own life. I recently had the chance to sit down with Suleiman and discuss his latest film ahead of its Cannes premiere.
The character you play is a version of yourself named Elia Suleiman, and his experience reflects your own self-imposed exile. Why does he leave Palestine?
The first departure comes from the status quo of living in the place where you live—in my case it is Nazareth, and my first departure was when I was a teenager. Nazareth is just a small town that is surrounded by what they now call Israeli “towns,” which are in fact settlements. You see that your self-searching is blocked in the place that you are—and the racism and the suppression and the ghettoizing puts you in a place where if you want to breathe or have a little more horizon in your life, you absolutely have to leave. And leave means leave the whole place—because where would you go in Israel? So, you start to look for yourself elsewhere. Then, after that, bigger questions come: Where do I want to be? And the answer to that question is a shifting experience. This is where you become more and more nomadic—and the more you think that you want to land somewhere, the more you see that space is open.
But today the bizarre factor is that this “where I want to be” has basically shrunk. If you think, now, “Where do I want to live?” the first place has gone down, and the second place is no longer feasible, and the third has become racist or oppressive or violent. And the world is, more and more, going in that direction. So it becomes more difficult for us, a generation that is crossing boundaries. When you are in an airport, you can see this quite clearly. Just look at the different gates, and where people are heading. It becomes a metaphor.
And yet, this might also be the funniest film you’ve done, as well as the most choreographed. At times I felt like I was watching a musical.
I felt a sense of liberation when I was writing the script. I’ve wanted to do this kind of film for a while—one that goes to the edge with the burlesque, and with the choreographic elements. I had been yearning to have this légèreté—to achieve something extremely political and extremely light. I had this sensation long ago, maybe two decades ago—that a film like this needs to be made. I had no idea how it would get done. In most cases, I use real moments as departure points—they come from personal experience. The accumulation of [material from] this nomadic existence made up what this film is now. It’s a film for now, judging by the state of things in which we live. There are so many of us around the world living a bizarre existence of not knowing where we are heading.
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