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.
Given how horrible everything is, how exactly do you achieve this lightness that you speak of?
This is my funniest, most burlesque work, and that is probably a result of how desperate things are. As we know, humor itself is a form of relief, a form of resistance, and it also creates a certain rupture in time. The punchline/rupture, this euphoric moment of laughter, creates a vacuum in which you can meditate. At the end of your laughter, there’s a painful moment that follows—and that painful moment is itself a question mark. You ask yourself why, and what can be done about it.
So you give yourself space in which to imagine a better world, in a way?
It has a lot to do with what you do when you actually daydream, when you sit in a solitary fashion and dive into your interiority. Most of the time you want to share, you want to be consoled, you want to have a moment of tenderness. In light of how violent the situation has become, we have an even more fierce need of tenderness. You read poetry and you want to recite it, because you want to regain some of the faith that you have lost. This is a moment for you of being hopeful: “No, I’m still able to have some tenderness and love.” In order to protect this territory you might also think of how to change this violence and pacify it one way or another. But the film does not offer you any such resolutions, it just offers you this poetic moment and this rupture in time.
There’s a very funny scene when your character goes to a production company where he is told that his project is “not Palestinian enough.” I assume this comes from real life? And if so, how do you deal with something like that?
It was a long time ago, and I was trying to find a producer for my first film. I was kicked out of a couple of production companies because they thought it had nothing to do with the Palestinian experience: There were no soldiers killing Palestinians, there were no beatings, no tragedies. It was humorous. “How can Palestine be funny?”
But I think to make universal cinema is the most Palestinian thing you can do! The more universal, the more Palestinian. This is my concept of what it is to be Palestinian. It’s not about geographical boundaries, it’s about identification with the world we live in. This happened at a moment when all the patronage, all the people who identify as leftists in Europe, thought they knew more about the Palestinians than the Palestinians themselves. So for Palestinians to make Palestinian films was not really feasible. They were suspect, because they were just the natives. “We have to speak about them, they cannot speak about their own experience.”
There’s a scene with a fortune teller who tells your character that there will one day be a Palestine, but not in your lifetime. The film is itself dedicated to Palestine. What is the Palestine to which you’ve dedicated the film?
I think only poetry can answer that one, not myself. Palestine exists, it’s under occupation. Palestine is the Palestinian people. The dedication is really a dedication to their struggle and to their resistance—the one that Palestinians are handling after more than seventy years of horror in a fascistic state.
In the film, after moving to France and America, your character seems to come to a new understanding of Palestine. Has all this journeying made him see his own home in a new light?
Absolutely. For years I thought I would be a citizen of the world, equally identifying with all of the places that I would go. And when I saw this new generation of Palestinians, my sentiment for the Palestinian people was rejuvenated. I came back with a stronger attraction to their experience, which is not my own experience. So, there is that faint smile that I have of hope—maybe not hope for my generation, but hope for this generation, because these are the Palestinians that are now living a moment of resistance. The dance and euphoria at the end of the film is actually a declaration that they will be there and that they will fight.