Elia Suleiman: ‘Palestine has become globalised’

The director’s new film, It Must Be Heaven, is another droll comedy about the Middle East

Elia Suleiman in It Must Be Heaven

Elia Suleiman in It Must Be Heaven

 

In It Must Be Heaven, the droll, impeccable new comedy from Elia Suleiman, Gael García Bernal introduces the director – who is playing himself: “This is my friend, Elia Suleiman, the Palestinian filmmaker,” says the Mexican star, also playing himself. “But he makes funny films. He’s doing a comedy right now. About peace in the Middle East.” 

Have you heard the one about the Palestinian conflict comedy? It’s a genre that was invented in 1996 by writer-director Elia Suleiman with Chronicle of a Disappearance, an absurd account of life in the West Bank. This irreverent series of vignettes – the proprietor of Holyland souvenirs sells holy water straight from his tap; a hand grenade turns out to be a cigarette lighter – won Best Film at the Venice Film Festival. 

For the filmmaker, all the world’s a stage, even when the world is at war. 

“It’s just the way I observe life,” says Suleiman. “When I see something burlesque, something that has the potential to become an interesting moment, I note it down. The person sitting next to me will probably pick something else but I like a certain kind of choreographic movement. And, once noted down, I have to imagine how this could turn into a sort of dance and I think about the punchline.”

Kindred spirits

The writer-director’s expert sense of deadpan is frequently compared with such kindred spirits as Buster Keaton and Jim Jarmusch. In fact, he hadn’t watched either until the cinematographer on his first film noted the similarities with Suleiman’s work. His Tramp-like persona was not inspired by Charlie Chaplin or Aki Kaurismäki, but by life as a stateless outsider. 

It Must Be Heaven - trailer

“I think that you are stateless in your own homeland, as in my case, a good dose of distance and alienation there organically,” laughs Suleiman. “I grew up feeling that somebody out there doesn’t want me to exist, doesn’t want me to be there. You know. And you live from your childhood with this kind of estrangement. Even when you’re young, and you don’t even understand what is going on around you. You know, I remember my mother when we would go to Haifa, in order to buy me shoes. And if I would speak in Arabic a bit louder than necessary, she would say: ‘No, they will understand.’ I’m not talking about the tragedies. She was quite scared from just walking in the street. So that sense of being talked to differently, dealt with differently, not being wanted is part of your everyday life.” 

Elia Suleiman in It Must Be Heaven
Elia Suleiman in It Must Be Heaven
I was being threatened with jail, because I said, this is a Palestinian film, not an Israeli film

Against this, the director was raised by a family he describes as “loving, tender, hilarious and super-intellectual”. Those qualities are palpable in his Palestinian trilogy – an accidental sequence, he says – a series that alchemised his childhood in Bethlehem and his father’s recollections of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war into 2002’s Cannes prize-winner, Divine Intervention. His six-decade-spanning dramedy The Time that Remains (2006) featured looting, murdering, and a tank very, very slowly following a man down a street.

Such incongruities, though typically inspired by real life and testimonies, haven’t always gone down well with audiences. 

“When my first film came out, it was a grand shock to certain audiences in the Middle East,” smiles the filmmaker. “People attacked the film because they thought films were either with us or against us. Or that films should be used to promote the cause or show violence of the other, of the oppressor. And suddenly, this humorous film came along and people went as far as accusing me of being a traitor, a collaborator.”

State funding  

Meanwhile, the writer-director made further enemies – on both sides – by applying for state funding. “Not one Arab Palestinian took any money from the fund,” recalls Suleiman. “But we pay taxes. So I went into this fight. And I was rejected in the beginning. And then I asked to see the files of the readers. And it turns out they actually voted for my film. And then it was a huge back-and-forth between me and this foundation that almost reached the supreme court. I was being threatened with jail, because I said, this is a Palestinian film, not an Israeli film. And they said: you are denying the existence of the state of Israel. I can tell you many stories about this.”

It Must Be Heaven is only the fourth feature in a career that stretches back for a quarter of a century. Suleiman’s first film in 10 years is, as ever, semi-autobiographical, in which a version of Suleiman attempts to make a new life in Paris and New York only to encounter the same problems he faced in Palestine. Tanks roll through the streets of Paris on Bastille Day; Americans casually carry guns around the supermarket. Suleiman responds to the madness around him with an unflinchingly doleful gaze to the camera.

“Palestine has become globalised,” he says. “Wherever you go, going from one place to another, you have to cross through checkpoints, you are passing through security, you are passing by people who suspect you until you’re proven innocent. You are searched in the airport, because of the violence of the Middle East and because of the politics of the countries that are interested in oil and colonisation.

“So finally, that is felt in France, in Berlin, in England, in Spain and everywhere else. Now we have all these monsters, these Daesh Islamists, who want to kill all the sinners. In the beginning, they were actually encouraged by Western countries, because they wanted to kill the communists. In my own town, this happened when I was young. They released a lot of criminals to attack the communist party, and the progressive parties. Now that is happening on a global scale. I don’t want to become like this boring creature who keeps saying it all comes down to liberal economy, the liberalisation of the economy, to globalisation. But it’s true. Gender issues, race issues, anywhere there is an oppressed people and inequality: it all comes back to money and profits.”

It Must Be Heaven is in cinemas and on digital from June 18th 

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