The London Palestine Film Festival (LPFF) opened with a Elia Suleiman’s most recent love letter to Palestine: “It Must Be Heaven” (2019). Suleiman first landed in global spotlight for his Palme D’Or nominated black comedy, “Divine Intervention” (2002). This year, he returned with another Palme d’Or nomination and walked away with the Cannes Film Festival Special Jury Prize and the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Film In Competition. While on the festival circuit, “It Must Be Heaven” garnered plenty of laughter and warm applause at LPFF – and perhaps invited further thought, as a fitting festival opener on redefining “Palestinian cinema.”
“It Must Be Heaven” compiles cross-continental, well-choreographed vignettes of the essentialized absurdities featuring Suleiman himself. As Suleiman must navigate Nazareth, Paris, and New York City, he floats through each city as an Other: he neither belongs, nor does he seek to, in each of the cities he travels in. At home, he is sandwiched between a neighbor off his rocker and another who blatantly imposes upon his lemon tree; in Paris, the fashionable flaneuses seem like catwalk cutouts; and in New York, he must engage in a performative dance with an airport metal detector blatant gun sales at the local grocery store. In spite of it all, the impeccably-dressed Suleiman uses his words sparingly. He instead silently watches, always amused; for each out-of-this-world situation, his raised eyebrows perhaps say it all: this is completely and utterly ridiculous.
Sight and sound only accentuate Suleiman’s highly-stylized, tongue-in-cheek comedy. Director of photography Sofian El-Fani further brings Suleiman’s chronicles alive with his own mastery of symmetry. Working in largely empty city-scapes (especially in Paris), El-Fani meticulously composes each image to work in symmetries and contrasts. Sound design only complements El-Fani’s handiwork. Glasses clink together at the same time, vagrant applause molds into uniform claps, and even footfalls seem measured to the minute. Off-screen soundscapes add to Suleiman’s humor, as do El-Fani’s characteristic reaction shots of Suleiman’s facial expressions; indeed, both senses sing together to execute a complete joke. With the sharp cuts of Wes Anderson and the gesticulative humor of Buster Keaton, Suleiman maximizes the potential of cinema to tell even the simplest of jokes.
As oxymoronic as the idea of “Palestinian comedy” may sound, Suleiman’s magnification of microaggressions and idiosyncrasy seems to playfully suggest that the same day-to-day irrationalities exist everywhere. “It Must Be Heaven” brings to mind Rashid Masharawi’s “Attente” (2005), another absurdist Palestinian film about talent scouting for a national theater for a state-less state. “Attente,” however, calls forth darker subtexts, as it invites wannabe actors casually re-enact wartime trauma. “It Must Be Heaven,” on the other hand, seems to be a reply to foreign audiences looking in at Palestine, dispelling any sense of the “Other” by pointing out the very foreign-ness in Western cultural powers France and America. Indeed, contrary to the advertised description, Suleiman does not question where home is; instead, he seems to gently critique those who judge Palestine at face-value.
And like any good comedy, Suleiman does not shake off the fundamentals of his film: a work of Palestinian cinema. This comes with some bittersweet irony. In Paris, a French producer tells Suleiman to rewrite a more “Palestinian” (read: victimized and violent) script. In New York, Suleiman’s identity is placed even more front and center, as he is introduced as a “Palestinian filmmaker not born in Israel, but in Palestine” at an Arab-American conference. Suleiman’s desperation reaches a point, when he consults a tarot reader. Upon scrutinizing the cards, the reader, befuddled, reads aloud, “Will there be a Palestine?” And – with some sadness – the reader affirms, “Yes, but not in my lifetime or yours.”
It only comes a wave of relief, then, when Suleiman finally comes back home to Nazareth. The repetitive oddities that once seemed to grate against his nerves now seem inconsequential, almost welcoming after all the incredibly foreign experiences so much overseas. As the film closes to a club scene of youngsters dancing to Arabic EDM, Suleiman – ever without expression – seems to smile inwardly. Even in the face of all present absurdity, perhaps there is hope for Palestine in the future.