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The Comedy of Errors

Film Review: It Must Be Heaven

11 July 21 words: Yasmin Turner

The latest from Palestinian director Elia Suleiman continues to appreciate the finer details and absurdities of everyday life through sketches at home and abroad, writes Yasmin Turner...

Director: Elia Suleiman
Starring: Stephen McHattie, Raia Haidar, Fadi Sakr
Running time: 102 minutes 

It’s been over a decade since writer-director-star Elia Suleiman’s last stylized semi-biographical drama, The Time That Remains – but while It Must Be Heaven has all his hallmarks, the focus shifts from the struggle in the Occupied Territories to the condition of the global Palestinian. Suleiman is in every scene of It Must Be Heaven, but he only speaks four words, leaving the soul of Palestine expressed through his own face and body. Made up of small episodic frames, Suleiman’s work can be likened to that of an art exhibition, inventing visual language bold like the impasto brushstroke of an impressionist painting, yet minimalistic, rendering words almost completely useless. When his homeland is questioned, he replies, “Nazareth,” then explains: “I am Palestinian.” And that’s all you need to know. 

The opening scene in Nazareth depicts an Orthodox priest chanting and leading his faithful procession through the streets at night toward a closed iron door, supposed to open on his command. An unseen helper on the other side (we guess this is Suleiman), refuses the priest's entry, and initiates a hilarious moment where the priest disappears offscreen to have a word or two with the drunken ‘helper’. Reading into the scene, multiple metaphors can be found, including the most prominent idea of the denial of entry to a person’s communal space. A light-hearted metaphor for a land being appropriated can also be taken from another snippet in Nazareth, when, in the mornings, a man casually steals lemons from Suleiman’s yard and occasionally just hacks away at the tree. 

Suleiman leaves for Paris following the recent death of a loved one and – accompanied by Nina Simone’s I Put a Spell on You – is spotted sitting outside at a café as a series of stunning young women boasting colourful, designer outfits confidently stride past in a slow-mo montage, fulfilling the stereotypes of the fashion capital. Paris soon transforms and the scene plays until it becomes increasingly repetitive, the women no more than mannequins. The heavy and unnerving presence of policemen is easily lost in the humouring choreographed movements of the cops on Segways and the sequence of army tanks in the city on Bastille Day is a reminder that militarism isn’t only found in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the absurd section that finds him watching a homeless man being offered a two-course meal from an ambulance as if he’s dining at a fine establishment mocks France’s generous healthcare system.

Suleiman does not believe anywhere is heaven, and neither does he think his home is hell

Suleiman moves to his next location of New York, after a meeting with a film producer is unsuccessful in providing him with funding because the film isn’t Palestinian enough. However, in New York he faces even higher expectations of who he should be, beginning with from a taxi driver, ecstatic to be in the same cab as a real Palestinian, to a film industry with little interest in hearing the Palestinian story. Suleiman, once again, evaluates the tiny details of the everyday, from an encounter with a persistent sparrow to a panel discussion at an Arab American forum that seems to be overwhelmed by robotic applause. Meanwhile, in Central Park, armed cops elaborately chase and cover up a girl wearing a Palestinian flag for a top and most alarmingly, Suleiman observes ordinary people: men, women and children walking the supermarkets and streets with assault rifles or bullet proof vests, commenting on the stereotypical view of Americans’ enthusiastic right to bear arms. 

At the end, in a club in Palestine, Suleiman watches mixed couples in a packed room dancing and singing joyously; a vibrant vision of the future of Palestine, one of which is moving faster than he can anticipate, but exactly the youthful population analogous to most cities around the world. Instead of the usual images of Palestine, of the Israeli-Palestine border wall, Revolutionary martyrs’ posters or the checkpoints projected to the Western world in media and news, there are two simple images you are left with: a yearning glimpse of a Bedouin girl amongst the peaceful olive trees, followed by a scene of the next generation in a club dancing with content. The use of the song Arabiyon Ana (I’m an Arab) by Yuri Mrakadi, a popular Lebanese singer who experienced the disasters of civil war in his country, only furthers this vision of a strong Palestinian future. The opening line of the song, 'A’arabiyon ana ikhsheeni' (I’m an Arab, fear me), echoes ominously or be it ironically, but the films’ sophisticated and articulate messaging perhaps alternatively communicates: I am an Arab, revere me.    

The film does not ignore the Occupation altogether, with clear metaphors throughout and a scene where a blindfolded girl sits in the back of two Israeli soldiers’ car while they exchange sunglasses repetitively in a witty display. But this artistic and cinematic experience is much more than facts and tries to enhance understanding of what it means to be Palestinian in a global context. The subjective view that the world is a microcosm of Palestine comes into question, as police presence intensifies, check points increase and citizens feel the need to be armed, globally. But one thing is certain, Suleiman does not believe anywhere is heaven, and neither does he think his home is hell.  

Did you know? When promoting the film, Suleiman argued that some of the greatest comedy is born out of times of turmoil and tragedy. He said: “If you have that sense of humour, I think it’s only fair that you share it. It’s great when I watch with the audience and I see them happy – it gives me so much pleasure.”

It Must Be Heaven is in cinemas now

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