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It Must Be Heaven by Elia Suleiman

Monday 9 December 2019, by Tommy Hodgson

The London Palestine Film Festival opened with an expectedly strong, but nonetheless captivating experience, screening Elia Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven at the Barbican. The film’s protagonist leads a life by observation, with Suleiman playing himself - only presumably more silent and bemused. His quizzical looks throughout invite us to view the bizarre events before our eyes with a similar detached penetration, as Suleiman lives day to day in his home country, then to Paris and New York trying to sell his script, before returning to Nazareth. The film makes deft use of sound, or lack thereof in the case of Suleiman’s demeanour, creating a coalition of familiar urban scenes and eerie abandonment. The astute use of sparse sounds – whether that is the rapping on a door or the distant thunder of fireworks evoking bombs – adds a layer of tension throughout, even in scenes which don’t necessitate it.

The story plays out not as a fixed plot but as a series of comical vignettes complete with a silent-film star; short humorous snapshots of oddities loosely threaded into a narrative, with a journey and an ultimate return. Palestine, as a real place but also as the figurative, looms large; perhaps even larger outside of itself, as remnants of occupied life are uncovered in all locations. An over the top Palestinian solidarity meeting in New York and a white executive telling Suleiman that his film is ‘not about Palestine enough’ are highlights of how the imagined ideal – an idea of Palestine - often trumps real, lived experiences, such as those of Palestinian filmmakers who don’t want to make a Western-perspective creation about their homeland.

Though the mini absurdisms, a trend towards social commentary is gleaned – on nationalism, hyper-modernisation, societal repression and censorship – but slightly too often these scenes fall into pure irreverence over biting satire. The humour does, however, work in a way to blur the sense of realism in the film, giving it a dreamlike other-worldly quality that is refreshing – for instance, the emptiness of Paris in particular acts as an exposure, a bare-bones tackling of the police brutality and segregation apparent in the French state. Racial and class relations, especially salient in France, are not put under a microscope by Suileman’s silent stare but perhaps, at least, a bigger lens. Though fantasy plays a part, the most chilling and memorable scenes bring an underlying, very real terror to the forefront. Outside of Nazareth, two Israeli Defence Forces’ soldiers are shown driving at speed, eyes not on the road but rather into a phone’s screen, as they take multiple selfies in front of their latest capture – a blindfolded young Palestinian girl in the backseat, whose appearance is highly reminiscent of 16-year old activist Ahed Tamini, who gained international attention for videos of her confrontations with Israeli soldiers. The glamorisation of the Israeli authorities’ brand of violence is well-documented in real life, through propagandistic adverts from the IDF on Twitter for example.

Scenes like this prove the solace of humour and camaraderie is not always enough to reckon with such modern evil, and they truly bring the film back down to a cold reality. The final scene is moving beyond words, and acts as a rein to the film’s few excesses, which were never a deal-breaker to its intelligence regardless. Perhaps Suleiman does not go as far as he could in drawing parallels between the oppression of his homeland and the latent authoritarianism of Western societies, but the links are left there for the viewer to connect the dots. After all, Suleiman’s character is but the observer in this film – to go beyond inference is up to us.

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