Culture

The witnessing that remains

ES (Elia Suleiman) is a scene from his feature "It Must Be Heaven," which opened Ajial Film Festival Monday. Photo courtesy of DFI

DOHA: Elia Suleiman says that for the past six months a lot of people have asked him how he managed to empty the streets of Paris.

A third of his latest feature, “It Must Be Heaven,” was shot there. These aren’t obscure suburban neighborhoods of the French capital but high-profile locations that can draw 50,000 tourists a day.

“Everybody asks about that, as though I have some digital magic. Not at all. I did it. I’m the superhero,” he chuckles. “This is my kind of superhero film. I’m Mr. Marvel and my budget was much less than for ‘The Joker.’

Emptying Paris’ streets is nearly impossible, Suleiman admits, because it usually costs a couple of million euros.

He managed thanks to what he calls the French people’s unique and “deep-rooted cinematic culture.”

The Palestinian filmmaker leans into the tale of how he and a line producer went to see the gent responsible for granting permission for Paris film shoots. After some inquiries, Suleiman recalls the official looking at him and asking,

“‘Do you want to shoot the Champs Elysee?’

“I say, ‘I don’t have a scene on the Champs Elysee.

“‘Write a scene on the Champs Elysee,’ he replies, ‘and I’m gonna shut it for you.’”

It turned out the official is a fan of Suleiman’s work.

“I’m not idealizing the French,” he adds. “I won’t talk about their politics, but there’s nowhere else in the world where you find someone in power with this kind of support for film.”

Suleiman’s fourth feature, “Heaven” is similar to his past work on many levels. Like his earlier features, they center on ES, a taciturn figure (Suleiman) that moves episodically across a landscape marked by occupation, restriction and frustration. Suleiman’s principal mode is comic and ES’ role is one of deadpan observer - as if Samuel Beckett had rewritten Dante’s “Inferno.”

The fact that the new film resides in France and the U.S. as well as Palestine is among its departures.

“Heaven” premiered in May at Cannes, where it won the Jury Special Mention and the prize of FIPRESCI, the International Film Critics Association. Its world tour landed in Doha Monday, where it had its MENA debut, opening the seventh edition of Ajyal, the Doha Film Institute’s international film festival dedicated to works for, and by, young people.

After the Doha premiere, The Daily Star sat down with the Nazareth-born writer-director to chat about what remains of the practice that formed his first three features, and what’s changed in the decade since “The Time That Remains,” his previous feature.

Suleiman says he’s enthusiastic to see how Beirut receives his film, which has been scheduled to open at Metropolis Cinema early next year. More than his past features, he feels, “Heaven” is located in a world familiar to Beirutis.

If Lebanon’s weekslong civil disobedience campaign and the country’s lingering economic, financial and political crises ends well, he says, “and the film shows in Beirut, then I’m really curious. This kind of melange between the kinds of people [that live in Beirut] and this kind of film is interesting. This film is actually talking about these people.”

He says the tonal differences between “Heaven” and the three preceding films stem in part from the alienation he felt while shooting “Diary of a Beginner,” his contribution to the 2012 portmanteau film “7 Days in Havana.”

“I was feeling so lonely. I don’t have Spanish so I couldn’t speak to anyone,” he recalls. “Finally, I felt intuitively that this film had to happen because I was beginning to feel a shift in [ES] and how this persona is watching the world.

“I didn’t know what it was about, but I thought, ‘Why not go to the extreme, use a double silence.’ There is silence and the silence due to lack of verbal communication. I thought this would be a completely undefined territory.

“After I made my first feature [Chronicle of a Disappearance], I thought it could be interesting to make a film about my nomadic existence ... a montage of what is humor back home, what is French humor, what is American humor.

“But by the time I started to think seriously about making [“Heaven”], it had become a necessity because it started to speak not about my nomadic existence but about the global situation, the globalization and globalized violence that we’re all living. We’re confronting a sense of finality. The world’s under occupation, not just Palestine.”

Suleiman recalls feeling depressed when, a decade ago, he no longer felt surprised at the diversity of the world. All places had started to resemble one another.

“In the beginning you have no sense of what that means until the violence starts. Then you see it’s not just consumerism. It’s also about the steel machines that come with it, the oppression. The neoliberal economy does not run without having the necessary tools of aggression.

“All my previous films have been much more hopeful, because in all of them this persona, [ES], was a lot more solid. He’s standing there saying, ‘Look there. Watch what I’m watching, and let’s laugh about it.

“I think this film broke from the others because of who I am today compared to who I was then. This persona, like myself, has become very fragile, without the old solidity when watching the world, as if something can be mended.

“Now the world ... cannot be mended. [ES and I are] a lot lonelier, more pessimistic, less happy, feeling an intense alienation I’ve not lived before.”

“Heaven” isn’t all pessimism, of course. “While shooting the film I also experienced this generation. It’s everywhere, not just in Palestine.” he says. “The sense of being a perfect stranger comes to them organically, not just conceptually, as it has for me.

“Is it activism? Is it passivism? Is it the way they resist culturally? There is something new that’s happening that I’m unable to analyze, this happiness, this feeling of togetherness that I don’t feel.

“This is the kind of existence that makes life hard for those in power,” he muses. “What can Israel do with them? Accuse them of terrorism because they’re dancing, sexually diverse or identifying with the world’s just causes?

“That’s how they identify themselves. Their sense of their ‘Palestinian-ness’ is more about world identity than national, Palestinian identity.

“My hope is not me. It’s them. You feel sorry for yourself when you see them, because this time’s passed you by,” he laughs. “They’re living happily, even if they see the world is going through its finality. But they still resist.

“Where it’s heading? What can it do? I have no idea. This is a question you can ask about Lebanon today. Chile today. Hong Kong. Are they gonna tear down all these governments? I don’t know. It’s something I hope for, but it’s not gonna be in my time,” he laughs again. “That’s for sure.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 22, 2019, on page 8.

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