Somewhere in the second half of Elia Suleiman's It Must Be Heaven, which, as in all his feature films he writes, directs and stars in, a chatty New York cab driver asks Suleiman where he is from. 'Nazareth,' he says, "I'm from Palestine." These are the only words he speaks in the film. He may have very well not, because if you have seen Suleiman's other works, you don't expect him to speak.
With a feature film career that has spanned over two decades, starting with Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996), to the Cannes Jury Prize-winning Divine Intervention (2002), to The Time that Remains (2009), Suleiman has consistently featured in his droll, surreal tragicomedies as a mute and stoic witness to the Palestinian situation.
In It Must Be Heaven, his latest, Suleiman steps out of his homeland and goes to Paris and New York, but is just as lost—a nowhere man who doesn't quite have a place he can call his own. The film, the official Palestinian entry to the Foreign Language Film category at the 92nd Academy awards, is filled with vignettes in which Suleiman, with his hat and loosely worn coat, smokes cigarettes, and sits drinking tea, arrack or wine, as he wryly observes life around him. As in most of his films, fantastical elements, as though they belong to some revenge fantasy B-movie, pop up without warning. For instance, army tanks rolling past the Banque de France on Bastille Day in the deserted streets of Paris.
It Must Be Heaven played at the opening night of the ongoing Ajyal Film Festival, where I'm at.
The Palestinian auteur is also a Fellow at the Doha Film Institute, which organises the festival, and has been involved with mentoring young filmmakers from the region. "I'm not really a guest, more of an insider," he said before the screening. The next day we did a short interview, where he spoke about why his new film thanks the art critic John Berger, saying more with less, and how he never saw Buster Keaton or Jacque Tati's works before he made his first film.
In the end of It Must Be Heaven, you thank John Berger. Has his "Ways of Seeing" influenced you?
No. The thanks is because we were family. Yes, you could say because it's who he is, but because we were family. We knew each other for many many years. When I was young, I met him accidentally and then started a kind of relationship that took decades and I think he gave me a certain… force when I was young to go after whatever it is that I want to go after. So his presence was something resembling the guardian angels. And then we just started to be friends and, you know, started to be a lot more. He was reading my scripts, I was talking about them, sometimes I was reading his manuscripts before they were published. So he was a very, very dear friend, and he passed away a few months before the film's premiere.
I was struck by how empty the streets are in this film, just as they were in Divine Intervention–almost as though there is a constant state of curfew. Is it a stylistic thing?
I'd say that I try to reveal the cinematic potentiality when I compose an image, and I like to put less is more…I like the minimalism, I like to actually economise, because I use a very strict frame. Just think about painters and how some of them might just fill the canvas with million details and some of it might be million invisible details. It's a question of how you want to maximise the multiplicity or infinity of reading the image that makes you want to do that.
Then there is something architectural about it, because if you start to make an image chaotic, um, I feel like it confuses me. I need to have some kind of complexity, but coherence at the same time. And so there is maybe a little bit of going after some kind of purity in the image that I like to draw.
Also because when you make the image bare-bone, when you put it down to some kind of nakedness, you give the spectator a lot more sharpness in actually dissecting it.
So there are a quite a lot of reasons, but eventually all these reasons are one thing and there is another thing: that's who I am, that's how I aesthetically compose the image and after that, it is up to the analysis or dissection to be done at the spectator—and hopefully not at the moment when they watch the film because that is not the idea.
In all your films, the cops move in a choreographed fashion.
I like to cartoonise governmental forces. So wherever it is soldier or police authority representatives I like to actually make them dance. People choose to portray people of power in an evident kind of show of force where soldiers are beating people or the police is arresting people. In my case, I like to show their vulnerability because I think that the system of authority is very easy to crack.
Your style of an-almost silent film kind of acting has been compared to that of Jacques Tati, and Buster Keaton as well.
Firstly I've never been inspired neither by Tati nor Keaton. I'd never even seen or heard of them until I made my first feature film which had already established my style. But, you know, people forget that we are so many in this world. And I think I am sure you can find a trillion of me somewhere else in the world and it's just that not all of them are making films.
Having said that, yes, I am absolutely in total adoration of Jacques Tati and when I started to watch Tati I was also mesmerised by the resemblances that we have despite the fact that we are in terms of history and in terms of where we are positioned, decades apart. But that's also fascinating in a way, I am sure that in a few decades there will be also somebody who is going to take the same kind of style, if cinema still exists.
Does this style of acting also fall under your ideas about minimalism, and saying more with less?
You can say that. But you can also say that you are dealing with a cinematic language, so you try to maximise as much as you can the cinematic potentiality of the image. If it necessitates a certain verbal inclusion that's fine, if you can do without any kind of verbal information that's better.