It Must Be Heaven - LFF 2019
Directed by Elia Suleiman
As a firm supporter of Palestine and the Palestinian people I was eager to check out their only entry at this year’s London Film Festival. Just a few months ago we reviewed the harrowing documentary Gaza, which provided a uniquely human face to a modern day tragedy. So going into It Must Be Heaven, knowing little more than it was a comedic movie about a man travelling through Paris and New York, I was ready for the richness of the Palestinian filmmaking palette to enrich me. I am completely devastated to report that I found it dull, insufferably long and almost completely without merit.
The film opens up with a skit which, as far as I can tell, had absolutely no relation to the rest of what went on. It attempted to make me laugh. It failed. It was all downhill from there. Elia Suleiman plays himself as near-mute, which is half the problem. Every scene seems to run on for twice as long as it probably should in painfully silent ways. His deadpan expression and stony-faced reactions to the farcical scenes taking place around him just did not work for me. It wasn’t to my taste at all. It reminded me of Mr. Bean without the charm or slapstick approach to unusual situations. It just didn’t work for me on a personal level. It worked for many others in the audience though as there was some serious thigh-slapping going on.
The gist of the film seemed to be that no matter where Suleiman goes, whether it’s at home in Nazareth, in Paris or in New York, the ghosts of Palestinian’s suffering stay with him. These ghosts exhibit themselves through a series of unusual occurrences which on face value have minor peculiar humour, but beneath all that lies the way Suleiman really feels. His inability to escape his Palestinian identity wherever he goes is used for (supposed) comical purposes, but there’s an inherent tragedy to the scenes. Helicopters hover, gangs of youths rush at him, police and tanks patrol the streets around and behind him and his neighbour keeps coming onto his land to trim his lemon tree! In one of the better segments Suleiman is seen drinking coffee on the patio of a cafe in Paris. Suddenly four dominating police officers surround him and begin measuring the area around him. It gets smaller and smaller until he is fully contained with nowhere to go. You don’t have to be a member of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign to see what he’s saying here.
The film does shift up a gear once Suleiman arrives in America. The humour actually began to win me over by this point, but more importantly the film became much more symbolic. The taxi driver who has collected him from the airport probes him on where he comes from. Suleiman, speaking for the first time in the entire film explains he is Palestinian. The ridiculously over the top way the driver chooses to react to this revelation is genuinely touching and genuinely funny at the same time.
I confess that my main issues with the film was its seeming irrelevance to anything remotely to do with Palestinian identity. It felt like it could have been made my anyone anywhere. But then the rug was pulled out from underneath me when, in an incredibly meta-scene, Suleiman meets with a movie producer who says exactly this to him. “It’s not very Palestinian, it could be set anywhere”. This caused me to pause and for the first time actually admire what Suleiman was doing with It Must Be Heaven. He was attempting to shape a different narrative, rather than the victim one, to show that there are many sides and tales to tell. For every seemingly silly interaction there was a symbolic beauty to it. Whether it was the subtlety of a sparrow that won’t leave him alone or a lady with angel wings and the Palestinian flag across her chest being pursued by police officers.
All the shots were incredibly beautiful, with landscapes both in Palestine and in New York looking equally stunning. But the looking becomes tiresome very quickly and the slow and immovable pace of the journey became too much to bare, particularly as every skit seemed to echo the last. The ending, however, really lifted the film for me. As I struggled to find much meaning in Suleiman’s journey, the simplest of visuals presented hope, optimism and joy for the future of Palestine, even if that doesn’t come to pass in Suleiman’s time.