Review of the opening film at the Brussels International Film Festival (BRIFF): “It Must Be Heaven”

The second annual Brussels International Film Festival (BRIFF) kicked-off in the Grand Eldorado movie theatre at UGC De Brouckère on Thursday night with a screening of It Must Be Heaven, the new film by acclaimed Palestinian director Elia Suleiman.

Suleiman stars as a fictionalised version of himself in this slapstick comedy, whose story often masks themes of great subtlety and, it must be said, frequently frustrating ambiguity.

Its basic plot can be neatly summarised: an old(ish), single, almost perpetually mildly bemused, and apparently virtually mute Palestinian man (Suleiman) sees a bunch of strange, faintly amusing stuff happen in his hometown of Nazareth. Subsequently, Suleiman flies to Paris, where he again sees a bunch of strange, faintly amusing stuff happen. Next, Suleiman travels to New York, where he once again sees a bunch of strange, faintly amusing stuff happen. Finally, Suleiman returns to Nazareth, where stuff is still strange and – you guessed it – stuff is still faintly amusing.

(The final scene of the film, however, is – almost meta-strangely – neither strange nor moderately amusingly: it consists of Suleiman sitting alone at the bar at a club in Nazareth, looking on inscrutably at a group of Palestinian youths as they ebulliently dance the night away. The interpretative significance of this scene is unclear, as is, in fact, the significance of much of the film.)

The putative intricacy of It Must Be Heaven, unsurprisingly, lies in its details, namely in why Suleiman travels to Paris and New York in the first place, and what he ends up seeing both at home and on his travels.

To start with the why: although the death of an unnamed close acquaintance and the mild craziness of (the fictionalised rendition of) everyday life in Nazareth are both key factors in his decision to travel to the West, the primary cause is Suleiman’s need to acquire funding for a film that he is making – a film which, in a paradoxical, self-referentially ironic twist, is also called It Must Be Heaven.

Suleiman, however, does not succeed in persuading a Western studio to produce his film. The rejection he receives in Paris is particularly amusing: he is told by a stereotypically arrogant French producer that, although his film company is “sympathetic to the Palestinian cause”, it nevertheless cannot fund Suleiman’s project because “the film could take place anywhere; it is not Palestinian enough”. This is one of the few points in the film where Suleiman’s near-permanent expression of mild bemusement noticeably transforms into something approaching scorn: he, a Palestinian, is being denied a cinematic platform by a European simply because he fails to conform to the latter’s Orientalist stereotype of what a “Palestinian” film should be.

Similarly, in New York, Suleiman is introduced by a friend to an American film producer. “He [Suleiman] is not a Palestinian from Israel, but a Palestinian from Palestine,” his friend says, before adding: “He’s a Palestinian filmmaker, but he makes funny films. His new film is called ‘Heaven Can Wait’. It’s a comedy about peace in the Middle-East.” All of these remarks are, at best, seriously misleading: Nazareth is a city in Israel, not Palestine; the title of the film is “It Must Be Heaven”, not “Heaven Can Wait”; the film is manifestly not “about peace in the Middle-East”; and, finally, the implication that Palestinian filmmakers are expected only to make non-comedic films is not only insulting, but also, one could argue, mildly racist.

It is here that we can also see the interpretative ambiguity inherent in so much of the film. To take (again) the example of Suleiman being described as “not a Palestinian from Israel, but a Palestinian from Palestine”: are we, the audience, supposed to mock Suleiman’s friend’s ignorance regarding Nazareth’s actual location? Or are we to interpret him as suggesting something else, namely that Suleiman is in some sense a real Palestinian, despite living in Israel? Or are we supposed to interpret him as making an overtly political statement: that all, or at least some, of what is legally part of Israel is in fact properly construed as being part of Palestine?

Elia Suleiman: writer, director, co-producer and lead actor in “It Must Be Heaven”

Regardless, the film encourages us to assume that Suleiman never receives Western funding to make his film – this very film. The intended message here seems clear: in order for a Palestinian to make his voice heard – his true voice, and not an Orientalised caricature thereof – he cannot ask for handouts from the Middle-East’s past or present colonial masters. (As it happens, though, It Must Be Heaven was actually produced by a collection of French, Canadian, German and Turkish film companies – which might suggest that Suleiman is being characteristically ironic here.)

Returning to the issue of what Suleiman ends up seeing: many of the comedic vignettes that Suleiman is a witness to, both in Nazareth and the West, are clearly intended to have interpretative significance. For instance, in Nazareth he observes two IDF soldiers driving a military vehicle while they continually swap sunglasses and narcissistically examine themselves in the car’s rear-view mirror, while utterly failing to take heed of the road ahead; meanwhile, in the backseat of the car sits a lonely, docile, blindfolded Palestinian woman. Similarly, in France, the enormous police presence and overall militarisation of society are repeatedly emphasised: we observe tanks rolling down outside the Banque de France; we witness policemen chasing suspects down streets on segways and roller-blades, and we even see policemen (amusingly) attempt to intimidate an old lady on a subway platform by walking very, very slowly behind her.

Finally – and arguably most symbolically – in New York there is a scene where a woman in Central Park, dressed in a white costume adorned with angel wings, removes her top to reveal the Palestinian flag drawn across her chest. Almost immediately, NYPD squad cars arrive on the scene to arrest her. When the police finally capture and smother her, however, she vanishes, Obi-Wan Kenobi-style, with only her angel wings remaining where she previously lay. Sometime later, however, on a night that looks like Halloween, she reappears, this time with her chest unexposed. A figure dressed as the Grim Reaper sees her, causing his face to contort with rage; the Reaper then stares threateningly across the street at Suleiman, a perpetual witness to this symbolic surrealism.

Though each of these three (sets of) scenes have obvious interpretative significance, it is, in fact, often frustratingly difficult to pin down what exact interpretative significance they are supposed to have. To take the case of the preening IDF soldiers: do they represent all Israelis, or merely the IDF, or only those fashion-conscious, consumer-obsessed youths that one often finds in the bars and clubs of Tel Aviv? Furthermore, is the fact that the Israelis fail to look at the road ahead of them at all relevant? (And is a literal – as well as metaphorical – car crash therefore inevitable?) And what is the significance, if any, of the Palestinian in the back of the car not only being a prisoner, but also being docile, lonely, a woman and blindfolded? On reflection, is Suleiman perhaps intentionally aiming for precisely such ambiguity? Or, when all is said and done, is he merely trying to be funny?

Much of this movie, however, consists of scenes that do not have any obvious interpretative significance. For instance, in Paris, Suleiman adopts a stray bird who happens to fly into his apartment. One afternoon, when Suleiman is trying to write on his laptop, the bird repeatedly tries to stop him from working by hopping onto his keyboard. At first, Suleiman swipes the bird away each time it approaches, but eventually he becomes frustrated, heads to the window, and points upward at the sky, clearly suggesting to the bird that it leave. After some deliberation, the bird acquiesces and flies away. Again: is this whole scene simply supposed to be mildly amusing? Or is it supposed to suggest something else, for example, that hosts inevitably tire of those they are hosting? Or is it, more speculatively, perhaps some kind of bizarre metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? It isn’t clear; indeed, whether or not this scene is intentionally ambiguous is itself inherently ambiguous.

The Grand Eldorado theatre, just before BRIFF’s opening night screening

Arguably, nowhere is the film’s ambiguity more pronounced than in its title: “It Must Be Heaven”. To what, exactly, is this “it” referring? Nazareth? Palestine? The world? Or is “it” only intended to refer to Suleiman’s fictionalised renditions of these places (e.g., a Paris where all the women are stunningly beautiful)? Or is “it” perhaps referring to the film itself, thus suggesting a form of escapism through film, one that is especially tailored to those Palestinians whose daily lives consist of ritual subjugation and humiliation? Come to think of it, is the title of the film even meant to be take seriously, rather than ironically? We simply don’t know; and Suleiman, it seems, is not at all willing to tell us.

Suleiman, however, has said the following: “If in my previous films, Palestine could be seen as a microcosm of the world, my new film, It Must Be Heaven, tries to present the world as a microcosm of Palestine.” But in what sense is the world, except in a trivial sense, a microcosm of Palestine? (Moreover, in what sense are Paris and New York collectively even a microcosm of the world?) Yes, it is of course true that in both Western and Middle-Eastern society mild craziness and amusement can be found in many different places. And yes, much of society – even Western society – is becoming increasingly militarised. But where in Europe or America is the equivalent of, say, Gaza, which for years has been subjected to a brutal and devastating Israeli-led blockade? Where is the equivalent of mass home demolitions? Of de-development? Where – the history of the native Americans excepted – is the equivalent of the dispossession, the annexation, the military occupation suffered by Palestinians?

Undoubtedly, It Must Be Heaven has its amusing moments. But insofar as it unambiguously says anything, what it says is at best a truism or, at worst, radically or even grotesquely false. To compensate for this, it seems, the films attempts to feign profundity by engaging in sustained ironic ambiguity – but, in doing so, it arguably ends up saying little of any interest at all.