By Benjamin Akpan
The last time Palestinian director Elia Suleiman appeared on our screens, he brought the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to our attention with beautiful imagery, music, and silent expressions. With barely a word spoken, he showed us his perspective of the violent relationship between both nations, just as perplexed by the conflict as anyone else. Ten years later, Suleiman returns with It Must Be Heaven to his mute character perplexed, this time around, by the absurdity of the rest of the world.
Suleiman, playing himself as usual, takes us on a trip around the world in a bid to find financing for an upcoming film that – without a fleeting sense of irony – is titled ‘It Must Be Heaven.’ We are first taken to Palestine, where Suleiman comically downplays the conflict at home to a mere tiff between neighbours. Every morning, he wakes up to his unnamed neighbour stealing from his lemon tree – bearing a what-is-yours-is-mine attitude, said neighbour waters, prunes, and generally cares for the tree, nevertheless stealing its fruitage afterwards. All of this is before Suleiman ventures around the world, blowing out of proportions the normalcies in other countries.
© Youtube | UniFrance
When he embarks on a trip to Europe and North America, Suleiman’s symbolistic writing throughout the film subjects the world outside Palestine to ludicrous stereotypes, such as Parisian cops scooting by on hover boards (an obvious parody of Bastille Day in France), or shoppers in New York bearing arms as though they were holding groceries – but these scenes work because they are giving no weight; Suleiman watches these strange things happening around him with nary a word or reaction, thereby concealing their ominousness with exaggerated imagery.
It Must Be Heaven makes valid – albeit cryptic – commentary on the portrayal of Palestine by world media. When a certain producer tells Suleiman that his proposed film isn’t “Palestinian enough”, Suleiman is speaking on how worldview reduces Palestine to the violence and oppression taking place within its boundaries. Yet, these vignettes from around Paris and New York reveal that the rest of the world – in one way or the other – isn’t that much different from Palestine. Essentially every other nation is in one form of conflict or the other, and Suleiman’s film highlights a certain universality in all the dissension that’s become a routine part of life: there’s as much gun violence in the United States as there are hostilities in Palestine – neither one is better or worse, but they’re both just as absurd to someone from the other side.
Feeling more like a sketch show than a cohesive feature, It Must Be Heaven has no conflict – in the traditional sense of the word – driving the story. Most scenes are completely unconnected to the ones before or after, but it is the silent observation of Suleiman himself that tie them all together. In one particularly interesting scene, Suleiman attempts to write on his computer while a little bird disrupts him; it is the tiny, seemingly meaningless moments that stand out, parodying the way he views the world and people around him.
But, with all its satire and dry humour, a lot of the jokes in It Must Be Heaven fail to land, and much of its second half is pervaded by a sense of languor that it cannot shake off, no matter how much hilarity is injected into its plotless structure. The success of many a punch line is dependent on the audience having at least a sliver of knowledge about Palestine and the conflict within.
But then again, maybe that’s the beauty of it: the rest of the world has no idea what Palestine is really like, despite their various caricatured ideas. Suleiman calls into question the concept of national identity, hidden behind a collection of absurdities. Yes, the film is as meta as it gets, but it is in its capacity to combine humour and an unwavering political point of view that It Must Be Heaven truly shines. As varied as our normalcies may seem, much of our experiences are universal – and we need someone to remind us that sometimes all that’s required to understand the world around us are sealed lips and a keen eye to observe.
*Editor’s Note: It Must Be Heaven premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival ’19 as part of Masters Programme.