Elia Suleiman returned in 2019 to Cannes with his long-awaited fourth feature: It Must Be Heaven, an existentialist comedy which sees the director travel from his native Nazareth to New York via Paris on an existential(ist) journey peppered with surrealistic, mostly hilarious micro-encounters in the vein of the auteur’s previous works. Often central in Suleiman’s cinema is his own image, which in itself is largely based on his own persona and biography—acting as a concrete instance of a witness (onto which the spectator can project or latch themselves), caught in the fray of actions other than his own. He’s a silent yet nonetheless reactive observer of the oddities of quotidian life (thus inspiring comparisons with the work of the legendary Jacques Tati), which draw upon everything from a neighbor who gets territorial around an orange tree to French policemen zooming the streets on Segways, which he paints in masterly sketches and non-sequitur jokes. Beyond his formal and stylistic choices, Suleiman is an intensely political filmmaker, who deftly explores the implications of the occupation of Palestine in ways which are increasingly complex, from film to film—be it Venice debut feature, Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996), his breakaway success sophomore film, Divine Intervention (2006), or the melancholy, historical and auto-fictional drama, The Time That Remains (2009). In his latest work, however, his political approach is markedly different: rather than focusing on his homeland and the lasting effects of the occupation, he explores several theses regarding globalization and life in late capitalism/neoliberalism, which essentially lead to his main talking point. As he puts it, we live in an era of global palestinianization, of a world that is increasingly ghettoized and atomized.
A full retrospective of Elia Suleiman's feature-length films will be hosted online by the Arab Film & Media Institute between the 21st and 30th of May, with free attendance (US-only). For this occasion, we're publishing the discussion we had with Suleiman in Bucharest in October 2019, when he attended the tenth edition of Les Films de Cannes a Bucarest, a yearly local retrospective organized by Cristian Mungiu. In our talk, Suleiman opened up about his creative process and the role that imagination plays into it, while balancing it with the pure inspiration of the streets, about silence as an act of resistance and how his years-long hiatus has changed his outlook on filmmaking.
NOTEBOOK: I was thinking a lot about this reflective act in your films: the act of gazing, in the French sense of the concept, le regard. I think there is a really interesting interplay, considering that you are also one of the main characters on screen. It’s a position that puts you in a very interesting place, as a spectator. Are these intersecting gazes part of a conscious approach?
ELIA SULEIMAN: Your question can be decoded in multiple ways. Asking this question is like saying, “Talk to me about your cinema as a whole.” It's not really about one segment or one element of how I compose an image or a tableau. Whatever I'm going to tell you now is probably the things that you probably experience yourself. What drives you to actually start daydreaming is definitely a desire of some sort. And when it comes to the desire to daydream, to imagine, you don't have a strategy, you simply stare at the world. And when you stare at the world, you are also at the same time staring at yourself, in a kind of a deep internal voyage. It’s like when you sit alone, in a cafe, and you are watching the passerby—you’re evidently thinking of yourself while you are doing this, and what you're thinking about is your own position within the real world. You're thinking, maybe, about your relation to yourself, and to the world. You are just basically asking yourself the same existential questions that we all ask ourselves. If you are alert while sitting in that cafe, you start seeing another relation, that is, the one between the animation that is passing in front of you, and yourself. And if you're really alert and you have a sense for, let's say, choreography, then you start to see an association between the passers-by as if they were making some kind of potential performance for you.
You know you're just watching a mundane event and a part of daily life—but! Something cosmic also connected all of these elements, potentially. This potentiality is linked to our universe, because otherwise how could you dream it, you know? So now you imagine a trillion moments like that, and you think about what it all has to do with each other, and at one point this becomes a question that’s worthy of asking. And since we are all political beings, we also start to ask ourselves about the socio-political implications of these choreographies—so, questions that are more than existential or philosophical. Rather, questions about how they came to be the way they came also have something to do with the nature of the moment we are living in—politically socially economically, et cetera. They’re coming together in a connected way de facto. They are what they are, but then it doesn’t stop there. That image is not inherent to the moment you capture it in, it’s inherent in the way you imagine it transformed, metamorphosed into some sort of aestheticized dimension. And then this becomes another transformation because when you sit and you start to compose an image, your deep voyage has to arrive at a very-very-very precise place, where it has another cosmic relationship—this time, with the spectator. You will then somehow intuitively see that it's actually turning into another person's moment of pleasure.
NOTEBOOK: There's a lot of interviewers who comment on the lack of dialogue in your films, but I wouldn't necessarily call it a lack. I think that absence is especially powerful for the audiences, in the sense that it makes the moments in your films all the more recognizable, empirically. Even though your films are very topical concerning your background, they do have a universal appeal.
SULEIMAN: But every filmmaker’s localized topic is universal. Cinema is universal if it's true to itself and if it isn’t trying to impose any falsities. But... it's not like this cinema stand against another in a sort of competition, rather, it's all about how sincere you are to yourself when you are composing your images. Since I’m dealing with images, I’m trying to maximize their inherent possibilities, instead of infusing them with information, because I think that sometimes it’s sort of lazy to do that. Of course, you have to trust that whatever you're trying to communicate there. Verbal language is only one way of communicating things but is not the only one. For example, like in music - which can be verbal, but it’s also non-verbal. Choreography is also not verbal, humor can be also non-verbal, and, well, silence is non-verbal.
So, the means of communicating with one another are quite numerous. I use some verbal language, but not in the informational sense, and not necessarily in the traditional sense of dialogue, like “How are you? - I'm fine.” Because for me this inflicts a sort of linearity that I do not desire at all. Speaking ambitiously, I’d like my compositions to be interpreted in infinite ways. The second you start to apply linearity, you actually start to impose a singular center on the audience, and this is something that I completely do not enjoy. I don’t take any pleasure from the centrality of a linear narrative, so I avoid that. And when I do use actual verbal language, usually it's either a monologue versus another monologue or non-informational, mostly for the burlesque aspects of it, not for telling the audience were where things are going. And I think that when you speak about silence, well, there's something quite intense about silence. My silences are full of sounds, first of all.
NOTEBOOK: It’s a sort of reactive silence.
SULEIMAN: Reactive, but also an emotional silence, also. And I think that something is interesting about the reasons why people react to it. I think silence is in the proximity of ephemerality. When we are talking about silence people also find themselves in a place where they cannot consume this as entertainment, because it turns to question—why, how, and where we are. So, silence has the power to remind you of the fact that you're not there all the time.
NOTEBOOK: Considering your political approach, I’d like to ask about this apparent paradox, even though I wouldn’t call it as such. Usually, people don't associate silence with politics—rather, they are usually seen in this sort of inverse-proportional relationship, where the absence of speaking means taking the part of the oppressor or playing into all sorts of power dynamics. But you manage to elude this.
SULEIMAN: It's just the contrary. I think that structures of power fear silence because they don't want you to be reminded of your ephemerality. They want you to concentrate on what you can consume on a day to day basis, so their bank accounts can swell up from it. I think that when you start to think about time and this dimension of passing time, once you start to introduce a spiritual angle to your existence, they are scared and menaced. Because they would prefer you to go see an American Hollywood popcorn film and not think about the fact that you are wasting some precious moments of existence, that your moment is being consumed by a very surface-level pleasure, and not necessarily one that gets in touch with the deeper sense of existence. Power opposes that kind of silence. They prefer noise, action, illusions, distractions. Anything that has to do with spirituality and meditative moments is actually anti-authoritarian. They are de facto acts of resistance. Of course, this is something menacing for people who want you to forget that you’re engaging in consumerism.
While you start to look at an image and feel some existential questions, it becomes an act that resists oppression. So, on the contrary, I feel that silence is a form of resistance. It's also an existential moment because we feel that there is something that silence has to do with our own finality, and therefore we have to also face up to it. And facing this also has a very political dimension to it, and even the fact of insisting on the present tense, when you live a kind of vertical moment (and not a horizontal one), that means you are living more intensely and taking control of time. Euphoria, for example, has something to do with that. So, yes, it is extremely political, but I do not do that to strategize against the corruption of a government. I do that to maximize pleasure. For me, everything starts with pleasure, intuitively. Pleasure, as well as the impulse to insist on pleasure, is, in itself, extremely political.
NOTEBOOK: There's a lot of people who compare your work to that of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. But, the first time when I saw your films, I was rather more reminded of certain Czech novels. Are there any influences that extract from literature when you conceive your sketches?
SULEIMAN: Yes. Influence, I don’t know… well, let me be more precise. Because—I don’t know if you’ve read that too—but I’m always saying the same thing over and over: I was never influenced by Buster Keaton, or by Jacques Tati.
NOTEBOOK: Exactly. Yet people still ask you about that.
SULEIMAN: Maybe they don't know that I've answered this before, but the fact is that I understand where they’re coming from. Because yes, there is a lot of resemblances, and I can see that and I admire that, it's flattering. However, I don't think that images come from images only. They come from your own images. They can come from, you know, reading a book that is not even image-oriented. But the fact that a sentence or a poetic moment, a poetic word, can start to instigate and inspire you visually—it's possible, it's feasible, it’s happening all the time.
So, I don't know if it's restricted to references, whether it's film or books. It simply is just part of a culmination of your cultural experience and your consumption of certain interesting works, whether it's paintings or literature. In my case, I cannot pinpoint it. I do have to say that I got drawn to certain writers, but not in the sense that I read all of their books, but because they somehow seeped a certain dose of tenderness into my soul. So yes, that's why sometimes they ask me and I say, well, off the top of my head I think about Primo Levi. Because when I started reading his work, I was taken by it, of course. It's not like it overwhelmed my life, but I was so touched by it. There was a period, very long ago, where I would always take a book with me. And I remember vaguely that I would read one or two pages just before I fell asleep. I would read until I’d come across a couple of sentences would give me a certain kind of consolation, and that was it, I would shut the book and fall asleep. I'm sure this has influenced my work, at least minimally. And I'm sure that all of us probably have this in different ways in our lives, but you can’t pinpoint this exactly.
NOTEBOOK: And what would you say are some of your cinematic influences?
SULEIMAN: I can only remember precisely that, thirty years ago, I think it was... Tokyo Story. I saw it for the first time, I didn’t even know who the director was, but I remember I just looked at it and said, “Oh my God, I can make something like that.” And I had never studied cinema. I didn’t even have a love for cinema and hadn’t ever thought about how it can be done. But I had the desire to do something in my life after seeing Tokyo Story, and I started to think that maybe I can also do that. That was just an initial departure. And then, similarly, I when I started to watch the films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, I was thinking that these films reminded me of my background: of Nazareth, of my parents, of the alienation of living under Israeli rule, of the kind of alienated regard of my parents looking at what happened to their world, because it was taken away. They would have this post-siesta coffee on the balcony, and I would sit with them and I could see feel their silence to be a melancholic silence. I’m certain this is in my films, I can’t be 100 percent sure of it, but I’m sure that this moment inspired other moments that I have captured, that had an alienating feeling.
NOTEBOOK: In recent interviews, you have said that the world is being “palestinianized.” Could you expand on that notion?
SULEIMAN: I have a feeling that the solitude and loneliness that I feel, deep inside of me, regarding what is happening to us globally, is one reason why I wanted to make a film about the palestinianization of the world. Simply because we can all see what is happening. We are all under occupation, in some way or another, but I wanted to emphasize the individual loneliness that each of us is possibly living in. We do talk about governmental politics, about massive protests, about ecology, about consumerism. But I am experiencing it, and I also have the feeling that many people are also experiencing—at least, in my opinion—a lonely moment. A moment that is composed of solitude and loneliness, which we don’t talk about, out of self-conservation, even with our most intimate partners. And that is something that I see in the eyes and the expressions of people, in the feeling of being lost in the world. We don’t talk about this. We talk about the headaches, the big slogans, of our fear that comes from watching media images of ice melting. However, we don’t talk about this really deep emotion of how lost we have become. A fear that adds to our ancient, ancestral existential fears of death, of what this world is really about—add to it the feeling that we are living in an undeclared post-apocalypse, an undeclared global war, add this to all of our normal fears. So, add this to all of our normal fears this new one—which isn’t even a question of our natural existence, but a result of this monstrosity that has developed across the last couple of hundreds of years.
So my film also approaches this angle—can we potentially console each other from this angle, not simply hold hands at a protest? I love activism, but I'm not an activist. I'm somebody who lives this lonesome moment and I felt it’s not just me living it. (Just like I felt that I’m not the only one that experiences this burlesque humor.) We have a lot of social inhibitions that forbid us from sharing this, so we don't really go there. We simply stay physically imprisoned within ourselves. Even some of our euphoria or tendency of taking the maximum pleasure out of something has an imprisoned inhibition in it. There is something about the social structure and the political structure that makes us even more repressed emotionally than we already are. So, this film comes from the culmination of such desires that I had—that's why this character, that is myself (evidently) is always so much in the center of the image because he is so vulnerable. He has no center, so it becomes more evident that this person is carrying his vulnerability. I wanted to have this melancholy, burlesque element that is frankly just who I am. But it was also in order to also try to reach out to the melancholy and humor of the spectators.
It's just it's a way of communicating. The minimum that I'm asking for is a possibility for a shared consolation. Trying to maximize the image in terms of pleasure is also a form of consolation. If you imagine now that—well, it doesn't take much imagination to be honest—that we are all living in a ghetto, that we all are under occupation, that we are self-colonialist in our behavior and thinking. So I try to find a way to somehow reach out to this momentum, without targeting a specific outcome, because I don't know how to solve this situation. And my experience now, at this age of maturity, is that nothing solves nothing.
NOTEBOOK: That is very fatalistic.
SULEIMAN: No, it's a very positive note. I think that when you face yourself, you start to think about existing vertically, and stopping thinking ahead, living life internally rather than externally. It's not fatalistic, it’s a philosophical path.
NOTEBOOK: Still, there is a marked lighter tone in It Must Be Heaven, compared to your earlier work. And this more globalized perspective is also visible in its narrative. Yet, there was a pretty long distance between these films—nine years. How has this space changed your way of working?
SULEIMAN: Actually it has nothing to do with the years. I mean, part of the reason why I did not make a film earlier was simply related to financial aspects. That I don't make films the way other filmmakers do has to do with the nature of the semi-autobiographical elements that I use. Maybe also because I'm not really a filmmaker in the classical sense of the word. I don't have a fetish, basically, for cinema, for images. I felt that you know, as the years have gone by I have also shifted position in terms of how I look at things, and also because of the world has revealed itself to me to be more intensely problematic. I think that's why I started to change my position: instead of acting passively, I started to react, to become a part of the image rather than just being this kind of guide. And I did it with pleasure. I became part of the ridiculousness of the lighter side of things. So I constructed the person I think I am from a visual point of view —which is this kind of awkward guy who's losing all of his battles—and I kind of had a lot of fun doing that, actually. I have to say that I usually don't like to act myself, but in this film, I kind of indulged in how ridiculous I could become.
NOTEBOOK: Usually, when a filmmaker inserts him or herself into their own film, especially as the main character (and there are numerous recent examples), it’s also usually a meta-cinematic statement. But I never felt this same pretentious, dogmatic formalist approach towards including yourself in your films.
SULEIMAN: It came intuitively and naturally. But I don't know. I mean, if we go and ask Buster Keaton the same question what he would say? Or Charlie Chaplin, why did he put himself inside the image? I actually have no idea. There was a moment on set, towards the end of the shooting, where my DOP looked at me and said, “Are you sure you want to do this? This is not your style.” I told him there is no such thing as my style, and if you concluded that I’m committed to fixed frames or Cahiers du cinéma, you're completely wrong. If I have constipated myself in the past in terms of some stylistic choice, there must have been a reason for that, which could be a wrong one, even, but that was what it was.
Similarly, I did a lot of things in this film that I have never really done before, you know, a shift has happened. It's obvious, but this is not noticed not only by you but also by me. When I see the film now (I’ve seen it three to four times since the release) I hope to never get bored from seeing, in order to learn something out of what happened to me. To understand why the spectators are reacting to it in this way. Like when they say, “oh, this is your saddest film so far,” yet they were laughing all the time. Or the contrary. I need to learn something about myself from that and from the way I exposed the world. You know, what does it say about me as a person? Somehow, after making this film, I’m a little worried about where I'm going to be next because after I have finished a film, I don't trust my ideas anymore, I start to doubt them.