Elias Suleiman And The Making Of The Globalized World Of It Must Be Heaven
By: Amir Ganjavie
It Must Be Heaven, Elias Suleiman’s latest film, is somehow relevant to our current pandemic situation, in a sense that Suleiman shows us footage from historical landmarks which are empty.
In Elia Suleiman's It must be heaven, we see shots of the Louvre Museum, or similar historical places in France that are empty, and we wonder how these places came to be so. We would have never guessed that we would come upon a time when all these historical places get closed due to the Coronavirus pandemic. A while back, when I was in Doha (Qatar) to participate at 2019 Ajyal film festival, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with the director about the film. Because of our current situation, we thought it is important to publish this interview, so we would be able to see the vision and dream of a Palestinian director who believes that we have entered a globalized world in which borders do not exist anymore, where the concept of identity has completely disappeared. Elias Suleiman’s film is more relevant now than ever, and we strongly recommend watching it.
Amir Ganjavie, UniversalCinema Magazine (UM): The amazing thing that I’ve been wondering is how you managed to shoot in such magnificent historical settings. It’s not easy to shoot in those kinds of locations. What was your secret?
Elias Suleiman (ES): With Paris, I was just lucky to have the opportunity when the person from the mayor’s office who gives the permissions turned out to be very familiar with my films and he sort of likes them. They wouldn’t normally give permission for shooting in such central areas of Paris but this guy just went for it so we were very lucky to be able to use quite a lot of the heavenly touristic areas. Other than that, it’s a lot of work, especially the logistics of actually emptying places and managing big sets and all of that. There were, of course, some concerns about it but we managed pretty well.
UM: How long did you spend shooting?
ES: We shot for like fourteen days here, eighteen days there, and fourteen days there. The shooting itself was not very long but the preparations were quite lengthy and from the beginning of when we started to prepare until the time when we finished it was a year. We basically shot like we were making three films with its own production.
UM: There was a long time between your previous film and this one. Was the main reason because you couldn’t secure financing?
ES: Yes, to some extent it was because of the financing. It was not a cheap film to make and financing for films is not in a good state today. It now takes much longer to put financing together, though all of my films have had seven or eight years between them. I think the reason for this is that my films are made from semi-biographical moments based on the lived experience of observing life and sponging ambiances. It’s not an adaptation of something like a book where you just write the script. It's really coming from real events most of the time and 90% of what you see in my films actually has the departure point of something that happened in reality. I basically spend my time doing nothing and just observing and being alert to the moment that I’m living. You have to concentrate a lot on living in the present moment and not just live in a kind of mundane daily way. Most of my films are actually about me watching, though not only watching but also taking internal voyages. This is because the deeper that you dig within yourself the more you are in a sort of connection with the outside world.
UM: How do you decide that a certain moment of the life that you are experiencing is worthy of making a film? Is it by consultation and talking with others or is it only through your personal intuition?
ES: Yes, you answered the question. You don’t talk to others. I think that you need to have a really intense sense of solitude. It’s a very meditative process, which is really the daydreaming world that we have to sustain all the time. This is really how it becomes imagery. I mean there’s a process of always trying to look at what you are watching to see if it has that potentiality of metamorphosing into some kind of aesthetic dimension because not everything we see is worthy of being made into a film. It’s a lot of work and a lot of learning back and forth and a lot of notes that you write and some of it doesn’t make it into the film. Sometimes though, you have a moment when you capture something in reality and there is a moment when something is triggered inside of you and you say “Ah, this has the potential to be put into some kind of cinematic composite.”
UM: French cinema has historically had a strong tradition of producing comedies. I’m thinking of, for example, Jacques Tati’s film made in 1960. It’s very interesting that you, as somebody who wasn’t French in the first place, have worked within the same tradition, the film looks very French.
ES: Yes, I always say that I’m not so surprised that there are so many of us in the world. That some of us resemble some people, you know, in terms of humour and observation. I never really knew Jacques Tati or Buster Keaton but these two directors have become a reference. I actually encountered them after I started to make films. It’s not puzzling for me that I could resemble someone else or have the same kind of observational capacity as another. I’m sure that if you look closely enough you’ll find that people are a lot alike and that somewhere in the world there are people who things see similarly. It’s not just going to Paris and observing. It’s actually getting a sense of familiarity with the place.
UM: The film is like Walter Benjami’s reading of Paris with paying a lot of attention to the details and everyday life and bringing something transcendental from mundane life.
ES: Yes, it’s absolutely that. I think that in my case it started with visiting Paris and then once I lived in the city I started to do the same thing that I did in Nazareth, which is sitting in cafes, sitting in solitude, and sitting in closed spaces trying to daydream the possibilities of my observations and my notes. At some point there is a moment when you start to feel the accumulation of all of that and you think that the weight of what you have been living can potentially turn into some form of cinematic language. You cannot do that prematurely. What happens with me is that it’s trial and error. You have a feeling that you’ve arrived somewhere but then you didn’t so you have to go back and accumulate some more experience and some more observations. You asked how long it takes. This is much of the reason why it takes so long. It’s because you have to live in order to create. In my case, it’s not a situation where you have a director who has seen so many films and has all of these references kind of mingled together so that something comes out of them. Such a director can go on and adapt a novel. That’s not the case for me. I’m somebody who makes a kind of a semi-biography of sorts.
UM: You also acted in your film at the same time that you were directing. How did you manage to do that? Was there ever any kind of moment of tension between Elia Suleiman the actor and Elia Suleiman the director? Have you ever had a conversation between these two sides in yourself and said, for example, “you can’t do this, Elia, because I’m the director” and tried to bring yourself to the same side?
ES: I think that they’re both synced. It’s difficult to direct and act at the same time for the reasons that you can imagine, like always shifting position, but once you go from behind the camera to position yourself as an actor, you’re not exactly disconnected as part of the same component. You know, I’m not playing another character. I’m also acting as myself who’s behind the camera so it’s not really in contradiction. I think the difficulty is much more the exhaustion that you experience between shifting minds. Sometimes the only thing that I realized during the shooting was that when I’m not in front of the camera and I’m shooting, the other part of the film is just a little bit easier because the second you have to change wardrobe and get the makeup and put yourself in front of the screen then you’re playing the devil role. You shoot the scene and then go behind the camera to look at the monitor and see if it works. What I do when I go from behind the camera to in front of the camera is try to disconnect from the surroundings. I think that at some point you develop a kind of method of disconnecting yourself from the reality around you. This takes a little bit of an interior meditative moment before you “action.”
UM: The theme of this film is very critical of orientalism, a concept developed by Edward Said. In fact, although you were not interested to show a Palestinian root in this film, the French film industry wanted you to make a film that shows your nationality. They were surprised that you want to make a regular French film. Can you say more about this tension?
ES: Well, first of all, I’ve been living this kind of self-exile and nomadic existence for quite a big portion of my life. During this time you stop having one level of identification and you start to actually multiply your otherness. You are wherever you are trying to emancipate the culture that you are living in. So I’m not French and I’m not Palestinian and I’m not American. I’m just somebody who managed to somehow familiarize himself with the places that I inhabited. It’s a privilege and a curse at the same time because it also gets to be a little bit tiresome. I mean, it’s a mistake to think that I am complete with being what is referred to as a citizen of the world. Sometimes the anxiety of that also prevails and you do long for a kind of rootedness in one place. The sentiment of belonging to one geography and one people has not evaporated in my case I think that until today I would say that my strongest identification has always been with where I came from in the first place. But, on the other hand, when you’re making cinema you extend yourself to all of these places and you extend yourself to all of these people who you are actually filming and they become a part of your inner experience. Even when I was making films in Palestine I think that the critique and the critical viewing were always present in my work. Maybe what prevailed strongly in this film is the post-colonial discourse, which I portrayed in kind of a light way. It is more in the humour than in the analogy but it is a hint and a reminder that we still live in this post-colonial world. It has not exactly evaporated. The way that the Occident looks at the Orient still has the residues of the colonial past. Having said that, I also have to add that the Orient is not exactly innocent of self-colonization. It is also a participant in maintaining the status quo.
UM: You mentioned that your works are mostly based on your personal daily life. Does that mean you will never make a film in Palestine?
ES: The door is open to do anything. It’s just a question of inspiration and what comes your way. I don’t think that I have an ideological position about what and where. It’s really something to do with your sense of things. This is what has happened so far but I cannot say that something else will not happen in the future. It’s something about your own development and your own sense of how you view the world. I’ve never adapted a novel but it might happen tomorrow. I have no idea.
UM: You mentioned that finding funding is not always easy but France is often considered to be the best place for making arthouse films. Can you say more about the challenges of getting financial support in the French system, even for a director like you who has a good reputation?
ES: It used to be the best place to be but not anymore. Now finding financing in France is not easy at all. All of the pockets that used to be very welcoming to films like mine have actually now closed up. What remains is like maybe two or three pockets of funding and that’s it in France. Arte France often supported my films and they rejected my script for this one. We had to go to the Germans through Arte Germany and they actually financed the film.
UM: Does the fact that today’s films are produced with an international structure through the collaboration of several countries make life easier for filmmakers?
ES: It makes more financing available but filmmaking overall is not easier at all. The co-production world is a really complicated affair because of the requirements that money needs to be spent in the country that provided the funding, for example. You face a lot of conditions in a very complex kind of system. This film was particularly difficult because so many countries were involved.
UM: So when you got funding from certain countries they would say, for example, that you need to have this or that so that you can meet the criteria?
ES: Yeah, your hands are tied in some respect because you cannot just say “okay, I want to choose this and this and that” or the locations. You know, if we got money from Quebec, for example, and we wanted to use special effects then that means we would have to spend the money in Quebec. That’s not the case in Palestine because, of course, there’s no money from there. When it comes to co-production it goes with the system of points and you have to choose this DOP from this country and this and this and that so it’s complicated.
UM: I’m also curious about your working relationship with the director of photography. Do you decide on shots or is it a collaborative discussion with your DOP? How does it work?
ES: You start the conversation as a director and then the collaboration is what actually becomes the way of working. With my DOP it was constant. I chose the locations, of course, and the script and all that, but then when we went to scout. I did a very specific breakdown of shots. I went with the DOP to the locations where we were supposed to shoot and we did a very precise breakdown of the shots. Some of the locations don’t correspond to the way that you envision things. The locations have their limitations and possibilities so it depends a lot on what the place is telling you. It’s a bit like a conversation that takes place because the cinematographer normally plugs in to the director’s way of looking and comes to complement it.
UM: In this case you were the main actor in the film but how do you normally determine whether something is a good or bad performance by others?
ES: When you’re writing you’re already daydreaming about things like the choreography of the film. You’re already saying to yourself, you know, X goes from left to right and so and so opens the door. Especially in my sort of film there is quite a lot of choreography so you have to have a sense of not what I would call a performance but rather what produces and interesting animation on the screen. You have to have a sense from the moment when you’re casting that this person fits the vision that you had. Of course, there’s always a miss but normally you need to have an intuition of what this character might produce that will complement the original idea that you had in this script.
UM: So you have preconceived ideas about what a good performance looks like and then on set if you see that in a scene it’s a good performance and if you don’t see it then it’s not a good performance. Is that right?
ES: You know, actors and non-actors have the same effect. They come and they complement each other. You’re not the only sculptor. There’s participation and collaboration at all of the levels of the production. Actors and non-actors can both come and actually add something that you did not envision. It’s a question of a beginning as an idea in your head but then it gets molded along the way. It’s not like a fixed idea and if someone doesn’t do that specific thing then they’re not good. No, feel the actor, you spend time with the actor, and the actor can come and propose stuff. It’s the same thing as with the sound man and the cinematographer. It’s collaborative work.
UM: What is your working relationship with the editor like?
ES: I’ve been working with the same editor for a long time. It’s a perfect collaboration. She knows my film precisely and understands very intensely where I want to go. I like the editing room because it’s a very intimate space. The way that it normally goes is that she spends the first couple of weeks working from the script and putting together the narrative according to that. She can start with a proposition but then after that we are together in the editing room. The way that I revise it with her is that she should be working alone for the first few hours and then I go and we start to work together. Then at the end of the day we have a discussion about the day after the work is done. We go on like this each day.