Saying It Must Be Heaven is a Palestinian film can give a lot of people the wrong impression at first. It’s a film that is enjoyable and worth seeing.
The film begins with a Christian religious ceremony in Nazareth, Palestine. They’re to enter the church, but it’s locked. It’s locked by the custodians who want to be alone drinking up. The priest and those part of the mass are angry. They barge in and get violent with him.
Life in Nazareth is not a pleasant experience for filmmaker Elia Suleiman. Elia has been experienced some downtime since a close friend of his died. Elia still has their wheelchair, walker and other personal items. Wherever he goes, it appears people have a surly attitude. He goes to a restaurant and there’s an argument over the wine. He lives on the opposite end of an apartment where a father and son live in opposite suites and exchange insults. The few times when the Palestinians are nice to each other are when they know they’re being observed. Once outsiders leave, they go back to being their grumbling selves. The one Palestinian in Nazareth who looks to have a pleasant attitude is a young gardener who tends to Suleiman’s lemon tree, against Suleiman’s will. Suleiman tells him he doesn’t want him to trim it, but he comes back.
Elia seeks inspiration for his script. However he has to seek financial support from outside of Palestine. He goes on a flight to Paris and the flight gets turbulent as is goes over the Dinaric Alps. When he arrives in Paris, the Paris of people’s fantasies is alive. He sees it as a city of romance, a city of nice fashionably dressed women at a cafe having a good time together.
Then the realities of Paris start. His hotel suite is right next to a fashion house and their LED ad shines out a lot of lights that make it hard for Elia to sleep. He sits outside his window and looks out onto the street. He’s on the subway and sees a tattooed punk try to look menacing to him. He sees someone put a plastic bag underneath a car parked just outside. A bomb? The police come on Segways to check, but notice nothing and move away. He sees a homeless man lying around nearby and the police arriving to give him food. Suleiman is there during Bastille Day. He finds himself lost in a crowd during a military parade.
Elia knows he has business to deal with in Paris. He meets with a film producer, but the producer tells him that his film isn’t Palestinian enough. Elia tries to work more on his script. He notices that a bird has flown into his hotel suite. He welcomes the bird at first. However problems arise when Elia is typing on his script and the birds wants Elia’s attention. The bird hops onto his laptop and Elia gently pushes him aside. The bird repeats, but Elia’s had enough. He decides the bird need to fly back out in the open.
Elia then sets his sights on New York. Before he does, he has a day where he just wants to relax. He goes over to a park area, but notices a woman dressed in an angel costume with the Palestinian flag on her torso. A group of police try to pursue her, but she makes it a case of ‘catch me if you can.’ When they do catch her, she mysteriously disappears. Returning to his hotel that evening, he sees the car that had the bag placed underneath it is towed away. The bag is still visible.
When Elia arrives in New York, he is taken to a hotel by a cab driver who tries to develop conversation. The cab driver asks where he’s from, and Elia responds “Palestine.” The cab driver slams on his brakes and talks about how surprised he is to see a Palestinian. He’s never seen one before! He meets with a pretentious film professor. The professor wants his story to embody the Palestinian cause in the best way it can. He goes to a meeting held by a Palestinian-American group. The crowd is too enthusiastic for the leader to handle so she demands they all give one clap for each speaker she announces.
Then the meeting with the producer happens. Before he does, he is met in the waiting room with Gael Garcia Bernal who is his friend. Bernal has read over his script and he is very happy with what Suleiman has written. The exec however is uninterested in funding a ‘Palestinian story.’ Before Suleiman is about to return back home, he walks around New York and notices how Americans everywhere, even in the supermarkets, carry guns over their shoulders. He arrives back in Nazareth and notices that the gardener is back pruning his trees. The film ends with Suleiman in a discotheque with young people dancing to a song celebrating Palestine.
The film has a message to say, but instead of it speaking its message, it allows the message to be told in the images it shows. The film says its messages in what Suleiman sees. We see the world through his eyes. Nazareth looks to be this unhappy place in the middle of nowhere. Suleiman thinks that he will have a better time in the cities he will visit: Paris and New York. He can escape the unpleasant attitudes, the violent actions of others and fear of terrorism. He’s in for a surprise. In Paris, he notices what could be a car bomb placed underneath a car. The bomb never goes off, but it does remind you it has its own threats. Even in New York where there are still memories of 9/11, the threat of terrorism is there too. Bad manners? Suleiman witnesses as a stranger on a Paris subway tries to look menacing to him. Over in the part, an elderly lady tries to get a seat, but a young man on a bike beats her to it with no regrets. He’s reminded there’s rudeness there too. He’s also reminded of military preparedness and vigilance too as the Bastille Day parade has a military march and Americans in New York show their weapons openly. what he thought he’d leave behind in Palestine is still there in Paris and New York.
The film also feels about the difficulty of being a Palestinian in the outside world. Elia may be Christian but he defines himself as a Palestinian. He finds it hard enough living in Palestine, but finds it challenging to define himself to others. The meeting with the producer in Paris shows the French are interested in showing an image of Palestine, but one common or friendly with French audiences. The meeting with the taxi driver also adds to the feelings of confusion with his identity. He goes to a Palestinian-American rally that supports the cause, but doesn’t get too much out of it. How can a Palestinian relate to a Palestinian-American? Even if they share the same cause, they don’t have too much in common.
The film is less about the words spoken that it is about what one sees happening. This is pretty much a film of what Elia Suleiman sees through his eyes and he lets the images and moments do the talking instead of him. There are very few instances when you see Elia talking. It’s very rare in a film where the protagonist doesn’t even utter ten words. Almost all moments of the film, including moments when he appears to be in a conversation, show him being a silent observer or a silent responder. That adds to the humor of the film, and Elia wants the film to blend humor with the theme and message of his story. Yep, even moments where you see Elia being dead silent get us laughing. It’s part of the film’s ironic dry humor. Some could say Elia’s wit is a lot like Woody Allen’s. You be the judge.
This is the first film in seven years for Elia Suleiman. His last one was 7 Days In Havana. This is a film he directs, writes, and plays lead. He does a good job in letting the images tell the story. Even during his mute moments, he adds to the humor of the story. It’s a silent humor that you have to get and understand while you watch this film. The inclusion of music in the various scenes adds to the story and fits it well.
It Must Be Heaven is Palestine’s official entry in the Academy Awards category of Best International Feature Film; a retitling of the Best Foreign Language Film category. The film has won a lot of acclaim. Acclaim includes a win for Special Mention at this year’s Cannes Film Fest as well as a nomination for the Palme d’Or, a nomination for Best Film at the Seville Film Festival, and a nomination for Best Canadian Feature Film at the Toronto Film Festival (film had production in Canada).
It Must Be Heaven is a film with a lot of wit and dry humor. Its silence of much of the story and of its main protagonist actually speaks volumes and is the film’s best quality.
One thing about the VIFF is that you will have the opportunity to see shorts films whether it be a short shown before a feature or a segment of shorts assembled together. They pack a lot of entertainment value for something brief in length. The first shorts segment I was lucky to see was Teen Trouble. It consisted of seven different shorts situated in seven different countries all with a teen-related subject and boy were they entertaining:
-I Love Anna (Finland)- 12 year-old Finnish boy Santeri has always had a crush on Anna: the local farm girl. Anna likes Santeri too. One night Anna’s parents are away and she has to look after her little sister. This could be Santeri’s chance to take it to new levels.
The quality of this short is that it takes you into the excitement of the moment as it progresses without any added music score. It adds to the excitement of the moment. Another added quality is it will remind you of when you fell in love for the first time or even of your own sexual curiosities when you were that age.
-Fabrizio’s Initiation (Argentina)- Sexual feelings many years later. Only Fabrizio is now a 15 year-old Argentinian boy who has been in a relationship with Nadia for over a year. Their chances of doing it for the first time are constantly interrupted. However Fabrizio’s friends derive a plan to make it work by conniving the village elder into giving them his car and fixing it up for the moment. Will this finally be it? The film ends with a surprise in more ways than one.
This is a humorous short about the constant pressure of losing your virginity for the right moment and trying to make it right. Hey, it’s not always prom night! It also will remind you of your own teenage love and of all the stuff you tried to do behind your parents’ back.
-The Law Of Moments (UK)- The lessons of Isaac Newton younger sister Mal studies from physics class play into this drama. Mal and Lucy are teen sisters who lost their closeness as older sister Lucy got involved with partying. It’s been of concern to Mal as she sees Lucy and her mother constantly fighting. One night, Mal goes to the farm to see what kind of crowd she’s hanging with. It’s not pleasant at all. Mal goes to help Lucy only for things to end not as it should.
Here we go from comedy to drama. This is a good story that shows the end at the beginning and how it came to be. The addition of Mal’s physics lesson as well as her childhood memory of her and Lucy on the see saw add style to the story line. Very creative.
-Three Minute Warning (UK/Palestine)- This possibly the darkest short of the segment. Palestinian teen girl Miriam has to look after her mother who has a leg problem. It’s a daily thing which includes cooking for her mother and even assisting her to the bathroom and it robs her of the carefree life most teenage girls have. One night a warning bomb– a bomb sent three minutes before the real bomb is to hit its target– hits their apartment. Miriam has to help her mother make the escape while all the others leave them behind. It’s hopeless and it sets up for the heartbreaking ending.
No doubt Palestinian director Iqbal Mohammed has something to say in this short. It was very well-told and will leave you infuriated with the political situation in the Middle East today.
-On The Roof (Spain)- Five Barcelona teen boys love to go to the top of their apartment balcony to spy on sunbathing women during the summer. Bonus points if they’re topless. One day they go to check out a topless sunbather. One boy, Adrian, spots a naked man showering. He also learns something of himself he never knew. One of Adrian’s friends senses his attraction and reacts with hostility. He even senses it on the youngest of the friends and pressures the young boy to take a photo of the bather standing on the top ledge. Adrian stops and volunteers to do it. The end comes with a surprising result but nothing dreadful.
This short focuses on a teen boy’s discovery of his same-sex attraction which catches him by surprise and causes hostility among one of his friends. The short also focuses on teen male machismo which naturally approaches same-sex attraction with hostile discomfort. A reminder of some of the difficulties gay teens go through.
-Winds Of Furnace (Mexico)- A young Mexican teen boy faces a daily responsibility of looking after his grandmother. One day, two of his friends come to his house with a van they stole. The three go out to have fun in their neighborhood. However you know something will go wrong when they take a body found in the van and dispose of it. It’s the case as a van driven by a cartel crosses their paths and shoots one of the friends. This leads to a vicious chase where the boy fires a gun at the cartel. The ending ends with you thinking this is what’s meant to be.
This short didn’t have its subtitles on at the time so it was hard to make sense. However it was a good story of peer pressure taken to the extreme with the potential for dangerous consequences. The heat of the moment left you wondering if he would be killed by the end. I’m sure a lot of boys in Mexico have gone through this temptation. It’s good to see he was possibly the one who didn’t get killed.
-Aeris (Canada)- A young rising teen snowboarder is seen as a possible future great in the sport. However, the 19 year-old suffers a broken leg during competition requiring plates, screws and months of healing. Months later, she goes snowboarding with her friends to see if she still has it and to get her competitive drive back. This proves difficult as she encounters fans on the mountain and even the fear of her broken leg returning if she tries another jump.
This may be the least heavy short of the seven but it does feature a pressure: a personal pressure young rising phenoms in sport know all too well. It makes for a good snowboarding story. It even gets you fearing for her as well as she questions whether to make that big jump.
In summary, all seven shorts were very good and had a lot to say about teen life in the humorous moments, the tense moments and even tragic moments. All definitely gave an image of what it’s like to be young.
Teen Trouble was an impressive selection of shorts. Anyone can be entertained by something in the selection.
The Oscar-nominated short films were back in theatres again. However this year I only had the chances to see the live-action one day and the animated another. I have no problem writing separate reviews for both. So here’s my take on the live-action shorts:
–Ave Maria (Palestine/France/Germany): dirs. Eric Dupont and Basil Khalil – Five nuns pray at a convent in a ‘war-zone’ area of Palestine. Then they hear what sounds like an explosive car crash. One tries to help despite the fact they are under a vow of silence. What happened was a car driven by Jewish residents accidentally crashed into the Virgin Mary statue. They try to help but there are conflicts with the nuns’ vows of silence and the family’s strict adherence to the Sabbath and with kosherisms. Not to mention they don’t want to be noticed by Arab residents in the area.
The film does focus on the religious tensions in Palestine but in a humorous way. All of this takes place in the area of the convent. However it’s funny how something as little as a car crash and people trying to seek out help can lead to such religious conflicts. That may have been the least of problems in Palestine but even then it just shows the humor of the whole situation and of how in the end it’s all about doing the right thing. I feel the film’s mix of humor while conveying a social message is why I predict it Will Win the Oscar.
–Shok (Kosovo/UK): dir. Jamie Donoughue – A car driving on a Kosovo road stops at an abandoned child’s bicycle. But why would a grown male from the car leave the car to look at the bicycle? And why would he ride it soon after?
The answer flashes back to the mid-90’s. Two Kosovar Albanian boys Petrit and Oki are the closest of friends. They frequently go to school riding on the bicycle Oki bought after a year of selling almonds. Petrit wants a bike of his own but feels he can get it by selling drugs and rolling papers to Serbian soldiers who’ve taken over the area. He feels it could also prevent them invading their village despite news stories of other areas of Kosovo being invaded. He even tells Oki he’s safe with him.
However Petrit’s promise and ‘business’ is put under heavy question during one of his ‘deals’ as a Serbian soldier wants Oki’s bicycle. It’s not the lost bicycle Oki’s angry about but the fact Petrit is willing to do something dangerous and dishonest for money and it threatens their friendship. They reconcile after Petrit is willing to take an assault from a soldier after Albanian books are found in Oki’s bag and Petrit claims them as his own. Unfortunately the invasion of their village eventually comes and with it the tragic end of the friendship of Oki and Petrit.
Of all five shorts, this is the one that still stayed with me long after I left the theatre. This is a story based on true events. I easily remember the war in the Balkans, especially the bloodshed in Bosnia, back in the 90’s. It dominated the news that decade. The war in Kosovo just years after the war in Bosnia ended was another example of the tyranny and I remember that as well. It does leave you feeling it was unfair of what happened to Oki. He was the smart one. He was the one who kept Petrit’s head on straight. But he was the one killed. Also that end scene where we see a grown-up Petrit still haunted by the war more that fifteen years later reminds you that war still haunts even as time passes and even if Kosovo did get its independence. My cousin once said: “No country’s freedom came without some amount of bloodshed.” True, but the bloodshed still leaves people with a trauma not even independence can solve. That’s why I pick Shok to be my Should Win pick.
–Eveything Will Be Okay (Austria/Germany): dir. Patrick Vollrath – The film starts on a simple note. A man named Michael goes to see his daughter Lea for visitation. His ex-wife and new boyfriend don’t have a problem with that at all so we think it will just be a fun day of the two of them without incident. It starts on a fun note as he buys her a big Playmobil toy and promises to taker her to the fair afterwards. However things get a bit suspicious as the two go to a photo booth where he gets Lea to have a photo of her own and takes to a passport office for rush processing. Things get even fishier when Michael sells his car and they take a cab to the airport. Soon we get what’s going on. It’s a miracle the flight to Dubai was cancelled but they have a replacement flight the next morning. Despite Lea wanting to go home, Michael is insistent on taking her and for her to cooperate. It’s by the luck of Lea making a phone call to her mother overnight that they’re able to prevent an abduction from happening. But not without a struggle.
This is a film of a scenario that happens all too often. A broken marriage and children caught in the middle even to the point of them being abducted. This is something that happens all over the world. However the story is not just about the child caught in the middle but the parent who’s hurting and feels that the child is being taken away from him. The film leaves you wondering if Michael suffers from a mental illness or if he’s just a hurting person. It leaves you feeling that way of a lot of parents from failed marriages. Is that why they abduct their children? The film also leaves you relieved that the flight was cancelled and that Lea was able to make that phone call to her mother in the early morning. Not as many children are as lucky.
The best quality of the film is that it helps the audience live the moment. We don’t know what’s really happening at first but we soon get a better understanding of what’s happening as time goes on. Even as they go to the fair and ride the bumper cars, we still can’t take our mind off of what we suspect will happen. And as time moves on, what we suspect is exactly what’s happening. In addition that scene which we think is the end where the police, Lea’s mother and the hotel personnel try to stop the heist ends up being a scene where a new conflict begins. Michael still struggle to hang onto Lea. That’s another quality of the film where right where we think it’s all over, it’s not and a new struggle begins. On top of that the film’s story is shown without any musical score which adds to the intensity of the drama.
This is a film of a story of an incident that happens all too often in our world. The film’s best qualities are the story unfolding quietly as time unfolds and the unexpected twists in the drama.
-Stutterer (UK/Ireland): dirs. Benjamin Cleary and Serena Armitage – Greenwood, a twentysomething London male with a stutter finds life difficult. His stutter is so severe, it causes problems when calling customer service. He has a job as a typographer but his social life is limited to him with his father. Often he fakes himself as death to try and avoid conversation. His thoughts however are perfectly coherent.
Despite his social flaws and his speech problem, he has developed an online relationship with a woman named Ellie. That works excellently and they keep the relationship going for six months despite never meeting face to face. However the day comes when Ellie would like to meet Greenwood for the first time. He’s in a crisis of what to do and abandons her at first but agrees to do so the next day despite being nervous as hell. The ending will surprise you.
This is a charming story. It takes you into the person’s feelings as well as their insecurities. You learn of Greenwood’s stutter and of what he’s really thinking and easily see the barriers he has to face. You learn about Greenwood the person and hope that in the end he does win Ellie. The ending will delight you. Very clever short film.
–Day One (USA): dir. Henry Hughes – Feda is a young woman just hired by the U.S. Army to act as interpreter. She’s in her 30’s and admits to her colleague who also speaks Arabic that she’s never been married and has no children. Her operation on Day One involves dealing with an enemy bomb maker the army is about to arrest. The operation involves a lot more. It also involves bring his fatherless niece to safety. It also involves dealing with his wife who’s about to give birth.
As if trying to deliver the baby isn’t stressful enough, there’s the fact the baby’s hand is hanging out. The doctor tests for a pulse from the baby and assumes there isn’t one. Feda is given orders to cut the deceased baby’s limbs so that the mother doesn’t bleed to death. Even before Feda attempts the first cut, she notices the hand move. The baby’s alive. There is a sigh of relief but there’s the new stress of making sure the baby’s born right and the mother not bleeding to death. The film ends on a sad but hopeful note.
Just like Everything Will Be Okay, it captures the drama of the moment and allows the audience to capture the intensity as the events are slowly unfolding. The various twists and turns in the story also adds to the continuous drama. The happy ending we all hope for doesn’t happen but it does end with a moment of hope, especially for Feda.
In conclusion, I feel Shok should win the Oscar because of how it’s a story that stays with you long after you leave the theatre. It was creative and it told a story that will touch you deep down inside. I still remember hearing a couple of people in tears after Oki was shot. However I don’t know if the Academy will pick a short that’s all too serious. I think they might want to go for a story leading more to the humorous side. I think Ave Maria with its mix of humor and social awareness will take the Oscar. I think the Academy would prefer a film like that.
And there are my thoughts for this year’s five nominees in the category of Best Live Action Short Film. Winners to be decided on the big night. Also click here for my reviews of the animated shorts.