The silence and melancholy that underlie his sense of the ridiculous might suggest Suleiman is paying homage to Chaplin; he could be a modern version of Chaplin’s tramp, fortified against misadventure with books and a frequent flyer card. “But I think what’s interesting about this is that I did not watch a lot of films in my life,” he says. It could be, he muses, that he is just catching up with the past. “Maybe the silent part is coming as if I were living a century ago.” Although he has an abiding love of old westerns, he doesn’t watch a lot of films, even now. “I don’t know what it is that I do a lot of. Maybe smoking and drinking.”
For him, these things are a sort of work. After all, the human oddities chronicled in It Must Be Heaven are mostly garnered from life as seen from a succession of cafe tables. “If you come and sit with me in a cafe, you will see the same things I’m seeing,” he says. “You just have to be alert and watch and daydream and space out and then come back. It’s really a job with the features of unemployment; you have to do absolutely nothing, then take in stuff that’s happening.”
One of his most bitterly funny encounters is with a Parisian producer who was excited by the idea of making a film by a Palestinian director until he read it and realised it was a comedy. Like many of the vignettes in It Must Be Heaven, this is a slightly embroidered version of a real event. “It happened when I was trying to finance my first film in the ’90s,” he says. “The idea that a Palestinian makes a film that has humour was not exactly welcome in the ‘lefty’ world in Europe, because they are the patrons of the Palestinian cause.” The problem, explains the po-faced producer (played by Vincent Maraval, one of his producers in real life), is that his script just isn’t Palestinian enough. Why, it could have happened anywhere!
That is exactly the sense Suleiman wanted to convey. He chose Paris and New York as his character’s boltholes because he had lived in each of them for 14 years, so he didn’t marvel at them as a tourist would. “There is a kind of cross-border existence going on with quite a lot of us,” he says. “This is about migration, not only of the unfortunate who drown in the sea, but also of the middle classes, who are now trapped in a sense of alienation about who they are and where they want to be.”
As a fellow drinker slurs at Elia Suleiman’s character in a New York bar, after taking in his recent zip around the world: “Are you the perfect stranger?”