A group of Christians move through the streets until they arrive at a symbolic crypt door. The priest in full Orthodox regalia meaningfully knocks three times. Drunken voices from behind the door shout abuse. After this goes on for a while, the priest finds a way in through a side door. The sound of violence. The priest opens the main door from the inside, ushering everyone in.
An army patrol rushes through the Palestinian streets. It looks like they are about to pick someone up, but they pass by without incident. Two uniformed soldiers nonchalantly swap sunglasses in an armoured car. As the camera pans out, we see a young woman in the back seat. She is blindfolded.
A strangely empty Paris
ES walks along the banks of the Seine in a thick coat and Panama hat. For a while, he stands in front of the Louvre. Police on roller blades and Segways pass by balletically in groups of 3. At one stage, tanks roll through the streets. Some Japanese tourists come up and ask ES if he is Brigitte. He isn’t.
ES sits alone outside a café. As he is drinking, a group of policemen measure the width and depth of the café’s seating area. Everything is in order. Meanwhile a pair of PoC street cleaners are playing street hockey with the cans that they collect.
In Central Park, a woman wearing angel wings with a Palestine flag on her chest is pursued by a squad of policeman. After a Keystone Cops-style chase where she regularly evades them, they bear down on her and batter her, leaving nothing but the angel wings.
ES tries to talk to a film producer, but they fob him off, telling him that his films are not Palestinian enough. He tries again, this time bringing the actor/director Gael Garcia Bernal. Bernal introduces his friend as a Palestinian director and explains that ES is making a comedy about the Middle East. The coterie of film assistants fawningly say “that’s already funny”, then take Bernal to a meeting, leaving ES on his own.
ES visits a corner shop. Everyone is buying automatic weapons and carrying them on their shoulders. He then goes to a Tarot card reader. The reader promises that there will be peace in Palestine, but tells ES to wait. After a long pause he says “but not in your or my lifetime”.
Finally, ES returns to Nazareth, where a group of younger people dance vigourously to a Palestinian song. ES sits alone, sipping his drink.
These are just some of the many scenes in Elia Suleiman’s new film. In the cast list, there are around 150 roles including Drunk Man, Mover, Rose Vendor, Woman on Wheelchair, Republican Guards, Sanitation Workers, Saxophonist, People with Guns, Woman with Dog, Death man and Felafel Vendor. Not forgetting Elia Suleiman as ES and Gael Garcia Bernal as Gael Garcia Bernal.
In the above description, I may have put some of the chronology in the wrong order, but it doesn’t really matter. This is a series of vignettes, a Jacques Tati-like collection of incidents with the director at the edge (and sometimes middle) of the frame.
So what is it all supposed to mean? I really think that this is the wrong question. Sure, you can make all sorts of high-faluting references to militarisation and occupation, but I do feel that if you spend too much time trying to interpret the film, you start to miss what’s there.
Trying to find out what other people make of it, I read a review which sympathised with viewers who haven’t followed decades of Palestinian history and will miss some of the subtle references. As someone who has studied and visited the area for a long time, I think this review misses the point entirely.
This is not a 1:1 depiction of particular incidents, but sets a mood, which can be applied to Palestine, but is not specific to that region. And, remember, it is a comedy. Much better to let it wash over you and enjoy the bizarreness than to earnestly dissect every little meaning.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for films trying to change the world. But sometimes we just need to sit back, enjoy them and appreciate their weirdness.