‘Pleasure Is Extremely Political,’ Palestinian Filmmaker Elia Suleiman Says

In a freewheeling masterclass held at the Marrakech Film Festival on Thursday, director Elia Suleiman offered as concise a mission statement as can be, defining his guiding beliefs in four short words.

“Pleasure is extremely political,” said the Palestinian director, whose films have approached the fraught nature of life in the occupied territories with a comedic bent and an absurdist tone. “The repercussion of a moment of pleasure is extremely political in the positive sense of the word. It’s against those who want to impose on you their own agenda, those who want to program your daily life.”

When asked about his tendency play up the ridiculous nature of soldiers, police officers and other agents of the state, he explained that, “pleasure has the potential to threaten, to crack positions of authority.”

He continued, “If you try to imagine authorities always posed as a force, they’re not easy to crack. The way they maintain themselves is by creating a sense of fear. But the second you make a crack in the system, they fall.”

The director further clarified his intent while speaking with Variety after his class. “I don’t take pleasure in manufacturing images of violence,” he said. “I cartoonize [authority] and make them ridiculous. They get so annoyed about that, they would prefer if I showed them torturing Palestinians. But that’s the magic of cinema.”

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At another point in the masterclass, the actor/director explained how he developed his often-silent onscreen persona. “From the beginning, maybe unconsciously, I have resisted verbal language,” he noted. “Cinema is a multiplicity of languages. When you are composing an image, one of the languages is silence, one of the languages is the soundtrack, and another is the background noise. Those belong to the image just as much as verbal language.”

“Why must filmmakers over-use verbal language when they have their images,” he asked in turn. “Why not try to maximize the potential of the image before resorting to verbal language?”

Suleiman has been on a non-stop promotional tour since his most recent film “It Must Be Heaven” premiered in May at the Cannes Film Festival, where it took home the FIPRESCI prize and a Special Mention from the Alejandro González Iñárritu-led jury. Suleiman’s fourth feature, the film has sold to more than 30 territories worldwide, sending the director on a global tour that won’t let up for almost another year.

“I’ll go to Japan to promote the film in October 2020,” he told Variety. “That’s the way they do it in Japan these days. The art films have to stand in line, because now they’re now distributing the ones from last year.”

In between upcoming promotional trips to Germany, Mexico and Hong Kong, the filmmaker will once again return to Qatar, where he will oversee the sixth edition of Doha Film Institute’s Qumra workshop this coming March.

Suleiman, who was named artistic advisor the Doha Film Institute in 2013, launched the initiative as a way to connect up-and-coming talents with major players from the global scene. “I wanted to create a structure where the filmmakers who are making shorts, experimental films, documentaries and first and second features could have a platform to meet industry players,” he explained.

Intentionally intimate, the program hosts between 100-150 industry pros each year for a five-day program that includes works-in-progress screenings, mentorship sessions and talks. As it happens, this year’s Marrakech festival is teeming with Doha veterans; director Hinde Boujemaa’s “Noura’s Dream” was a Qumra-selected project from 2019, while jury president Tilda Swinton acted as industry mentor the year prior.

While Suleiman has firm plans to continue his duties with Doha Film Institute for the near and far future, he is less certain about when he’ll make his next film.

“[For me] I think it’s a trap to finish a film and have another one lined up,” he says. “I’d rather wait, live the post-mortem, which I’m already in, and have the guts to enter into the void. You just have to wait [for the next idea] to take over. And you never know when that will be.”

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