It Must Be Heaven (2019)

Well it’s been a few weeks since my last themed week, and now that I’m settled in Wellington (albeit in a temporary rented accommodation in Lower Hutt), I’ve been able to return to seeing films. Therefore this week will be loosely themed as ‘films I’ve seen in the cinema since arriving in New Zealand’. I can’t therefore promise any consistency, but it will be a fairly loose collection of random films that have been on release here recently, along with some one-off screenings (there has been an African Film Festival this past weekend, and there’s an Italian one ongoing, though it tempts me less).


Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman has written, directed and starred in a number of deadpan comedy films over the years, of which I’ve only previously caught up with one (2002’s Divine Intervention, which I appear to have liked only somewhat). However, if this film is typical, there’s a strong connection with the tradition of Jacques Tati, if not the mordant satire of late Buñuel (via a filmmaker like Otar Iosseliani, who is brought to my mind during the Parisian section particularly).

Suleiman silently observes those around him in three sections, in his home of Nazareth, in Paris and then in New York, in a series of setpieces that suggest a certain critical view of Palestinian life, and which become retrospectively clearer in a film producer’s office during the Parisian section, as the producer tells Suleiman that his work isn’t specific enough, being about the Palestinian experience but in a way that could be set anywhere — which indeed he has done with this very film. Paris is eerily quiet, but with an undertone of militaristic threat (police officers chasing a lone suspect on segways is particularly amusing, or the tanks rolling along a boulevard in the background). There’s this constant play with his themes that is often rather hilarious, if in a muted way, and the precise framing and fine acting from Suleiman in just reacting to the absurdist events around him lends his film a real piquancy.

It Must Be Heaven film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Elia Suleiman إيليا سليمان; Cinematographer Sofian El Fani سفيان الفاني; Starring Elia Suleiman إيليا سليمان; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Tuesday 3 November 2020.

LFF 2020: 200 Meters (2020) ٢٠٠ متر

The Middle Eastern and North African films are always a highlight at each London Film Festival, and the one I saw this year was this one, a tense thriller set in a contested area of fragmented borders in the State of Palestine. (PS Do excuse the way I’ve written the title; it turns out having two languages read in different directions plus numbers creates havoc for WordPress.)


This Palestinian film is a pretty tense thriller in which a Palestinian father (Ali Suliman) — who, for reasons, lives in a different home from his wife and children — has to get to his son at short notice. The only problem is an Israeli wall built between their two homes, only 200m apart, and an expired ID card meaning he isn’t able to get across. So he enlists the help of a people smuggler, and that’s where the drama starts as it’s hardly a straightforward process and involves a long drive to a mountainous area, a change of cars, and an enormous amount of paranoia from just about everyone. But in utilising this generic format of a tense thriller, it effectively shows up the daily struggle of those trying to navigate these borders in what is a hugely fractured territory, and the way that bureaucracy keeps people apart as much as (or indeed more than) it helps to ensure security.

200 Meters film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ameen Nayfeh أمين نايفة; Cinematographer Elin Kirschfink; Starring Ali Suliman علي سليمان, Anna Unterberger; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Sunday 11 October 2020.

Two Films about the Personal Legacy of Revolutionary Activity: What Walaa Wants (2018) and Born in Evin (2019)

The topic of resistance includes not only stories about revolutionaries but the stories of their legacy and influence, particularly on their children. These two films are about two such children, who may have grown up either surrounded by conflict and in the often painful absence of their parents (as in the Palestinian story of What Walaa Wants) or, at the other extreme, in complete ignorance of their parents and revolutionary activities, having begun a new life in exile away from those traumas (as with the Iranian daughter of revolutionaries living in Germany, in Born in Evin). Neither film can be entirely satisfactory, because it feels like two people grappling with uncertainty about how to exist in the world, given these backgrounds, but both are illuminating about the generational nature of resistance and trauma.

Continue reading “Two Films about the Personal Legacy of Revolutionary Activity: What Walaa Wants (2018) and Born in Evin (2019)”

عمر Omar (2013)

I’ve already covered the Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir in a separate feature, but another critically-acclaimed filmmaker from the region (albeit one who has grown up and been educated in the Netherlands) has been Hany Abu-Assad, whose 2005 film Paradise Now put him on the map. He has most recently moved rather surprisingly into the big-budget Hollywood realm with the Idris Elba/Kate Winslet drama The Mountain Between Us (2017)


I didn’t expect to very much more than merely admire this film, given its Academy Awards nomination and fairly dour subject matter — it’s about a group of Palestinian friends whose lives and relationships are pulled apart in fighting against the Israeli occupation. But as so often I was wrong, because it’s not just a well-crafted film (that much is evident from the very start, with precise framing and careful editing) but also a tense thriller, well-mounted and with plenty of twists and turns, not unlike the narrow streets we see our titular protagonist (Adam Bakri) running through. The cinematography in particular is unshowily excellent: dominated by frontal faces in clean, uncluttered frames.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Hany Abu-Assad هاني أبو أسعد; Cinematographer Ehab Assal إيهاب عسل; Starring Adam Bakri آدم بكري, Leem Lubany ليم لوباني; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 15 March 2017.

Women Filmmakers: Annemarie Jacir

I was first exposed to Annemarie Jacir’s films via Wajib at the London Film Festival in 2017, but I’ve since caught up with her first two feature films. She was born in Bethlehem in 1974, but left to study in the United States. She has written poetry, but is now primarily known for her filmmaking, and is at the vanguard of Palestinian film culture, which I can only imagine is a precarious enterprise in itself (after all, her films gain their funding from many different sources from several different continents, making their co-production credits pretty extensive). Moreover, her work deals with the status of the displaced, whether historically (as in When I Saw You) or in a contemporary setting, and sometimes more directly confronts how it is to live under a state of occupation.

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Annemarie Jacir”

Speed Sisters (2015)

There has been no shortage of excellent documentaries in recent years, as the rise to prominence of festivals like the UK’s Sheffield Doc/Fest or Canada’s Hot Docs can testify. Many of these new voices have been those of women filmmakers, gratifying within an industrial context which so often marginalises them. In watching Speed Sisters, I think, for example, of the work of Kim Loginotto, whose films like Gaea Girls (2000) have used a subculture as a way of examining wider issues within a society. And while it’s probably easy to dismiss such documentaries as light-hearted — it’s been the kind of criticism most often applied to any filmmaking or artistic creation by women over the, well, millennia really — I think there’s more value to them than is sometimes admitted. (And yes, can you tell I’ve been looking up reviews online and getting grumpy at them?)

Undoubtedly the context of this film, which deals with a Palestinian women’s motor racing team, is one with quite a bit of history and politics to unpack, so any attempt to broach such issues — the fraught relationship between Israel and Palestine not least — is going to seem flimsy to some viewers. But it’s so valuable for those such as me who are not familiar with the area to get a sense of what it’s to live, work — and race — in Palestine, a place overwhelmed by physical manifestations of state control, yet one nevertheless in which people do live their lives with a degree of freedom and vivacity that must seem surprising if it’s only the news headlines you’re reading.

The protagonists of Speed Sisters come from various backgrounds — though, given the expense entailed in the sport they’re engaged in, mostly middle-class (hardly rich, if you see some of the cars they ride, but at least with prospects) — and the documentary is canny in teasing out some of the tensions, notably between the highly-motivated Marah, whose single-mindedness and success at racing makes her sometimes unwilling to deal with the setbacks she encounters, and the self-consciously glamorous Betty, who in coming from a family of racers is Marah’s de facto chief rival for racing success but also far more aware of her media presence and image. The team is rounded out by Mona, an older woman who largely races for fun, Noor, who enjoys the speed but seems to keep forgetting the direction she needs to be going, and their captain Maysoon, barely holding these egos together while working a day job in a little clothes shop. These are thumbnail sketches the film builds up of its chief characters — and given the film’s creation over a number of years, I assume there have been personnel changes in that time that aren’t attentively followed. Indeed, presenting the precise sporting context is probably the weakest aspect of the film: it gives a great sense of what these racing meets are like and the skills involved in handling the cars, but the details of the competition itself (or indeed which race in which season is happening) passes in a blur, and seems less to the point.

The wonder, the joy of the film, is in seeing the women all live their lives amongst these racing meets. It’s a film about the women’s interactions with their family and the men in their lives (all of whom, from the head of the racing Federation down to the fans and the families, largely seem supportive and generous). It’s a film about their friendships and occasionally fractious relationships with one another. But most of all it’s about the way they navigate the very present borders and controls imposed on their lives, in trying for example to find spaces and roads on which to practice, and the dangers inherent in that, which so often they breezily laugh off (watching Maysoon chat away during her daily commute through a checkpoint in Ramallah, moaning about the traffic and the distracting smell of tear gas while there seem to be active clashes happening nearby, is just one eye-opening example). It’s a film that’s not specifically about racing, really, but about people — ordinary people, if obviously interesting and charismatic ones — trying to live in a place where that sometimes seems difficult.

Speed Sisters (2015)CREDITS
Director Amber Fares; Cinematographer Lucy Martens; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 8 March 2016.