Paradise Now

23 May 2007

You don’t expect a lot of laughs when you go to see a film about suicide bombers.

But despite its sad and controversial subject matter, Paradise Now is often very funny. In a very black way, of course.

In one of the film’s best scenes, the two protagonists Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) record the typical video statement in which a suicide bomber makes his farewell speech. Khaled delivers a rousing piece of rhetoric as his supposed last words on this earth. Then he realises the camera hasn’t been turned on as his militant handlers have got distracted by their pitta bread sandwich lunches. With a sigh, he begins again, addressing his dying words to his mother, at first speaking earnestly about his aims, then spinning off on a surreal tangent about her poor taste in water filters.

Nothing goes to plan. The would-be bombers are intercepted by Israeli troops and split up. While one changes his mind, the other becomes all the more determined to find his friend so they can finish the mission together.

At one point, one of the erstwhile suicide attackers is somewhat disturbed to discover from a video retailer that the Palestinian public is more interested in watching videos of "collaborators" being beaten up than "martyrs" baring their souls.

Such humour is deeply subversive. For many western audiences, making a film in which would-be suicide bombers are portrayed as sympathetic characters is, understandably, very controversial. At the same time, for a Palestinian film director, it's daring to mock these "martyrs". (In much of the Arab press, there’s no such term as "suicide bomber". These militants are shaheed, or "martyrs", because suicide is usually seen as prohibited in Islam, unlike the respectable business of martyrdom.)

I found the film brave on both fronts: it seeks to give some insight into why some young Palestinians choose to become suicide bombers, without trying to justify such actions; yet it also presents the would-be bombers’ militant handlers as clownish figures, and gives us a leading lady who speaks out, again and again, against the use of violence. In the end, I was not sure where the writer’s sympathies ultimately lay. But I found it a moving and complex film which should make viewers think hard, no matter what their initial views.

The cycle of violence

Certainly, I can see why some people have objected to the film. The explicit arguments made against violence are powerful, but their moral basis is questionable.

Suha (Lubna Azabal), the leading lady (and potential love interest), argues that violence is futile against a militarily superior enemy. She also dismisses the idea that it’s a route to paradise. (However, we are never given the sense that religion is a primary motivation; Said says "I'd rather have paradise in my head than live in this hell.") Having lost her own father to "martyrdom", Suha tells the bombers their mission is utterly pointless.

This kind of Palestinian voice is not often heard in the west. Indeed, filmmaker Katie Barlow said recently that when she screened her documentary Visit Palestine in the US, most of the audiences said they had never previously heard a Palestinian speak. No doubt some will now have heard Palestinian voices on the news – but only in the form of Hamas representatives. In this context, the film is conveying an important message by representing a Palestinian condemnation of violence.

But at no point did I catch any argument that violence against civilians is wrong in itself.

There are hints of such a sentiment. In one of the film’s key moments, we see one of the protagonists reconsider his plans as he looks at a young Israeli child. This draws us into a whole new hell of the imagination: what does a self-professed "martyr" do if he changes his mind? This complex psychological and political dilemma is made all the more tangible by a dramatic conceit: the would-be bombers are told that only their handlers are able to unlock their explosive belts once they’re strapped on, and if they try to take them off by themselves, they will immediately blow up.

Nonetheless, no one articulates a principled – rather than pragmatic – opposition to violence against Israeli civilians.

And yet there are Palestinians who make this argument. I will always remember meeting former Palestinian finance minister Salam Fayyad in 2004 and hearing him condemn suicide bombing in absolute terms, speaking of the sorrow he felt when he saw grieving Israeli parents on television. The new Hamas government reportedly asked Fayyad to become this year's Palestinian Prime Minister, but he turned them down. Personally, I would have liked to see some representation of those Palestinians who believe in universal human rights.

Palestinian perspectives

But this film does not trade in moral absolutes, nor does it pretend to. There is no exoneration of "martyrs" here. The predictable images of Palestinian suffering are avoided.

This film does not begin with terrible events driving two young men to blow themselves up. No bombs fall from Israeli planes, no proud men are humiliated at checkpoints. One of the would-be bombers has lost his father – but we discover halfway through the film that he was killed by Palestinians, accused of "collaborating" with Israelis. This casts the young man’s plan in a new light, as a very public act of compensation for his father’s perceived shame, a mission motivated by factors so personal that it’s almost narcissistic.

Paradise Nowoffers a detailed and plausible portrayal of the pressures on the would-be bombers from the moment they are chosen for the "honour" of carrying out a bombing, as their militant handlers portray it. They are told late at night that they will go on this mission the very next day, and their handlers stay with them overnight, leaving little time and no solitude to think and perhaps doubt. The only element of the preparations that I found unconvincing was that every significant female character disapproves of violence, a gender bias which is as implausible as it is well-intentioned.

We are aware that there is a broader political and historical struggle taking place offstage. And the two protagonists have plenty of opportunities to explain themselves. In particular, during the otherwise comic video-statement scene, one of them makes an impassioned and articulate speech that is almost unrealistically attuned to western sensibilities; lacking religious references or rants against Zionism, he sounds more like a lawyer than a suicide bomber.

Yet when they talk most fervently of their conviction and the necessity of their fate, their eyes are filled with doubt and dread. These are not glorious martyrs, nor vicious men. They are young, aimless, uncertain, and manipulated.

And we are thrown utterly into their world. There are no subplots, no flashbacks, just an intense focus on a short period of time. We don’t get any overview of the conflict – which would probably be impossible without getting lost in disputed histories. We don’t meet any Israelis, but glimpse a diverse range from headscarved Orthodox women at a bus stop to bikini-clad beach babes in Tel Aviv, as well as a few soldiers. This film is entirely up-front in its focus on Palestinian perspectives – but it’s valuable for offering multiple Palestinian perspectives, rather than the simplistic idea that there is one single Palestinian "side".

In a statement read out at Paradise Now's UK premier at the 2006 Human Rights International Film Festival, director and co-writer Hany Abu Assad said, "What people like about films is that they offer safe journeys to very unsafe places." Though this film will leave you thoroughly depressed, I’d recommend the journey.

This article was originally published on Open Democracy.

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