Joining Ang Lee, director of the gay cowboy epic Brokeback Mountain, among the winners at the January 16 Golden Globes award ceremony was the director Hany Abu-Assad, a Palestinian born in Israel whose Paradise Now took home the prize for best foreign language film. While critics of all persuasions remark upon what Brokeback Mountain’s victory means about Hollywood and American mores, it is perhaps more remarkable that Paradise Now, a film about two Palestinians recruited to carry out suicide bombings, was deemed unremarkable enough to be honored by Hollywood.
Paradise Now has stirred little controversy, in fact, since its November 2005 opening in US theaters. The film has prompted no boycotts. It has elicited no complaints that it is “carrying the original terrorists’ intended message to every theater in the world,” as conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer fumed about Steven Spielberg’s Munich, or that it “echoes the conventional wisdom found in Berkeley’s faculty lounges and Barbra Streisand’s sitting room,” as the San Diego Union-Tribune dismissed the George Clooney vehicle Syriana. Instead, and despite conveying an uncomfortable political message more forthrightly than either Munich or Syriana, Paradise Now has received measured praise from American reviewers. The announcement of the prestigious Golden Globe similarly caused no American commentator to fret, as did the Jerusalem Post, about the uncritical reception of a film that “humanizes mass murderers.” Is the dearth of outrage a barometer indicating a now openness to Palestinian points of view about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is the award, in fact, “recognition that the Palestinians deserve their liberty and equality unconditionally,” as Abu-Assad asserted in his acceptance speech? Or is Paradise Now simply a well-acted film that tells a good story, and is that enough to satisfy depoliticized US audiences?
Debating in Word and Deed
Paradise Now explores the lives of young Palestinians who debate, in word and deed, the utility and morality of different means of resistance to Israel’s 38-year occupation of Palestinian lands. As in real life, their debate centers on — but is not limited to — the utility and morality of suicide attacks inside Israel. The words and deeds of the main characters very accurately reflect many elements of the ongoing, real-life Palestinian debate about violence, non-violence and strategies to end occupation.
Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), the two friends enlisted by a militant group for a “martyrdom operation,” intervene in this debate through their actions, each taking a different path. Suha (Lubna Azabal), the daughter of a famous member of the Palestinian nationalist resistance who grew up outside Palestine, returns in the opening scene to devote her energies to human rights work. Her adamant and thoughtful opposition to suicide attacks adheres closely to the words of an open letter from 55 Palestinian public figures printed in the June 19, 2002 al-Quds newspaper: “We see that these bombings do not contribute toward achieving our national project, which calls for freedom and independence. On the contrary, they strengthen the enemies of peace on the Israeli side and give Israel’s aggressive government under Sharon the excuse to continue its harsh war against our people.” Jamal (Amer Hlehel) and Abu Karem (Ashraf Barhoum), the men who organize the youths’ operation, are less fully developed characters, but they too ring true, displaying the charisma and cynicism, the hardness and dedication, of many of those involved in militant groups. Said’s mother (Hiam Abbass) has an earthy natural beauty, enhanced by the calm sensitivity with which she cares for her fatherless family — like most parents of actual suicide attackers, she knows nothing of her son’s plans. The superb acting of the cast conveys the desperation, resentment, fatigue, hopelessness and conviction felt by Palestinians under occupation.
The film is also visually compelling in its compilation of realist and action-adventure styles. The sights and sounds of checkpoints and war, and the juxtaposition of street scenes from the gritty West Bank and glitzy Tel Aviv, capture the sense in which the Palestinian territories and Israel, though so close together, are so far apart. But rather than being a black-and-white morality play, Paradise Now is a study in shades of gray, a portrayal of contradictions and multiplicities. If it is not exactly “a call for peace,” as advertised on the posters and in the trailer, neither is it an unvarnished justification of Palestinian violence. Though the film does humanize its characters who set out for Israel with bombs strapped to their chests, it does not romanticize or glorify them.
The Power of Understatement
While the artistic merit of the film lays in its ability to convey so much through understatement, the film has been criticized for understating the occupation. The Israeli military presence in the West Bank takes the form of off-camera tank fire and one nighttime roadblock. Suha is the only character shown passing through the “internal” checkpoints in the West Bank that have strangled the Palestinian economy since the outbreak of the second intifada in late 2000, and the only other allusion to the system of closure imposed by the Israeli army upon Palestinian towns and villages comes in the possibly disingenuous request of Khaled’s militant handler to stay overnight at Khaled’s house because his road home is closed. No Israeli violence against Palestinians appears on screen. In one scene, Khaled recalls his father’s humiliating beating by Israeli soldiers as one cause for his anger at the occupation, but his kindly father — a very minor character in the film — evinces no such emotion.
Answering these critics, Abu-Assad explains that he did not intend his film to be didactic. Rather, he says in an interview posted on the website of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, he wanted “to make a film that brings out beauty and share it with [the] audience instead of trying to convince them about a certain issue.” Abu-Assad also rightly insists that a film cannot show the “full weight and complexity of the situation.” But there is no privileged aesthetic sphere separate from the political reality of a film’s subject, or the places where it was produced and where it circulates. This is particularly true in the case of Paradise Now, which was being shot in the West Bank town of Nablus until ambient violence — including intra-Palestinian clashes — forced the crew to decamp to Nazareth across the Green Line. As Abu-Assad says: “Not one day went by without our having to stop filming. We would stop and wait until the firing stopped and then start again.” It is the relentlessness of danger and insecurity amidst occupation and a fragmenting Palestinian Authority, as well as the relentlessness with which people in Palestine persist in living despite those conditions, that Paradise Now does not capture.
Perhaps no film with a coherent storyline and a satisfying resolution could be adequate to the reality of the West Bank during the intifada, because it is nearly impossible to make unremitting frustration, repetition and boredom interesting to watch. It is difficult to depict violence as normal to audiences in the US who are used to seeing it as spectacle and drama. Perhaps only a film that cycled in an endless loop of images of checkpoints, dusty scrambles up detours that are more rock than walking path, unemployed workers sitting in listless conversation and slow marches in funeral processions could convey the reasons people get so fed up that some of them become willing to kill themselves and others.
The Mundane and the Extreme
Abu-Assad does portray the grimy, frustrated and boring lives of Said and Khaled with artistry devoid of cliché and compassion that never lapses into pity. One scene where Said sits on a hill, fruitlessly trying to flick matches alight with one hand, bespeaks the many hours of his life filled with nothing but the most pointless, petty challenges. In another scene, Said bursts into the midnight streets sprinting, his long, skinny limbs almost vibrating, releasing some small fraction of the pent-up energies and desires that he will never be able to express in any sustained or fulfilling way. Said’s eyes in the photo that ends up on his “martyr” poster reveal more than a hardened stoicism. They reveal apathy, and a level of exhaustion that has made even fear or sadness an effort he can’t quite manage. With his performance, Kais Nashef has offered a striking depiction of the malaise that infects many Palestinians’ lives. His grim, but sympathetic demeanor is an apt metonym of the suffocating oppressiveness that pervades everyday life under occupation. That an actor can convey with such intensity a flatness of affect that masks a boiling cauldron of emotion and thought is nothing short of brilliant.
Even the film’s moments of levity ironically convey the heaviness of the conflict. The prosaic invades the spectacular when Said and Khaled’s handlers blithely munch on sandwiches during the taping of the videos the young men make to announce their intended acts. Khaled’s familial affection struggles with his patriotic devotion when he bids an apologetic farewell to his parents for what he is about to do, and as he interrupts his solemn speech in formal Arabic on the failure of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to remind his mother, in colloquial Arabic, where to find cheaper water filters. These moments are funny, because of the unexpected fusion of the mundane and the extreme. It is exactly this synthesis of daily life with impending death, though, that is brought about by 38 years of occupation and five years of Israel’s brutal attempts to put down the second intifada. It is this which makes doing something, even dying and killing, seem better than living a life that many feel is worse than any hell.
So much happens in the eyes of Abu-Assad’s characters. The concern of Said’s mother is constant in her glances; her affection for him pours out in her unobtrusive observations of her boy whose internal conflict she sees in his eyes. Suha’s eye-sparkling attraction for Said, a handsome youth with dark, curly hair and thick-lashed eyes, makes the love story subplot both endearing and tragic. The hangdog eyes of a silent boy who serves tea to Khaled convey a persistence and anger that leaves us wondering what will result from another decade of thwarted efforts at making a living and unfulfilled desires to be treated fairly.
Western viewers may be surprised at how little Islam figures in the film. Said and Khaled are not pious Muslims, and the militant faction that recruits them is not Islamist. This choice of Abu-Assad’s has struck some reviewers as contrived, and it would have been had the director made his film before 2002, when all suicide attacks inside Israel were claimed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But beginning in the winter of that year, and especially since Israel’s massive invasion of the West Bank in late March, secular and leftist groups have organized these attacks with almost as much regularity as the Islamist organizations.
The debate over suicide bombings in Paradise Now is not a theological argument within Islam. Rather, the nub is a worldly and local phenomenon — the conflict with Israel and the Israeli occupation. The dialogue in the film mirrors arguments that reverberate among Palestinians on the occasion of actual suicide attacks. Is Suha right to say there are other ways to resist besides violence? Or, as Khaled vociferously counters, is fighting the only option, and suicide bombs the only method, because bodies are all the Palestinians have left when there is no justice and all other means have been tried? In the end, Khaled assumes Suha’s position when he reenacts this argument with his friend Said.
The question of why Palestinians do not try non-violent resistance — “Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?” — is often posed in the West. Paradise Now does not help to address this question, because it does not depict the many ways that Palestinians do engage in non-violent resistance. The background to Khaled’s vehement disagreement with Suha includes the facts that Palestinians did not pick up weapons more dangerous than rocks during the first two months of the second intifada, and still hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed by Israeli fire. Protests against the wall that Israel is building in the West Bank are often large and peaceful, and soldiers break them up with violence, and still the Western press ignores them. Western diplomats and international organizations all know that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are growing even as they pledge fealty, along with Israel’s acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, to the “road map” that stipulates a settlement freeze. “Will it end the occupation if I talk?” Said asks. For many Palestinians, his question answers itself. An Associated Press reporter found a militant in Nablus who disliked the film for this very reason: “People who go to carry out bombings do not hesitate so much.”
Another sensitive topic at the core of the movie is the position of Palestinians who “collaborate” with the occupation. Said commits himself to his attack in part to redeem his family, forever haunted by his father’s life and death as a collaborator. He unequivocally blames the occupation for the death of his father, but some Palestinian critics objected that the film misleadingly reduces Said’s motivations to feelings of guilt, a psychologically inflected personal dilemma, rather than subjugation by the occupation and political convictions.
Art as a Human Thing
Although Paradise Now lets viewers feel the humanity and heartbreak of those who participate in suicide attacks and the people they leave behind, the film is also unmistakably critical of these attacks and those who commit them. Perhaps this is why the movie was palatable to US audiences. The handlers are portrayed as slimy, manipulative men. There are bad guys to hate.
There are hapless characters to feel sorry for as well. Khaled represents what many might consider the stereotypical reasons why suicide bombs occur. His desire for recognition and the fame of having his martyr poster hung in the center of town, his expectation of angels and virgins, his excitement at meeting a “legend” of the resistance, his gullible belief in the glib assurances of his handler, his mimicking of a cowboy spinning on his heels to draw a pistol — all bespeak immaturity. Khaled’s boyhood is not far in his past; his mother packs his lunch. He is mesmerized by kites flying in the Nablus sky and he teases his friend about a girl. Men in power always fight their wars with the blood of their youth.
Another explanation for the apparently open-minded reception and the wide US distribution of Paradise Now — by Warner Brothers, no less — might be found in Iraq. There, suicide bombings have become an everyday occurrence, and beheadings and other spectacular violent acts are frequent. Like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the mess that the US invasion has produced in Iraq seems intractable. Paradise Now offers a rational explanation for what is usually represented in the United States as an irrational, exotic cult of death. Perhaps most people actually prefer understanding to scared confusion, and this film has offered a satisfying narrative.
It is no small feat to make a movie about this thorny subject that does not immediately garner labels of propaganda or immorality. Abu-Assad has created a gripping narrative, and it is quite possible that the cinematic quality of the film alone accounts for its remarkable success. Even after receiving the Golden Globe, the director resists drawing a straight line between the plaudits and portents of actual political change: “I believe I made my film artistically less important when I said the Palestinians need their liberty. But that was my feeling at that moment. I turned the film into a kind of political statement, which it is not. The film is an artistic point of view of that political issue. The politicians want to see it as black and white, good and evil, and art wants to see it as a human thing.”
Even if it was not intended, the political message of the film emerges from the fact that Abu-Assad succeeds in provoking contemplation rather than condemnation. Precisely by avoiding hidebound political certainty, Paradise Now might allow for the expansion of sympathy and imagination that are necessary for creating better choices for the likes of Said and Khaled.