Paradise Now, a most remarkable and controversial film has won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, which may give it a considerable boost for Academy Award consideration. The film was directed and written by Hany Abu-Assad, the Palestinian director who also created the wonderful Rana’s Wedding.
The film’s press materials summarize the plot:
PARADISE NOW is the story of two young Palestinian men as they embark upon what may be the last 48 hours of their lives. On a typical day in the West Bank city of Nablus, where daily life grinds on amidst crushing poverty and the occasional rocket blast, we meet two childhood best friends, Saïd (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), who pass time drinking tea, smoking a hookah, and working dead-end menial jobs as auto mechanics.
Saïd’s day takes a turn for the better when a beautiful young woman named Suha (Lubna Azabal) brings her car in for repairs. From their spirited interaction, it is apparent that there is a budding romance growing between them.
Saïd is approached by middle-aged Jamal (Amer Hlehel), a point man for an unnamed Palestinian organization, who informs Saïd that he and Khaled have been chosen to carry out a strike in Tel Aviv. They have been chosen for this mission as a team, because each had expressed a wish that if either is to die a martyr, the other would want to die alongside his best friend.
Saïd and Khaled have been preparing for this moment for most of their lives. They spend a last night at home — although they must keep their impending mission secret even from their families. During the night Saïd sneaks off to see Suha one last time. Suha’s moderate views, having been educated in Europe, and Saïd’s burgeoning conflicted conscience cause him to stop short of explaining why he has come to say good-bye.
The following day, Saïd and Khaled are lead to a hole in the fence that surrounds Nablus, where they are to meet a driver who will take them to Tel Aviv. But here the plan goes wrong, and Saïd and Khaled are separated.
You can imagine what it is that disturbs some Israeli government officials and pro-Israel American Jews. Here we have a film that (they worry) humanizes suicide bombers by portraying what drives them to their acts of terror. In their view, there can be no legitimate art that humanizes or justifies terror. They have organized a campaign aimed at the Academy of Motion Pictures that seeks to undermine Paradise Now’s eligibility as a Palestinian representative by claiming that the production is not Palestinian because it’s crew, director, producers, etc. are not wholly Palestinian.
What’s more, these individuals refuse to recognize that in today’s world even films grounded firmly in a particular terrain or topography must incorporate funding, personnel and a creative team from around the world. The fact that Paradise Now is not wholly a Palestinian production does not taint its provenance. Rather, it only proves that it is a typical contemporary film produced in a global environment.
The film’s critics are also wrong on another fundamental element of their critique. Paradise Now does not glorify terror. In fact, one of the two men meets a beautiful young woman just before he receives his “assignment.” She argues with him about whether or not he should become a bomber. She speaks against death and for life. As a result, this individual is deeply conflicted about what he should do. It causes him to do deep soul-searching. And isn’t this what we should want such a film to do? What good would it be to have a film portraying two suicide bombers who turn away from their mission and denounce terror wholeheartedly? Would such a film be convincing? And what good would it be to convey two bombers wholeheartedly committed to their mission with no moral qualms about it? How dramatic and interesting would such a story be? Besides, the entire Palestinian-Israeli conflict is already too polarized with too many people knowing to a certainty what is right and wrong. What we need is doubt and unease and ambivalence. We need to see Israeli and Palestinian characters who question the accepted norms on their side of the particular national divide.
This is what the New York Times’ Stephen Holden said about this subject in his review:
Given the explosive political climate in the Middle East, humanizing suicide bombers in a movie risks offending some viewers in the same way that humanizing Hitler does. Demons make more convenient villains than complicated people with their complicated motives. Especially after 9/11, it is easier for some in the United States to imagine a suicide bomber as a 21st-century Manchurian Candidate – a soulless, robotic shell of a person programmed to wreak destruction – than it is to picture a flesh-and-blood human being doing the damage.
But Said and Khaled are never less than fully human characters. They have their doubts and anxieties about carrying out their mission, although for the sake of morale, they keep those doubts mostly to themselves. Their faith in a glorious hereafter stops well short of stereotypical burning-eyed fanaticism…
The movie carries off two tricky balancing acts. One is to give the story a political context without bogging it down in essayistic debate and laborious historical background. The other is to maintain a balanced political perspective given the one-sided views of these all-too-human terrorists. It does this by shoehorning in a strong, alternative Palestinian point of view in the person of Suha (Lubna Azabal), an attractive young woman Said meets in the auto-repair depot where he and Khaled work. Romantic sparks fly between Said and Suha, who was born in Paris, brought up in Morocco and has only recently returned to Nablus. Although the terrorists regard her father as a martyr (presumably through suicide bombing; it’s never spelled out), his daughter abhors violence.
In an emotional confrontation with both men, she articulates the arguments against suicide bombing. What happens to those left behind, she asks? Her question alludes not only to the grief of surviving loved ones but also to the political fallout from suicide bombing: the tragic pattern of revenge begetting revenge that will further oppress Palestinians. Her humane voice becomes the movie’s moral and emotional grounding wire.
This is why Paradise Now is such an important film. This is why I deeply hope it will win an Oscar. Because if it does, then tens of thousands more people will see it around the world. And many of them will have to reopen their minds to this conflict. They will have to dust off their certainties and grapple with brutal, hard moral ambiguity. They will have to readdress this seemingly eternal conflict in an effort to make sense of the tragedy happening on both sides of the divide. I do not worry that the film will create new sympathizers for Palestinian terror. Anyone who views this conflict in a clear-eyed, balanced way cannot sympathize with such abominable acts any more than they can sympathize with Israel’s often murderous response to them (or vice versa). No one can “win” this conflict. The best we can hope for is two sides realizing neither can win at the expense of the other. Paradise Now will help further this goal.
I agree that this is a very important film. The filmmakers are clearly against suicide bombing. That anyone would think otherwise is beyond me, unless they never actually saw the movie.
I see a lot of parallels with Munich in this movie.. The respective protagonists are given violent missions (assassinations in one, suicide bombing in the other) for the sake of their homeland. Each movie shows you why the main character would be motivated to carry on their mission. And in the end, each person questions these methods of dealing with their respective situations. Violence begets more violence. It doesn’t make it better for either party.
Another thing that struck me about Paradise Now was that these young men were not portrayed as being particularly religious. They were not religious fanatics, fixated on meeting virgins in the afterlife or anything like that, which goes against the stereotype many have of a suicide bomber… I have found that movies, even well-meaning ones (i.e. not Islamophobic) like The War Within, tend to portray practicing Muslims as Islamist fanatics and the only reasonable, balanced Muslims are those who are non-practicing. Like you can’t practice Islam and be normal. This is extremely unrealistic, and indicative of filmmakers who have not likely met any practicing Muslims.
Another thing I noticed was that the two men in Paradise Now never really questioned their “mission” until they met Suha, who strongly opposed suicide bombing, and believed that there were other ways of dealing with the occupation. It occurred to me that this may have been the first time that these young men had met ANY Palestinian who didn’t support suicide bombing. But she was raised in a different country. I couldn’t help but wonder if pro-suicide bombing is the only viewpoint young Palestinians are exposed to.
Lastly, some may complain that this movie humanizes suicide bombers… and yes, it does. But they are human, and as abhorrent as suicide bombing is, the movie gives you a glimpse of the hopeless lives the Palestinian people live every day. This is real, and it’s complicated. Life is complicated. I would go so far as to say that what makes terrorists evil is that they don’t see their victims as human beings. What does that say about anyone else who has a problem with a film that portrays someone of a different nationality as fully human?
Suha’s father was assasinated.