10 February 2006
current cinema: Paradise Now
starring: Kais Nashef, Ali Suliman, Lubna Azabal, and Amer Hlehel
written by: Hany Abu-Assad, Bero Beyer, and Pierre Hodgson
directed by: Hany Abu-Assad
PG-13, 90 min, 2005, Palestine
A Golden Globe winner and Academy Award nominee, Paradise Now tells a personal story of terrorism from the perspective of two terrorists preparing to become martyrs for the cause. Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), two ordinary Palestinians prone to killing time with a bong on a hillside, are chosen for a suicide mission--a retaliation for a crime against their people--and must quickly come to grips with the full impact of a decision they seem to have made long ago. Both are resolute in their conviction, until the carefully orchestrated plan goes awry and Said is forced to make his way back to a home base in chaos with the live bomb still strapped to his chest.
Paradise Now continues the trend of narrative films by filmmakers struggling to come to grips with a world where terrorism becomes less shocking by the day. Rather than being some horrific anomaly, these acts are approaching a point where they are a normal part of life, and with that familiarity comes an increased willingness to explore the issues at hand. The end result of this, we can hope, is an increased dialogue between cultures that find communication so difficult. Because if a few films can cut through the fray, they may allow us to empathize with the other side, and vice versa. At least, that's my hope.
In Munich, Steven Spielberg follows a group of assassins as they avenge the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympics. The killers, to no one's surprise, are Palestinians who attack for reasons unknown. It is a senseless killing, but one that cannot be ignored, and the film follows a group as they avenge those deaths. And now we have the other side of the debate in Paradise Now, a film set 30 years later but part of the same eternal struggle. Said and Khaled, the two martyrs, are avenging some Israeli act against their people. In reality, they might as well be retaliating for the killings in Munich, further proving the point made by both films that violence just creates more violence. Watching the two films, it's easy to see why these people have battled this way for so long, for both sides are absolutely convinced that they are the victims. But more importantly, both feel that this is the absolute best way to show the world that they cannot be treated like this, that they will react swiftly and violently. But what if neither of them had anything to react to? Would the killing stop? Perhaps, but I somehow doubt it.
Much like Munich, Paradise Now attempts to tell this story by personalizing it, by staying close to a select few protagonists and letting us identify with their struggles, the idea being that if we can identify with the people doing the dirty work, then we can more easily relate to the larger issues involved. This is one theory. The other is that by staying so close to a protagonist, we are less likely to agree with a situation that puts our hero in peril, for we do not wish them any harm. Therefore, we can find faults in the system that straps a bomb to Said and Khaled's chests and sends them through a wire fence to kill as many soldiers as they can. I'd like to think the latter is true.
And the easiest way to make the audience root for a protagonist to stay alive is by introducing a girl. So the day before he is to become a martyr, Said makes a personal connection of sorts with Suha (Lubna Azabal), the daughter of a great martyr. She, having felt first-hand the effects of losing someone so close to her, is active in human rights organizations and serves as the film's conscience. It is Suha who argues for peaceful alternatives and tries to dissuade Said from his intended mission, but Said has baggage of his own, and it isn't as simple as just being able to fall in love. But we want him to fall in love, and the film uses that to cast this noble martyrdom in a negative light without resorting to some ham-fisted soapbox speech.
For a while, we think she may be enough to keep him alive, as Said appears to be questioning the wisdom of the mission, and Khaled reminds him why they are doing what they are doing. But when everything goes wrong and Said is missing, Khaled breaks down and Said, on his return, is suddenly resolute. Effectively they switch, but the film never gives us a good reason for Said's sudden reversal, and it therefore doesn't ring true. It's the film's only major flaw, but it's a pretty big one, as it tends to undercut the film's emotional impact.
Beyond that, Paradise Now serves as an important contribution in the terrorism dialogue precisely because it's a film made by the terrorists themselves that attempts to shed a little light on why they do what they do. But more importantly, we see the struggle necessary to carry out these acts of immense violence by very ordinary people who've simply had enough. They aren't evildoers who hate freedom. They are people who crave freedom and equality and everything else we hold dear. They just don't have access to it and they don't have a means by which to get it. And when they did, it was given to someone else.
 The film mentions the act briefly, but it didn't register with me and they didn't dwell on it, so I assume it to be of minor importance in the great scheme of things.