Several week ago I ran a post about Paradise Now commenting on the review in Davids Medienkritik. At the time I wondered if the translation would be similarly slanted. As it turned out, the version distributed in the US is subtitled, not dubbed, so the specific instance of anti-Semitism that the German language version contained was not in evidence. Nevertheless, the film, its point of view, and subject matter are certainly worthy of comment for American audiences.
The story is about two young Palestinian men in Nablus who are tapped to go on a suicide bombing run in Tel Aviv. Their lives and prospects are bleak, to say the least. The film is shot on location and the setting as filmed by Antoine Héberlé captures the environment that fosters the despair of the friends, Khaled and Said. The streets are rubble strewn, the walls pockmarked with bullet holes and Israeli roadblocks are menacingly inconvenient.
I will say this for Paradise Now: it's seductive. The protagonists are very attractive. In fact everyone is, except the menacing Israeli soldiers and the garage owner in his undershirt. For those of us who have seen a few too many pictures of Yasser Arafat, it's nice to know that Palestinians can be, and mostly are, tall and good-looking. And you feel very sorry for them. The people live in very cramped, dirty conditions with poor infrastructure and deteriorating everything. The only exception to this was the "safe house" where the Said and Khaled where prepped for their mission. It's evidently a basement, spacious and clean. I was wondering about this, because in an area this crowded and impoverished, clean, liveable spaces get occupied quickly. Then I realized that it must be the basement of a mosque. The clue was very subtle and I don't think the American audience would pick it up, nor would the filmmakers want us to, but it would be meaningful to Palestinian and Muslim audiences: the mission of the terrorist is blessed by Islam.
The central action occurs when the mission goes awry as the men are trying to sneak into Israel. They are spotted by a patrol and get separated. Khaled makes it back but Said is stranded. The controllers pack everything up and move, fearing that Said has been captured or has betrayed them. Said spends the day looking for them and Khaled desperately tries to find him before he is branded a collaborator. He is joined by Suha, an attractive young woman who is a human rights worker with warm feelings for Said. She figures out what the guys are up to and rails at Khaled about taking the moral high ground with Israel, that killing is what the Israelis do, that there are alternatives. They find Said in the nick of time and he is returned to the cell for a talking to. They determine (gently, evidently) that he has not betrayed them but the leader is wary of using him. Said then makes his impassioned speech about the bleakness of his life, that his father was a collaborator, that the Israelis and their occupation made him a collaborator and therefore got him shot (really, executed by the folks from Hamas or al Aqsa.) So this is as much about Said's redemption as it is
revenge a just war against the Israelis. This moves the leader, so Said is allowed to complete the mission. He and Khaled make it all the way to Tel Aviv when Khaled suddenly remembers what Suha told him. He tries to convince Said that there is another way and appears to have succeeded, but just as the car that ferries suicide bombers around Istrael picks them up, Said takes a powder, intent on carrying out his mission and leaving Khaled and Suha to their humanitarian ideals. And his mother with no visible means of support.
It was all very moving. It was well written, very well acted and visually captivating. I must say though, I was very surprised at how humanely Said was treated by his cell members. They gave him "a test" to determine if he was telling the truth about his dalliance in Israel and he passed. I wish someone would clue the CIA in. We could save a lot of time and aggravation if we could give our detainees a test. And that Suha: one rant and she convinced Khaled of the error of his ways. She didn't manage to convince Said, but still, with a fifty percent success rate, she should go into politics. I thought it was very reassuring, too, that when she became privy to all of the plans and the location of the hideout, that all concerned knew that she would not betray them, despite her vehement disagreement with what they were doing. Well, perhaps the question of her disagreement was moot anyway. Who would she tell? The Palestinian Authority? The police? The Israelis? Yes, there is that pesky issue of the rule of law. There isn't much law enforcement going on in the PA-controlled areas but justice is swift and sure for people who yak about where the guns are hidden.
Pre-suicide-party, Nablus (courtesy LGF)
This film has garnered a number of awards and has been highly praised for its look at "the human side," from the point of view of the suicide bombers. It conveys very well their desperation but seems far less credible with respect to the pressure they feel within their own society to support terrorism. The chiefs who are running the Indians are kind, humane, heroic. They don't fire a shot, they give second chances, they allow the suicide bombers to back out even at the last second, even providing them with a car and driver for that last minute change of plans. And when they have to execute a collaborator, it's in the distant past, and anyway, the Israelis force people to betray their brethren so it's all the fault of the Jews. There are no scenes of pre-suicide parties, no posters, no TV propaganda and certainly no hint of retribution against those who don't tow the line. And for heaven's sake, there is no mention whatsoever of the target of the suicide attack is. The instructions to the bombers about blowing themselves up are all about what to do when they encounter Israeli soldiers, which leaves the clear impression that they are the target. In Tel Aviv? Conveniently, the civilian bus that finally is the target is full of burly, well-armed, happy, care-free Israeli soldiers. No children. No old ladies or old men. No mothers with strollers. Just a couple of youngish civilians interspersed so that Said doesn't stick out like a sore thumb in his climax scene.
The only deviation from this point of view is a very interesting scene in a video store where Suha finds out that you can buy or rent videos of martyrs' pre-suicide declarations and the pre-execution confessions of collaborators. She is appalled, especially when she finds out that the collaborator's confessions are more popular. Her prudishness is explained (over and over again) by the fact that she didn't grow up in the West Bank, so she couldn't possibly really understand. And neither can we. So she is our bridge: through her passivity, we Westerners are cued to stand back and be sympathetic and respect the suicide bomber's chosen path of resistance.