Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Paradise Now ( الجنّة الآن‎) (2005)

What drives a man to commit an act as universally reviled as a suicide bombing? The global news media has preoccupied itself with this question for quite a long time now. Well, maybe that's inaccurate. The media has been preoccupied less with the question than in assuring itself (and us) that it has the answers. An Islamic terrorist bomber, we are to understand, acts from either fanatical religious zeal or from a rabid cultural resentment of Western values; i.e. they "hate our freedom".

These overly facile presumptions go virtually unchallenged in our society, in fact I would say they are taken pretty damn well for granted by people of all political stripes. The suicide bomber is portrayed as a psychotic maniac, and for anyone involved in politics or news to suggest otherwise would be career suicide (excuse the pun). It is a significant risk, therefore, for a filmmaker to humanize suicide bombers; to actually search for the reasons behind their actions. I think the idea of portraying a terrorist as relatable in some respects is extremely scary and threatening to some people. These people (and many of them were firmly opposed to the production of this film) are avoiding the elephant in the room: that one terrible act does not necessarily represent the sum total of a human being's thoughts, feelings, and personal history. There are discrete personal reasons people do things that carry greater significance, and to caricature a terrorist's motivations helps to perpetuate their actions.

Said and Khaled, the subjects of Paradise Now, are not fundamentalist zealots. Neither can I imagine them holding a grudge against us Westerners over our MTV and Coca-Cola. They are somewhat mild-tempered twenty-somethings, auto mechanics in the Palestinian city Nablus. They have that air of two men who have been friends since boyhood. You get the sense that, if they were more talkative sorts, they'd be finishing each others' sentences. They while away their time after work smoking cigarettes and listening to cassettes on a hillside. Said is quieter, an introvert. Khaled has a macho streak, but he's friendly and kind. There is very little about either of them that suggests violence or menace. Both are intelligent and well-spoken. Neither, however, seems particularly happy.

The story revolves completely around the two men and their struggle with what they are about to do. Both performances (by Kais Nashef and Ali Suliman) are a study in brooding understatement, and at times the men are (intentionally) difficult to read. However, the audience is given the character of Suha, a beautiful young woman who was educated abroad and returns to Nablus with European-accented Arabic and a sense of values at odds with many of her countrymen. She offers a modern, Western perspective on the events going on around her. She also acts as the conscience and moral center of the film. When she argues with Said and Khaled, she is saying things that they know are true, but have taught themselves to ignore.

After work one day, Said is approached by Jamal, a handler for a Palestinian terrorist cell. He tells Said that tomorrow is the day that Said will cross over to Israeli territory with Khaled. Once there, they'll blow themselves up on a crowded bus. Sometime before the events of the film, the two men had requested that they be given a mission like this, on the condition that they do it together. Said's response to Jamal is understated: "Are you happy?" asks Jamal. "Yes, very. Thank God," replies Said in a monotone. His face gives nothing away, but there is a significant moment shortly thereafter where Said sits alone in his room, staring off into space while the camera regards him quietly. Later he is restless, unable to sleep. The camera cuts to Jamal, who is sleeping comfortably.

They all meet together the following day at the group's hideout. Said and Khaled are given shaves, haircuts, and crisp new suits. They eat a last meal together and then bombs are strapped to their torsos. They cannot be removed except by a key that Said and Khaled will not be given. They are permitted a hurried meeting with the leader of the terrorist organization, who gives the impression that he's had the same conversation with many men before.

Said and Khaled are driven to the Israeli border and told to rendezvous with their contact on the Israeli side. Once they climb through the fence, however, they're spotted from a distance. There are gunshots and the men flee. They get separated and Khaled runs back to the handlers. Said hides before going on alone, contemplating carrying out the mission on his own. Back at the hideout, the men start to grumble over the possibility that Said has betrayed them. Khaled won't hear any of it and drives off in a frenzy to find his friend.

I won't give away the entire story, but I will say that the movie peels away the layers of each man's social conditioning and bravado, and reveals the feelings and fears that are deep below the surface. In my opinion, I don't believe the film asks the viewer to sympathize with Said and Khalem's actions, it simply asks that they be regarded like any other person: with consideration given to the context of their lives.

An Islamic suicide bomber, by definition, commits an act that is intended to provoke a political response. It is all too easy, therefore, to pigeonhole the motivations of the man himself as overtly ideological. The main underlying theme of this film is thus: it is unwise and inaccurate to end with these easy assumptions. Ideology can be a powerful motivating force, but for a man to be capable of killing himself and innocent people around him, there must be a greater and more personal drive. It's my opinion that the entire Arab-Israeli conflict centers not on a difference of religion, but on the kind of tit-for-tat tribal violence that is endemic throughout human history. People hate each other for believing in different gods. But the reason people kill each other is more likely because they know someone who's been killed by the other side. A mother, a sister, a friend. The need for revenge is personal, it's more real than a simple difference of political opinion. If you kill a man's family, he'll come looking for revenge. Ideology has little to do with it.

Religious fanaticism and political extremism provide a convenient mask that one can hide their own personal vendettas behind, however. Observe, for instance, how Said and Khaled frequently conceal their real motivations behind a wall of ideology. When Khaled records his "martyr video" (a popular genre at the local video store, we later find), he goes on a political/religious rant -- read none-too-convincingly from a sheet of paper. Said is never reluctant to make his feelings towards the Israelis known, but he keeps the real reasons for that resentment hidden. We're given a glimpse of the sort of casualness with which violent oaths are thrown around in Israeli/Palestinian culture: overheard conversations in a cafe and in a taxi contain hyperbolic threats directed generally towards Israel and Jewish settlers, almost as asides to normal small talk. Is this sort of thing meant to be taken seriously? I doubt there's an easy answer for that, but my feeling is that in this culture it's expected and not a very big deal.

I don't mean to imply that the film lets the two men off the hook completely. They are pawns in a big game, it is true, but they are allowing themselves to be manipulated. Both know that what they are doing is wrong, but they have been conditioned by a culture of violence and by a desperate need to be somebody, to have an effect on what is going on around them.

A recurring theme in the film is the feeling of a loss of control, that one's fate is already shaped by large forces with too much momentum to stop. We see that this resignation is used as a kind of avoidance of the present. Said is in love with Suha, for instance, but what does that matter when he is going to die tomorrow? There is a scene where Said and Suha drink coffee together, and Said describes a personally formative (and violent) memory from his youth, in his characteristically unassuming way:
Suha: Do you go to the movies?

Said: No. There's no cinema in Nablus anyway.

Suha: I know, but have you ever been to a cinema before?

Said: Yes, once. Ten years ago when we burned down the Revoly Cinema.

Suha: (pause)...You did that?

Said: Not alone. There were lots of us.

Suha: Why? What did the cinema do to you?

Said: Not the cinema. Israel. When Israel decided not to employ any workers from the West Bank, we demonstrated. Then we ended up in the cinema and burned it down.

Suha: But why the cinema?

Said: Why us?
This is an incredibly human film. There is genuine warmth, and humor, and sadness that all emanate from the uniformly superb performances. You find yourself hoping Said and Khaled turn back, and not just because they are about to do something so unthinkable, but simply because they are easy to like, easy to identify with. Abu-Assad has crafted his characters delicately, with great care. The actors dance through the dialogue with grace.

Don't let my pretentious analysis of the film stop you from enjoying it. It is a well-crafted and enjoyable work. Every aspect of it is well done, and some of the shots are eye-poppingly gorgeous. The plot is taut and exciting. The fact that the film is a significant artistic achievement doesn't hamper its ability to appeal to and affect the viewer's emotions on a very basic level.

Do I understand the terrorist mind better for having seen this movie? Maybe. I think that the point--and the tragedy--of the film, however, is that Said and Khalem aren't impenetrable psychopaths that defy comprehension. Given a different set of circumstances they would almost certainly be much like any of us: appalled at the depths that the forces of violence can drag a man down into.

P.S. I would be remiss if I didn't point out that I think Lubna Azabal, who plays Suha, may be the most beautiful human being I've ever seen in my entire life. I welcome your strong opinions on this subject.

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