Why should you watch a movie about suicide bombers? To illuminate how the 2005 Palestinian film Paradise Now represents a unique and laudable drop in the cinematic ocean, we’ll have to look at the bigger, bloodier picture.
There are few topics that inspire more geopolitical turmoil or diplomatic consternation than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, the issue of how Palestinians and Israelis are supposed to coexist (to put it very, very, simply) has dominated the Middle East’s political discourse. Oftentimes, the loudest–and most extreme–voices end up commanding that conversation. Who can turn a blind eye when supporters of Palestine deploy loaded terms like “apartheid” and “genocide”? Which politician wouldn’t send military aid to Israel after reading heart-wrenching AIPAC communiques about freedom-loving peoples rightfully defending their homes against an incessant rain of rockets?
Loud, lurid voices lend themselves well to television and film. The screams and signs of activists from both sides play across prime-time cable or YouTube; they screech for divestment, they demonize opponents as genocidal bigots, they argue in favor of righteous war, they tell you to embrace the doves of peace while hosing you down with high-pressure tears. When throats become hoarse, explosions maintain the volume. Something like “Operation Wrath of God” — the very real name for an Israeli operation aimed at killing terrorists who planned the 1972 Munich Massacre — is just begging for a film adaptation (which Steven Spielberg granted in 2005 with the captivating, and actually quite nuanced, thriller Munich).
Attempts to move the camera beyond a sensational play-by-play of student activist siren calls or tit-for-tat killings usually fall into two categories: brutally devastating or overly saccharine. Munich, and the renowned Israeli war films Waltz with Bashir and Lebanon, fall into the former; they depict how conflict wipes away humanity to reveal a never-ending abyss. The 2001 documentary Promises, which features Israeli and Palestinian children, belong to the latter; these pieces take the opposite approach and use methods like kiddy-pathos to inject Botoxes of humanity into an otherwise sagging body.
Paradise Now is a unique specimen that falls somewhere between those two categories — neither soullessly brutal nor annoyingly mawkish. You’d expect a movie about suicide bombers to be full of jet-black angst, overflowing conviction, and…well…explosions. And while Paradise Now is still about suicide bombers, and still has angst, conviction, and explosions, it’s an exceptionally levelheaded–and simple–film.
The movie centers around Said and Khaled, two young Palestinian men from Nablus. Friends since childhood, the two are jointly recruited to carry out a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, and we viewers enter their lives just days before they’re supposed to end. We see little that screams “terrorist”. Even when the pair are filming their martyrdom videos, everything seems more banal than radical or violent. One moment Khaled interjects to remind his mother about buying a water filter. The next, the motley film crew munches on homemade pita bread as the camera rolls…except the camera isn’t rolling due to an error, and they have to shoot their condemnations of the Zionist pigs again. This isn’t some Four Lions style terrorist slapstick though. The tone remains serious; the errors and interruptions are just quotidian occurrences.
When Paradise Now was nominated as Palestine’s first-ever official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (it didn’t win, but it did win the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film — another first for Palestine), some Israelis asked the Oscar organizers to disqualify the film. They claimed the film was immoral because it humanized suicide bombers, and would lead to more attacks.
On the count of humanizing suicide bombers, Paradise Now is guilty as charged. The charges of immorality and encouraging bombings, on the other hand, are shaky. It’s indisputable that the film depicts Said and Khaled as human, exploring their insecurities and desires rather than treating them as objects ready to blow up. However, this is a placid, calm humanity, one void of glory and pomp. Sure, there’s scenes where Said talks about the necessity for violent struggle against the Israeli occupation–but all that high-minded political rhetoric is just fluffy icing upon a more insecure, selfish cake.
As humans, Said and Khaled are no less colorless or anxious than the rest of us. During one scene, the daughter of a famous martyr prompts Said for his favorite genre of film; in response, he asks if there’s a category for boring films — “like life”. “Your life can’t be that boring,” she answers, “maybe it’s just more like a minimalist Japanese film”. Despite that assurance, Said remains incredulous. He might be a martyr-in-waiting, but nothing’s getting any more glorious.
If terrorism works, it’s not because terrorists are making minimalist Japanese films. Osama Bin Laden could give a rat’s ass about Yasujiro Ozu; 9/11 is not a Tokyo Story. Terrorism is Rambo shooting ’em up on the big screen. Terrorism is white trash duking it out on Jersey Shore. Terrorism is deafening explosions, shock value, and sensory overload. Hamas isn’t Terrence Malick. It’s Michael Bay because, trashiness be damned, more people will turn their heads to watch Transformers than The Tree of Life. Loud, lurid voices — that’s the sound of terrorism. Loud, lurid voices — that’s not the sound of Paradise Now, even if Said and Khaled are technically terrorists.
You could say that Paradise Now shows the banality of evil, but I’d argue that it just shows banality. Its characters aren’t your classic conniving terrorist masterminds, they’re boring ol’ people, Forrest Gump and not the Joker. The film isn’t perfect–its cinematography and other visuals aren’t sweepingly epic–but it’s still beautiful because it achieves normalcy under such abnormal circumstances. Amidst a conflict defined by hyperbole and hypervigilance, sometimes normal is just enough.
Paradise Now (Arabic: الجنّة الآن)–Palestine. Directed by Hany Abu-Assad. First released February 2005. Running time 1hr 30min. Starring Kais Nashef, Ali Suliman, Lubna Azabal, and Hiam Abbass.