Palestine (2005) Dir. Hany Abu-Assad
In my review of the film Hanagatami I discussed how director Nobuhiko Obayashi made it whilst living with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, and how surreal it must be knowing death is imminent. In a twist on that premise, what must a suicide bomber be thinking knowing their end is coming up, only by their own will?
Nablus, Palestine, and two old friends Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are working at a car repair shop. Despite being regular guys, they are revealed to be part of a freedom fighter group opposing the Israeli occupation. One night, a member of the group Jamal (Amer Hlehel) approaches both men to inform them they’ve been chosen for a suicide bombing mission.
Under the pretence of attending a wedding, Said and Khaled are sent to Tel Aviv with explosives strapped to their bodies to be detonated at separate intervals. Come the day of the mission, Israeli guards spot them as they cross the border and they are separated when running away. Khaled returns to the group who leave before Said returns, and see his absences as him betraying them. Khaled promises he will find Said.
At the risk of sounding flippant, making Paradise Now was akin to a suicide mission for director Hany Abu-Assad – an Israeli helicopter missile attack blew up a car near the shoot, a land mine also went off nearby, and the location manager was kidnapped by a Palestinian group and was only released after Yasser Arafat’s office intervened. And that was before they even watched it!
Joking aside, Abu-Assad’s film bearing the scars of reality feels allegorical apropos of the subject in which making a statement is predicated by the omen of death. However, this is a not a film that denigrates suicide bombers, despite the politics that surrounds this act of martyrdom and those who oppose such extreme ideology. Abu-Assad has openly said his intention was to humanise suicide bombers and not portray them in black and white as the media does.
This doesn’t apply to the Israeli occupation however – Abu-Assad passionately expresses his feelings on this issue through various cast members, making it clear his allegiance is with the Palestine people, not holding back in raging against the injustice of the people being marginalised and feeling incarcerated in the West Bank. This is a common refrain whenever the cause needs justifying, and tragically the idea that death is better than life in Nablus is deemed admirable.
We may not be able to understand which is why this film offers an insight into the minds of those willing to die for their cause. Rather than pernicious indoctrination or religious manipulation, which does plays a small part in assuaging their own fears, it comes from a place of frustration and desperation. There are people who don’t even feel recognised in their own land whilst everyone else is free to live as they choose and for them, this is the only way they believe they will be noticed.
Representing our aghast and less bellicose viewpoint is Suha (Lubna Azabal), daughter of a highly respected martyr returning to Nablus after years in exile abroad. With the benefit of seeing life in the rest of the world Suha is in favour of other less violent methods of making a point, and tries in vain to impress this upon Said, and later Khaled. She argues that sacrificing a life to kill the opposition only begets retaliation in kind thus is a worthless gesture that only does more harm than good for those left behind.
Unfortunately Said has personal reasons for doing this, in their own way tragic and in a perverse way make sense in a culture where family honour is inherent, but this doesn’t make it any easier to understand. As the only one of the two with a family still alive, Said is the one with the most to lose, or more accurately leave behind, and initially, is the one who appears least excited about the mission, unlike Khaled who shows more commitment.
One scene is not quite Four Lions funny, but Khaled recording his video message/eulogy to broadcast after the mission then having to do it again because the video camera is faulty offers some brief levity. If anything, it sits quite nicely within the remit of showing everything through a humanistic prism, perhaps serving as an omen for the mishaps to follow.
So much of the film’s discomfort and provocation is not in the action or in what may or may not have happened but in the very idea two people are willing to give their lives. The picked up pace of the third act where Khaled frantically searches for Said, and the heated exchanges between him and Suha push the tension to the edge but it is the passion of the philosophical motives that remains the real source of unease.
Ending on a chilling cliffhanger leaving us to fear the worst, Abu-Assad knows full well he is pushing the buttons of all sides of the argument, but in giving everyone a voice it is clear his agenda is to create debate. His support for Palestine notwithstanding, he is asking us to recognise the people behind the bombings are not always driven by hate but by political oppression and disappointment.
This is not a flashy film by any standards, not surprising given the circumstances under which it was made, nor should it be for fear of losing the message under any artistic indulgences. But it is not a sloppy production either and the cast know when to act and when to let the moment happen, quite often evoking more by doing nothing.
Paradise Now is horribly ironic in that depicts a world where someone not dying equates to a failed endeavour. But it does put us a step closer to understanding why one group of people see their sacrifice as heroic and productive, even if it isn’t easy to accept.