Reviews of controversial Oscar nominee for best foreign film
Clarifying the Muddle East
This outstanding film fictionalises preparations for a Tel Aviv suicide bombing by young Palestinians Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) from the West Bank – happy-go-lucky car mechanics metamorphosing into deadly serious terror protagonists. Viewer expectations and sympathies are juggled by deploying thriller, comedy, romance and rites of passage narrative conventions – within an overall arc of tragic realism – rendering intelligible the context, conditions and complications accompanying this act of extreme violence. Writers Hany Abu-Assad and Bero Beyer effectively detail the humiliations and hopelessness of everyday life in the colonised territories under Israeli military stranglehold – its victims’ experience blending with their social and cultural history in trying to make sense of an unbearable existence, responding with a complex range of political and personal orientations.
An Israeli/European co-production, Paradise Now’s perilous filming in Nablus included the kidnapping of one crew member and the subsequent flight of others, near-miss mortar and missile attacks, and baleful suspicion from both the IDF and local militias. Thereafter completed in the director’s home-town of Nazareth, the traces of conflict in the final cut are far more restrained – subtle indications of the absurdities inherent in maintaining community routines in a ruined war zone being preferred to grandstand posturing. Abu-Assad’s previous features heightened tragicomedy to salute ordinary Palestinians’ courage and persistence. Here it highlights ambivalence in attitudes and preoccupations – for example puncturing the fundamentalist austerity of the martyr video ritual with references to water filters (West Bank water being, in effect, Israeli sewage), malfunctioning cameras and the noisy snacking of bored onlookers.
Nevertheless, though the fateful mission is finally accomplished despite all the poignant doubts expressed, an inspired move was having Said’s tentative love interest Suha (Lubna Azabal) – the daughter of a militant hero returning from exile – articulate the hopes for peace, negotiation and co-existence held by many in the ‘West’ (including the film-makers). But after so many broken promises of justice and democracy from privileged outsiders, elements of Islamic fervour do furnish a faltering rationale for atrocity in the brutal isolation of the present; whereas Muslim customs simultaneously facilitate a semblance of dignity amid daily degradation. Even so, more secular personal and collective pursuits of agency and meaning – not to mention various vested interests for control of what little remains – clearly hold sway. After all, as one of the planners shrugs, “If we had airplanes, we wouldn’t need martyrs”.
Abu-Assad knows that “the system of capitalism … [offers] no solution for the differences between rich and poor”, instead inventing enemies “in order to keep authority, to keep power, and hope that some miracle will happen”.* In tackling its highly-charged themes so effectively, Paradise Now itself represents something of a minor miracle – especially compared with other recent efforts at Middle-East illumination (e.g. [i]Syriana/i] ’s patronising parapolitics or Spielberg’s odious Munich**). If his next film – about a Palestinian taxi-driver in L.A. – can successfully bring the same sensibility to bear on contemporary America, it should be well-worth looking out for.
* quoted in: B. Ruby Rich, ‘Bomb Culture’, Sight & Sound, April 2006, pp.28-30.
** As’ad Abu-Khalil’s comprehensive demolition of the latter is at: http://angryarab.blogspot.com/2005/12/spielberg-on-munich-humanization-of.html.
Film review published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 13, July 2006.
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