TFT Film: 'Paradise Now'
28 April 2006
'Are you happy?'
'Yes, I am very happy. Thank God.'
It took a while for 'Paradise Now' to make it into British cinemas. It was due to premiere in July last year, but distributors Warner Bros quietly shelved it after the attack on London. The irony is that there could hardly have been a more appropriate time to show a film which attempts to look unflinchingly at the motivations of suicide bombers, and do what Lib Dem Jenny Tonge got the boot for - trying to figure out what drives ordinary people to commit what seems like inexplicable atrocity.
It's probably not a great film, but it is a good film, and one of those rare ones that everyone should see (like 'Fahrenheit 9/11', only with considerably fewer fat rich people). Made by Nazareth-born Hany Abu-Assad and a crew who all risked their lives filming in Nablus on the West Bank (the location manager was kidnapped, and some of the crew fled), it tracks a pair of Palestinian suicide bombers in the run-up to their mission in Tel Aviv. Israel is reduced to a shadowy presence in the form of grimacing soldiers at checkpoints - the film has incurred the condemnation you'd expect, but it's not unanimous by any means. It was even made possible by money from an Israeli government arts fund.
The film follows two friends, Khaled and Said, who work somewhat half-arsedly as mechanics in Nablus. Their surroundings are pretty bleak, but they seem content enough. After Khaled upsets his boss and is fired, he and Said sit in some ripped-out car seats on a hill, play a tape in a crappy old recorder, drink tea and mess about. They're manifestly like any other feckless young guys. The same night Said runs into Jamal, a middle-aged suited man who smokes incessantly and exudes a kind of corpulent confidence, and is told that he and Khaled have been chosen for the first mission in two years. Jamal reminds him what an honour this is. The operation is to be carried out tomorrow, and Said is to spend tonight with his family and say nothing. Said only blinks, raises his eyebrows, expresses his gratitude. The initial set-up has led you to immediately identify with the two main characters, and so you can't help but receive Said's news with the same lack of shock he does. The story unfolds with such a clear eye, uncompromised by any moral twitches, that you just sit there and take it in as if it happens every day - which, of course, it pretty much does.
Khaled and Said are prepared for their mission by Jamal and a group of silent militants. They turn the scruffy, slouchy young men in t-shirts and jeans into solemn killers in 'Reservoir Dogs' identisuits, clean-shaven and scrubbed fresh, ready for martyrdom. They look like any other iconic suited men in cinema - you admire their style and noble bearing, and then of course you feel ever so slightly implicated, but also like you understand a little of the pop-starry status martyrs are afforded. Before the transformation they record their martyr's farewells, and Khaled's is quietly farcical. He reads from a card, explaining his mission's purpose and that it is God's will, like a kid in a school play - and then looks up to see three watching militants munching away on pita. The video camera buggers up, so he has to start again. He looks a bit lost. He gets through a couple of sentences, then breaks off - you expect to perceive some jab of reluctance, an inkling of reconsideration. But instead he looks into the camera and urgently explains to his mother that the water filters are better at the other shop, so she should buy them there next time. This isn't pathos - it's pure comedy, bringing real laughs from the audience, and that's because the whole scenario still seems quite mundane, not tense, not fraught.
The friends have the bombs taped to their chests and are taken towards Tel Aviv, but a foul-up separates them and in the ensuing confusion they have time for that extended moment of reflection and reconsideration. Their friend Suha, a martyr's daughter herself, catches up with them and insists that all they are doing is giving Israel an 'alibi' to continue their own violence and oppression. There's an explicit, extended plea for an end to indiscriminate tit-for-tat attacks that sounds so familiar it's almost hard to focus on, but it's all stuff that needs to be said and said again. At various points in the film Khaled and Said explain why they signed up - essentially, they think it's all they can do, and besides, they feel they're already dead under Israeli occupation. In one scene Said tells Shua that he and his friends demonstrated a few years before and burned down a cinema, because they were prevented from getting jobs as West Bank residents - she asks 'Why the cinema?' and he replies, 'Why us?'. Something visibly happens to Said during the film - while Khaled eventually falters and looks somehow more like himself, Said's face hardens and he starts to look less there, more of a purpose than a person. He looks beyond death, above it. There's no sweating, no crying, no trembling, just seraphic calm. The one moment in the film where a character actually aligns with the usual image we have of suicide bombers - unblinking, cold, hostile - is in the final frames, as Said sits on a crowded bus.
It's very hard for us to grasp what it is that propels young men and women to destroy themselves and take as many others with them as they can. We're pretty much immersed in the western cult of self, inward-looking, worrying about our carbohydrate intake. We might sometimes feel like tiny, helpless, insignificant cogs in an awesomely large machine, but it generally doesn't underpin our mostly comfortable lives in a way that makes them insupportable. Our culture insists that death is the worst thing that can happen to anyone - we can't imagine anything propelling us to wipe out our carefully-constructed selves, but we should strain to see that through some eyes death is a very different thing. Your own death can be something you can give to others in the hope of a better future, and suicide can be something to be gladly embraced - an unmitigated positive, carrying no more fear or regret than the prospect of donating blood. 'Paradise Now' gives a direct and simple insight into a grim and widening circle of disenfranchisement and antagonism, shedding light on suicide bombing as a human drive.
It does seem glib to start on about the need for understanding and perception - many don't see the point, as it doesn't lead to any obvious solution. But if we understand, then maybe there's a possibility of perhaps being able to eventually work towards something very slightly better for everyone - if we're lucky. That doesn't sound like anything to get excited about, and it's depressing to think that if everyone isn't trying to understand suicide bombers as people, then we've barely set foot on square one yet. But the film is a salient reminder of the fact that we can't stop striving to stay neutral and to look at all sides of this most awful thing. It's not like we aren't far enough from strapping on a bomb ourselves to be able to gain perspective.
In fact, there is a moment of pathos in the film. One of the bombers asks Jamal what will happen 'afterwards' - tragically naïve, but still it seems like a natural enough question given the careful planning of the operation. Jamal doesn't disappoint, explaining that 'two angels will come and pick you up', as if telling them they'll be collected from school. Khaled and Said look at each other. This time no one in the cinema laughs.