PARADISE NOW (Hany Abu-Assad, 2005)

A cynical attempt to put a human face on expedient, remorseless killing, Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now is a monstrous mirage in the desert, and a lame piece of work by any standard. Two Palestinians from Nablus, auto mechanics in their twenties, embark on a murder-suicide plot hatched by higher-ups in the unnamed terrorist organization to which they belong, targeting a busload of innocent Israelis in Tel Aviv, along with medics and others tending to the wounded and collecting the dead. The director of this tense, soulless thriller is Israeli-born Hany Abu-Assad, a Palestinian living in the Netherlands, who has claimed that he made the film to stimulate discussion and promote peace. Washing more Jewish lives into the mouth of the Holocaust is his true objective. To say the least, this movie will do nothing to hasten the end of Israeli’s West Bank security presence. But then what movie could?

Both boys are likeably goofy, neither is presented as a religious or an ideological fanatic, and both are conspicuously handsome; the warmth of their bond alone assures us that we are meant to side with them, no matter what. But the “matter” here is murder. What is their motive? Although Saïd also has his highly individualized motivation (shame, because his father “collaborated” with Israelis), he speaks for himself and Khaled and the others that they presumably represent. The boys’ motive, apparently, is twofold. One is that Israelis, they feel, have appropriated the status of victim in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute to which they themselves are due. In a sense, therefore, their making martyrs of themselves as suicide-killers is a symbolical attempt to reclaim this status, at least in their own eyes. This part of their motive is undeserving of consideration apart from the obvious observation that it constitutes a degree of self-pity of gargantuan and pathological proportions. The other part is somewhat more interesting. The boys feel that Israeli occupation daily impresses them with irritants and outrages that rob them of their dignity and sense of manhood. Martyrdom is thus seen as a path for redressing this emasculation. They see no other end in sight to their aches and complaints.

There is nothing especially brutal about the occupation as this film (along with other films with a pro-Palestinian bias) portrays it, but one can certainly sympathize with those who are forced under any circumstance to live highly regulated lives. Indeed, the boys’ lot in this regard is inextricable from a political situation that deprives them of self-determination. Deeming themselves miserable, then, the boys may opt for “Paradise” as a means of ending their misery. Abu-Assad’s mise-en-scène stresses another contributor to their disconsolation: poverty. Abu-Assad shows this by contrasting the boys’ dim, cramped homes with bright, energetic Tel Aviv. It is perhaps unnecessary for Abu-Assad to explain that Israeli policies help keep countless Palestinian males out of well-paying jobs in Israel proper.

None of this, of course, justifies killing innocent people. But in the eyes of disaffected Palestinian youth, and Palestinian elders as well, there is no such thing as innocent Jews. Despite the myth that Palestinians and Jews once got along, Palestinian hatred of Jews predates the occupation and even the massive postwar uprooting of Palestinians. It is historic, entrenched.

What is most disturbing about these pro-Palestinian propaganda films, perhaps, is that Palestinian characters decline all self-examination and refuse to accept any responsibility for their own situation. The delusion is disseminated that Israeli occupation is something that Israel has enforced on a whim. The Palestinian argument requires the absence of context, and there is certainly never any mention of the necessity for a Jewish homeland following World War II. Faced with what they feel is the lack of their future, Palestinians are loath to delve into what they regard as “ancient past.” It never seems to occur to them that they have brought occupation on themselves, that they, not Israel, have been the principal impediment to their own political self-determination by the violence they visit on Israelis. They persist in the belief that Israel has no right to exist, that all Jews should be wiped off the face of the earth. They are hell-bent on revenge for each Palestinian death, unwilling to accept that in any reasonable and just universe Israeli security and survival must trump Palestinian comfort and the right to commit acts of mayhem. Nor has Israel, finding itself between a rock and a hard place, always been adept at controlling the cycle of violence that it, too, has had a role in unleashing and maintaining; but that’s a topic for another film—a pro-Israel film.

No one that I know feels other than this: the occupation should end. Where people differ is in their position as to which side has been more responsible for obstructing this outcome. Meanwhile, the upshot of Israeli withdrawal from Gaza has hardly inspired confidence in Palestinians, whose corruption and chaos are matched by their hatred of Jews. How does one deal with a neighbor whose paramount wish is your death?

Abu-Assad’s film is deeply distressing. Consider the slight it inflicts on Israel’s Security Fence, through which accomplices of the boys cut the hole from the side of Israel proper that allows the boys to pop through for their killing spree. Palestinians have always had a rightful claim to the argument that Israeli security measures have done little to help keep Israelis alive. Such a claim cannot be extended to the Fence, however, which has demonstrably and dramatically reduced the number of civilian Israeli casualties. Abu-Assad, even way off in Holland, surely knows this. Therefore, he also knows what an affront to the cause of Israeli survival is this little plot detail of his. At least he spares us the current Palestinian paranoia that the erection of the Fence has other motives—ones aiming at Palestinian disadvantage rather than Israeli security. Admittedly, Abu-Assad fills in the hole in the Fence, so to speak, by having Israeli soldiers capture the boys and send them back through the hole to the occupied side from whence they came. There are two reasons for his doing this. One has to do with narrative; the other, with calculated purposes of propaganda. The boys have to be sent back because Abu-Assad has to keep the film going; he needs to nail down its twists and turns of plot. The boys become separated, Khaled desperately tries finding Saïd, and suspense is generated, once Saïd, around whose belly the explosives are strapped, is back on track, as to whether he will execute the mission. (A more contrived plot could not have been devised.) It is the other motive that is even more grating, though. Abu-Assad patches the hole in the Fence, so to speak, in order to lay claim to his being even-handed. No matter the angle of his bias, he wishes to appear straight in order to make his propaganda all the more effective.

He pursues a similar strategy throughout the film. Let me give two other examples. The older member of the organization who recruits the boys for the assignment at hand is an ambiguous figure. It is a possible interpretation that he is manipulating the boys toward the organization’s end. It is also possible, however, that he is doing no such thing. But another instance of this “let’s look even-handed” strategy is far more revealing of the manipulative nature of this despicable film. Saïd has a girlfriend, Suha, who works for a human rights organization that seeks Palestinian rights through nonviolent means. Hers is the alternative to the terrorist cell. Suha and Saïd’s exchanges—debates—are the principal reason there is any suspense as to whether Saïd will carry out the mission; although he has vigorously challenged each one of Suha’s attempts to turn him away from violence, who can say how well Suha’s arguments have privately reached his heart and mind? (And he does love her.) Suha’s position is hysterical: killing Israelis is wrong because it is counterproductive, because it does not truly advance the Palestinian cause, because it only perpetuates the vicious cycle of Israeli-Palestinian retaliations. Since the pair’s quarrels over the matter take up a substantial part of the film (à la Stanley Kramer), the impression is given that these opposing views exhaust the matter. But they are “opposing views” on the same side. No one brings up the possibility that murdering people such as ordinary Israeli citizens is wrong—wrong in itself. What about Saïd’s mother? Since Abu-Assad and co-scenarists Bero Beyer and Pierre Hodgson are so fond of having characters articulate polemical positions, why can’t they have given some other character, such as the mother, the position that killing people is plain wrong? Instead, Mum remains mum throughout the film. Meanwhile, Abu-Assad can say: “Look, I give both sides!” when in fact there are more sides than two associated with the issue. I suppose it is wishing for the moon that some other character—an Israeli in Tel Aviv, perhaps—might explain the whole matter of the occupation from the viewpoint of Israel’s national security.

At the end of the film, his hair cut and beard shaved off so that he can pass for Israeli, Saïd boards a Tel Aviv bus. Guess what? The municipal bus is transporting Israeli soldiers! Abu-Assad squirms out of his own dilemma by making potential victims soldiers rather than women and children, no matter how unrealistic the prospect. Will Saïd do what he is there to do? Will the angels he anticipates escort him into Paradise? (“There is no Paradise, except in your mind,” Suha has told him.) We will never know. The screen goes silent; there’s a tight closeup of Saïd’s impenetrable eyes. Abu-Assad has saved his best shot for the last.

In all ways, nevertheless, Paradise Now is no The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966). It is too rhetorical, propagandistic, manipulative, limp, shallow, unself-examining.

Paradise Now won as best film at Netherlands and won the Amnesty International Film Prize at Berlin. Its screenplay was adjudged the best at the European Film Awards. In the United States, it won both the Independent Spirit Award and the Golden Globe as best foreign-language film, and was likewise named this by the National Board of Review and the critics in Dallas-Fort Worth and Vancouver.

A whole controversy erupted when the film was nominated for the Oscar. The Oscar for best foreign-language film goes to the country of origin, which the Academy determined to be Palestine—a nation that either no longer exists or does not yet exist. This attribution amounted to an unwarranted and insupportable political statement. As it happens, the film’s country of origin is the Netherlands, which submitted a different entry for consideration. (As Italy found out the same year, the Academy doesn’t accept candidates in some other language than that of the country submitting it. Since it’s not in Dutch, Paradise Now wouldn’t have been considered in any case.) The whole episode refreshes one’s skepticism about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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