Hany Abu-Assad’s Golden Globe winning, Oscar nomiated film ‘Paradise Now’ is not, as is widely perceived, a film about being a suicide bomber. It is a film about what it means to be human in a society torn to shreds by years of internecine conflict. It is by turns amusing, frustrating and is ultimately deeply moving.
Set against the background of the violence in occupied Palestine, the film sketches the lives of two young men who find themselves on the front line of the Palestinian resistance movement, for very different reasons, and with very different consequences. For Khaled, the allure of martyrdom lies in religion and infamy, for Said, his darkly brooding best friend, the motivation is personal and historical – to atone for his father’s collaboration with the settlers which resulted in his execution. The suicide mission they are sent on by local teacher and family friend Jamal promises to make the two men all that they perceive they are not – heroes, winners, and the rightful inhabitants of a peaceful kingdom in which they can live in the present, free from the violence which has formed the past and the uncertainty which haunts the future; a paradise – now. But all does not go according to plan and the two men find themselves separated on the way to Tel Aviv. Whether to go ahead with their mission after their initial effort is jeopardised is the question with which the two wrestle, a question which forces them to reassess their most fundamental beliefs.
The voice of common sense comes from Suha, the daughter of a famed Palestinian activist whose life was claimed in the conflict some years previously. The influence of her father has the obverse effect to that played on Said – she detests violence and is horrifed when she learns of his devastating intention to commit mass murder in the name of the Palestinian cause, especially given their developing romance.
Khaled, like his best friend, sees life in the Occupied Territories as ‘a life sentence’. He is unmoved by the pleas of Suha to shake off his delusions, ‘I’d rather have paradise in my head than live in this hell’, he exclaims. His almost infantile excitement at the prospect of his fate gives way to doubt just as Said’s initial reticence is galvanised into an unshaking commitment to right the wrongs of history, and of his father.
Yet Said and Khaled are not presented as fanatical monsters. Abu-Assad employs some wonderfully deft human touches- Khaled forgetting his sandwiches on the day of the mission and being pursued by his mother, the camera malfunctioning as the men make video statements for broadcast after their deaths. It is the avuncular Jamal who is chilling in his conviction and callousness, sending two of his friends to their deaths with a smile on his face. Khaled is comforted by the detailed organisation of the mission. ‘What will happen afterwards?’, he asks on the way to Tel Aviv. ‘You will be met by two angels’, Jamal replies, hesitating momentarily and drumming his fingers on the dashboard of the car. For Khaled, it is the reassurance he needs. Said’s mind is already made up.
Inevitable criticisms have been levelled at Abu-Assad for humanising suicide bombers, portraying them in a sympathetic light. The effect of Paradise Now is to bring to the forefront the human drama of the most inhuman of situations. We see in Said a normal young man driven to abnormal action by the conjunction of events beyond his control and a life that offers him nothing. His dedication is not to Islam, nor primarily to the liberation of the Occupied Territories, but to correcting mistakes from the past. Unlike Suha (and to an extent Khaled) he is unable to see the metaphor represented by the bomb belt –that of a restrictive force from which it is only possible to free oneself with the co-operation and cautious action of others, like the cycle of historical violence which calls him to arms. This film movingly illustrates the hopelessness of the situation in the Middle East and shows that whilst paradise may not be completely lost, it will take a long time to get there.