I just heard on NPR news about another suicide bombing (in Afghanistan), but that hardly seems shocking today. Virtually every day we hear about suicide bombings somewhere in the Middle East; likewise, cinematic bomb threats have supplied melodramatic Macguffins in numerous thrillers, often set up by faceless enemies. Yet this is a phenomena that has hardly been explored in feature films up close. Soon to be released, Syriana offers a glimpse through the desperate and frustrated eyes of young Pakistani suicide bomber, but it only paints broad predictable strokes for his internal conflicts.
The news reports the facts, provides political and socio-economic background, and shares video of grieving victims. But there has to be more to the story. What is it that creates the mentality of a suicide bomber? How can they sacrifice their lives at such a young age? How can devout followers of a religion that promotes brotherhood justify that such a callous act grant them immediate access to heaven? Of course, answers to such complex questions go beyond the scope of newscasts, but we now finally have a film that explores suicide bombers more intimately than ever before with Paradise Now.
Netherlands based Palestinian writer-director Hany Abu-Assad (Rana's Wedding) produces his most powerful film yet by allowing viewers to see the complicated West Bank situation from a suicide bomber's point of view during the entire 90 minutes. Not content with simplistic portrait, Paradise Now succeeds fervently in developing nuanced characters who effectively demonstrate the wide array of views and feelings of its community. Only a Palestinian could have made this film because only a Palestinian could truly understand the deep seated emotional content behind the headlines. As the tag line declares, "From the most unexpected place, comes a bold new call for peace."
Bold it is, as we early on realize that the two friends we follow--Kais Nashef as Said and Ali Suliman as Khaled--have been recruited to go to Tel Aviv and blow themselves up. Both have thought about this for years, yet must keep it secret from the family and friends. Neither is a religious fanatic, yet the notion that they will undergo a jihad (Holy War) and gain immediate entry to heaven supplies part of their motivation. As any thinking person would, they certainly have doubts; otherwise, they wouldn't have queried the suicide mission leaders like they do when told that everything is planned for. The more outspoken Khaled asks what will happen afterwards, and is told:
"Two angels will pick you up."
"Are you sure?"
Khaled has good practical reason to doubt the sincerity and competence of the leaders, just from the darkly humorous sequence of events during his video taping. To give their sacrifice pragmatic meaning, they tape messages that are to be shown on television (and sold in Palestinian video stores). After putting out an emotionally charged explanation for his action, Khaled must re-do his message because the video camera wasn't working. Terrorist leader Jamal (Amer Hlehel) assures the emotionally spent youth that this will allow him to "do it better." But as Khaled begins again, he sees Jamal handing out pita sandwiches to the crew and stops. It's an unspoken, subtly conceived sequence that draws natural questions about the purity of the leaders' motivations; it also firmly puts us more in sympathy with Khaled and Said.
We may not agree with their actions, but we do grow to understand them. And we're never sure exactly what either character is going to do for sure until the final moments. Said is developing a friendship and budding love interest with Suha (Lubna Azabal), a positive and cheerful Palestinian who strongly feels that bombing only hurts their cause and that suicide can't be justified theologically. Born in France and raised in Morocco, Suha still has great status in the community since she is the daughter of revered leader Abu Assam. She doesn't like Israeli roadblocks and their second rate status any more than any Palestinian, but she feels there are more effective methods of resistance.
The narrative proceeds primarily as character development until the original plans are foiled at a remote border by Israeli forces; it then turns into a thriller. One of them remains on the Israeli side and nearly boards a bus, but rejects the notion when he sees a small girl come to the front to pay her fare. With plans thrown into chaos, the leaders are overwrought and strongly hint that their two young volunteers may have to be executed as "collaborators" to preserve their cause. Can the leaders allow their volunteers merely return home after a botched mission when they know many secrets about the organization?
Ironically, the film project found itself in a similar predicament. Shooting on location in Nablus, Nazareth, and Tel Aviv, the 70 person crew often found itself in tough predicaments, especially in Nablus. Some Palestinians thought they were making a film against the Palestinians while others thought it was presenting their case for freedom and democracy. On one occasion a Palestinian group that thought they weren't presenting the suicide bombers in a good light arrived on the set with guns and asked them to stop filming. Such is life in the area, especially when striving for delivering a balanced view of the situation.
What emerges from Paradise Now is a compelling portrait of suicide bombers and the complex issues that surround the act, all brought to life by an excellent cast of little known Palestinian actors. Their charisma carries the film professionally while intimate knowledge of the subject material works to great advantage, providing a level of sincerity that would be difficult to duplicate otherwise. Those who think that suicide bombers only find the courage to carry out their act through religious promises of heaven are in for a surprise. The film's title may communicate this "shallow" idea, but its content clearly demonstrates that there's a great deal more to the concept. Religion alone doesn't supply the motivation. Our moral fibers are made up from a matrix of factors, and the key one may not emerge until severely tested.