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Paradise Now

October 18th, 2005 (02:44 pm)

© 2005. First posted October 18, 2005 on Third Eye.

With entries by Elia Suleiman, Yousry Nasrallah, and Hany Abu-Assad (among others), a purely Palestinian cinema seems to be developing, even if the filmmakers often live elsewhere, have multinational production partners, and face filming conditions that are sometimes frankly life-threatening. Any cinema about / coming out of an area so infused in politics is going to pick up elements of that politics, and all three filmmakers reflect that. Suleiman (Chronicle of a Disappearance, Divine Intervention) focuses on the comic absurdities of everyday Israeli Arab life. Nasrallah (actually Egyptian; The Gate of the Sun) offers one version of how the Palestinians got to where they are. Abu-Assad tells the stories of those directly involved in the violence: first, in the acclaimed Rana's Wedding, he navigates the Territories with a woman searching for her fiance; and now, in Paradise Now, he follows 48 hours in the lives of two would-be suicide bombers in Nablus.

As you can imagine, this isn't an easy subject to tackle. The slightest misstep means losing one side or the other; an overt stance means being labelled terrorist or collaborationist (which can be a dangerous thing). Abu-Assad took what was probably the only route open to him: by focusing on the two youths and their immediate environment, he forces Khalil and Said's decision and subsequent actions down a complicated, conflicted route of second thoughts, lined with friends, family, and acquaintances ranging the gamut of opinions on what good more violence can bring. Their collective hand is forced when their mission hits a snag and has to be aborted; Khalil escapes with their handler, who then moves the safe house, but Said is stranded and has to work his way back alone (both physically and metaphorically). Both get a second chance, with all the baggage that implies: rethinking the original decision, seeing what the real consequences are (and not 72 virgins), and having to act as adults.

* * * * * * * * * *

From http://www.warnerindependent.com.
(to make Warner Bros happy)

Believe it or not, this is a comedy (or at least a comedic drama), although a very black one. (In that respect it bears more than a passing resemblance to Elia Suleiman's movies, although Suleiman takes it further.) One example: a boy brings Khalil and Said glasses of tea. Khalil throws him a coin tip. The kid, obviously not happy with the amount, stares at him to demand more. Khalil (who's probably low on cash) stares back. The kid doesn't budge. Khalil cocks an eyebrow; no response. Eventually the kid gives up and leaves – Khalil doesn't have any more money, after all - ending the silent exchange. But it turns out the tea wasn't really hot anyway. Neither the kid nor Khalil have anything to lose, so they stand firm in their stances. The comedy is definitely used to dilute the realities: it's either laugh or be overwhelmed.

Abu-Assad is a master of the storyline, and no slouch in the technical department, either. Shot on film stock instead of digital, the colors and the general cinematography are breathtaking. There's one shot of the two men sitting on a hillside overlooking Nablus, the world at their feet, an ant farm humming with activity both quiet and violent. There are the blue skies and dusty roads of the Territories, the tan of the desert. Costuming is great: Khalil and Said's transformation from scruffy neighborhood types to short-haired, sharp-suited walking time bombs - almost like robots - is striking. They're not quite human anymore, but their voices still come out of their mouths. There's a distinct impression that Abu-Assad could handle various stories and content and make anything look good, make it come alive.

Given the polarizing nature of the conflict, there will be people (like one viewer at the Q & A session) who won't like the film. It's a Palestinian film told from a Palestinian viewpoint by Palestinian characters. Part of discussing suicide bombing is presenting arguments; part of doing that is presenting what the machinery sending out these bombers believes. The trick is to not confuse the bombers' politics with the filmmaker's.[1] Paradise Now doesn't so much take sides as present a fuller picture of the Palestinian viewpoint as an opening to discussion. The tag line for the film, "From the most unexpected place, comes a bold new call for peace," becomes obvious on reflection: getting beyond suicide bombers as martyrs or devils to humans making choices is one man's effort towards making them obsolete.

[1] This would be like condemning Good Will Hunting for putting a positive face on South Boston, although in 1983 a group of youths there, in a racially-motivated situation, chased a black man onto the T tracks where he was struck and killed by an oncoming train.