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Friday, March 9, 2007
MORALITY VS. VIOLENCE
How to kill yourself and be happy
Just last week I was complaining about how rare it is to see a film on Africa that has an African, not Western, perspective. You could say the same thing about the Middle East, where even a well-intentioned film like "Syriana" views the region mostly through the avatars of George Clooney and Matt Damon.
This month, however, sees the release of "Paradise Now," a film shot by a Palestinian director in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank, featuring a topic that no Western director in his right mind would touch -- what makes a man become a suicide bomber.
True, "Syriana" touched upon the subject, but more as a failure of U.S. policy in the region than a detailed portrait of the psychology that leads a man into this destructive final act.
Terrorism in movies is often presented as a phenomena without rationale, a singularly malevolent force of nature that's the equivalent of "The Lord Of The Rings" ' orcs or "Twister" 's tornadoes. It just is, with no explanation added or needed.
And yet, while one can condemn the action, and support the idea of stopping -- by any means necessary -- anyone considering it, it still pays to look closely at the conditions that give birth to suicide bombers, because therein lie the roots of the problem.
Director Hany Abu-Assad, a Palestinian who's spent much of his adult life in Europe, takes us into Nablus, and paints a vivid portrait of a city under siege, economically, militarily and psychologically. He gives us two barely employed slackers, Said and Khaled (Kais Nashef and Ali Suliman), who work at an auto-repair shop that borders on being a junkyard, smoking hookahs to pass the time as explosions rock the city in the distance. (And one gets the impression these are not CG, as Abu-Assad filmed under harrowing conditions during the Israeli siege of Nablus.)
Said and Khaled seem like normal guys, flirting with a girl who comes to pick up a car -- Suha, a liberal returnee from exile in Europe -- eating dinner with their mothers . . . and there's where you notice something: Where are the fathers? Both, for different reasons, have been lost to the conflict. Said, in particular, feels trapped by the shame of how his father has been killed by fellow Palestinians for supposedly collaborating with the Israelis.
Neither Said nor Khaled can see much of a future, and the past offers no solace, only reasons for revenge. So when a quiet, careful bearded man turns up and tells them they've been chosen to be martyrs, both accept the offer, and are taken underground to be fitted for suicide explosive vests. The mission is for the very next day in Tel Aviv, so there's little time to think about it.
Abu-Assad plays out the suspense. Will they go through with it or not? Will they make it past Israel's security wall, or be caught? Will Said allow himself to be swayed by Suha's rejection of violence? And will their certainty hold when they see the faces of those they must kill? The director makes us confront the existential and moral questions such men must answer -- or disregard.
The recruiter tells the two men that they're "fighting for our freedom." Said, who spent his life in a refugee camp, says how he wants the Israelis to understand "if we don't have peace, they won't have it either." Besides, as he tells Suha, a martyr goes straight to heaven. Suha, desperate to stop his decision, yells at him: "The heaven is just in your head." The depth of Said's nihilism is clear in his reply to her: "The heaven in my head is better than the hell I'm living in."
The success of "Paradise Now" is that it has you rooting for these guys not to do it. You'd like to see a story that involves Said falling for Suha, mellowing out, seeing the possibility of a happier future, and investing in a moral struggle instead of violence. But the reality of our times means a much more pessimistic ending.
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