“Paradise Now” is a brilliant and powerful piece of propaganda which has already won the Blue Angel Award for best European film at this year’s Berlin Film Festival and which has also been sold to 45 countries, including Israel. The film was financed by Dutch, French, and German backers. The director, Hany Abu-Assad, who has lived in Holland for the last twenty years, describes himself as a Palestinian with an Israeli passport. Reviewers have described the film as an attempt to “humanize” suicide killers, to “dramatize” what goes through their minds, and as an “ingeniously calculated thriller.”
Some reviewers have suggested that Abu-Assad has actually endangered himself by portraying the terrorist-recruiters as cold and manipulative (which he surely does), and by allowing two of his characters to question—and rather passionately--whether suicide bombing missions are effective responses to oppression and occupation. (Note: With one exception, they do not question whether they are “moral” or not). Finally, reviewers on at least three continents have also congratulated Abu-Assad on his careful research and solid documentation into the matter.
Nothing could be further from the truth—although I will grant him this: He is an artist, and a very good one. He excels in nuance, subtlety, irony, humor, character, and drama. Said (one of the suicide bombers played by Kais Nashef) is as heartbreakingly soulful and innocent as Giancarlo Giannini was in “The Seven Beauties and in “Swept Away.” Nashef resembles him as well. The tale is gripping and tragic—as long as you accept his exceedingly close-cropped informational frame. Israel and Israelis do not exist in this film. Israelis are depersonalized and utterly demonized. For most of the film we see Israelis only as soldiers: ominous, hard-eyed, helmeted, armed or in tanks. The film betrays no understanding that there is more than one side to this tragic story. Yes, feature films are not obliged to present opposing points of view—that’s something only expected of Israeli or pro-Israel artists, film makers, and writers. But the film is supremely ahistorical, anti-historical, and it is also based on a series of lies and omissions, and on one outright fantasy.
First, what the film does right:
The film takes place in a 48 hour period in which two friends, Said (not Edward, but the choice of name is significant), and Khaled (Ali Suliman), who work at dead-end jobs in an auto repair shop, are told that their suicide mission will take place in Tel Aviv the next day. We see them at work, at home, relating to a woman, Suha, with their recruiter, (who is the local schoolteacher), and with the terrorists who video their prepared speeches, feed, shave, dress and embrace them-- and then strap on their explosive belts which the killers themselves can never remove.
For them, there is No Exist. Quietly, but clearly, Abu-Assad shows us the enormously erotic element involved in Palestinian male bonding. He also shows us the casual cruelty with which older Palestinian men treat younger Palestinian men and boys. Most important, the film does suggest one very powerful motivation for becoming a suicide killer. Said fulfills his mission, Khaled turns back. Why this difference? Arab and Muslim society is a shame and honor-based culture. Psychologically, Said feels that he must cleanse his considerable shame: His father was executed as a collaborator by Palestinians when Said was ten. He blames the Occupation both for his father’s “weakness” and for his own decision to become a murderer. Said takes no personal responsibility for what he does. Khaled does not have such personal shame to expiate, nor does Suha, who is the daughter of a Palestinian hero. Both Khaled and Suha say all the right things about non-violent resistance, but our hearts are with Said who is the film’s tragic hero.
As to the lies:
Said decides not to board a bus which is filled with settlers because he suddenly experiences sympathy or pity for the toddler on board. In reality, Palestinian suicide killers have deliberately targeted Israeli civilians, not soldiers. Israeli soldiers represent about one-third of all those killed by Palestinian terrorists in this latest Intifada. In the last five years, nearly 800 Israeli civilians have been killed by Palestinian terrorists and thousands have been maimed for life. And yes, it is true, Israeli soldiers have also killed Palestinian civilians but inadvertently in their attempt to kill Palestinian terrorists who use their own people as human shields. Palestinian civilians are never, ever the planned targets of Israeli operations; on the contrary.
Said, in his video-ed “shahid” speech, claims that Israelis have rejected a two-state solution. This has been well documented as a falsehood.
One of Said’s handlers claims that this operation is the first they have tried in two years. Since Arafat unilaterally decided to break off negotiations and to launch the Intifada of 2000, the Palestinians have not stopped trying to kill Israeli civilians. The security fence has increasingly stopped them. Vigilant counter-terrorist and police work have stopped them. And still, they keep coming. Hamas says they will never stop. The Palestinian media and mullahs vow to fight on until the Jews and Christian infidels have all been driven from Muslim holy lands.
Said also accuses Israel of having carried out “ethnic cleansing.” This, too, is untrue. “Ethnic cleansing” is what the ethnic Arab Muslims are currently doing in Darfur in the Sudan to African Muslims, animists, and Christians; what the Hutus did to the Tutsi in Rwanda; what every single Arab Muslim country did to Jews particularly post 1948; and what the Nazis also did to Jews in the European Holocaust. However, had Israelis not settled these non-sovereign territories, it is a given that the same vicious and irrational jihad, the airplane highjackings and continuous Intifadas, would have been carried out against Jews in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa.
And yes, I know, Abu-Assad is not Said; Said is only a fictional character; he is entitled to his limited or distorted view of reality. In fact, this is exactly what a good film is supposed to do isn’t it? Get us inside the heads of its characters without judging them, yes?
Well, yes -- but here’s the problem. The world has already been super-indoctrinated against what is referred to as “the Israeli narrative” and in favor of “the Palestinian narrative.” Doctored film footage of fake Israeli massacres and fake Jewish and Israeli killings of Palestinian innocents have already inflamed most of the Arab and Muslim world; the European and to some extent the American media has been inundated with precisely this point of view. “Paradise Now” is the first feature film on the subject by a Palestinian. Because this is a good film, it will have enormous ongoing influence over how an already heavily indoctrinated world audience views the phenomenon of Palestinian suicide bombings.
Indeed, perhaps the biggest lie in this film is something the film omits almost entirely: we do not get a clear sense of how filthy and continuous the hatred of Jews and Israel really is among Palestinians, how brainwashed the impoverished Palestinian population really is. And this hatred continues in the film: a taxi driver, for instance, accuses the Israelis of polluting the drinking water with anti-spermicides—not so different from what Mrs. Arafat said when she accused the Israelis of causing cancer and fertility problems among Palestinian women.
Palestinian Media Watch has been translating what the Palestinians say in Arabic in textbooks, on television, in mosques, on videos, etc. A few examples will suffice: Jews and Israelis have been plotting to take over the world for a long time; indeed, they have done so; the Jews control the world media and the world’s money; they behead Muslim children in order to obtain their blood for Jewish rituals; the Mossad was behind 9/11—and yet they also control the U.S. government, etc. Day in, day out, Palestinians--who have been denied citizenship in every Arab Muslim country and whose own corrupt leaders have lined their own pockets with money meant to ease the considerable suffering of their people—are indoctrinated to hate Jews and Israelis and then trained to kill them.
One cannot deny that Palestinian daily life has been tragically interrupted by long lines at checkpoints, nor can one deny that individual Israeli soldiers sometimes capriciously and sadistically refuse to allow those waiting in lines, often for hours, to use the bathrooms. (They are forced to relieve themselves in the fields, or by the side of the road). However, some of those in line, including women, are packing explosives. The number of suicide killer missions that Israel daily and vigilantly intercepts is very high. Some days, 10-20 attempts have been made. But Palestinian killers also get through. While Israeli soldiers can therefore be irritable and very, very jumpy, (who wouldn’t be?), it is preposterous to suggest, as many critics have, that they behave as German Nazis did. But the film tells us, with no evidence, that in the earlier Intifada an Israeli soldier allowed a Palestinian to choose which leg he wanted to lose and then promptly shot that leg. The man now walks with a limp. This is eerily reminiscent of the many “Sophie’s Choices” that Nazis forced upon Jewish mothers: to choose which of their children will live or die. If a mother refused to choose, then all her children would die on the spot.
Also omitted are the bloody Israeli body-parts, the screams, the terror, the pain, the life-long disabilities, the collective Israeli agony. In fact, we do not get to see Said blow up his bus of Israeli soldiers. We see him in a series of close-ups—and then the screen goes white. Slowly, we understand that he has detonated his bomb. Slowly, the screen credits come up in Arabic.
Finally, the fantasy in the film is calibrated to appeal to a Western audience. Suha, the pacifist hero, dresses like a fashionable European. She is a young and attractive woman who lives alone, drives her own car, and who allows Said to visit her in the middle of the night. She makes him tea. Really: Women are killed for far less on the West Bank in honor killings—yes, even in Nablus. The presence of Suha (who shares the same first name with Mrs Arafat), suggests that the West Bank is not all that different from Paris or London, that Islamic gender Apartheid does not exist. Were Abu-Assad to show it to us—it might look as bloody as a suicide killing does.
The fact that this film, which is based on lies, is a success, both artistically and commercially, is extremely troubling. But, since Abu-Assad is a good film maker—possibly a great one—will he ever challenge himself, or feel an obligation, to consider doing a film based on the autobiography of “Souad” who also grew up on the West Bank and whose family tried to burn her alive? Will he ever challenge himself to “humanize” some Israelis, dare to render them sympathetic to both an Arab and Western audience? Now that would require real and considerable courage and artistry.