Monday, 4 August 2014

Hany Abu-Assad's 'Paradise Now'

Paradise Now, directed by Hany Abu-Assad came out in the year 2005. I could see it only recently, thanks to my friend Gopi Sait of Mulberry Films, who is kind enough to give me a lot of valuable advice and assistance in appreciating films and the art of movie making. My response to the movie now is purely based on its thematic structure though. This is in fact an extension of my thoughts in the earlier post The Gaza Blame Game and Children Who Live, With No Choice

There had been quite a lot of movies that trace the traumatic events that lead to the making of a suicide bomber. The ones that I have seen and that have made an impact on me are Theeviravaathi: The Terrorist (1997) by Santhosh Sivan, India and Rabia (2007) a short biopic on Wafa Idris, Palestine's first female suicide bomber, directed by Miguel Ali (aka Muhammad Miguel Ali Hasan). 


While these two movies have female suicide bombers and exploit their feminine aspects in contrast to the supposedly heinous act they commit, Paradise Now distances viewers a lot for the most part from the two men who do the same. While all three movies have a lot of significance in the way they humanize the protagonists, I was a lot more drawn to Paradise Now and the way its director tackled the issue of dealing with the mental make up of his characters. 

Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are the young Palestinian men chosen for an 'operation'. They were working in pathetic conditions as garage mechanics, tormented by the general situation in Palestine, menacing employer and clients and their own bad temper. They take the task of crossing over to Israel and blowing themselves up as a serious one, and are seemingly committed to it. They spend their last nights with their family in a remarkably calm demeanor. Said even overcomes his feelings for the beautiful Suha (Lubna Azabal), born in France and brought up in Morocco. Despite her great reputation in Palestinian community as the daughter of a much respected leader Abu Assam who sacrificed his life for their cause, she keeps talking about 'other ways' to deal with the situation. She even tries to influence Said with her logic that violence just results in more suffering, especially for those people who are left behind to live, with no choices at hand. 

The first effort by the young men takes place after a lot of training. They are transformed fully. They get a shave and their hair is cropped. The bombs are well hidden under their western formal outfits. They undergo tedious procedures that are very demanding at times, but also comic in some unexpected parts. They are supposed to give some video messages about their decisions, and the recording is quite often interrupted because the cameras don't work. The impatient Khaled once tries to give a message to his mother during one such recordings about some better, cheaper water filters. There is some mention of contaminated water in a few other places, even the possibility of an easy way of finishing off the Palestinians just by poisoning the water.

I wouldn't give any spoilers now. The film focuses on the way the two young men deal with their lives at crucial moments, and how their responses keep changing unexpectedly. It is better that you see the movie to come to your own conclusions. What appealed the most to me was the way the character of Said is presented in the movie. He is seen as someone who opens his mouth a few times to say something important, and then leaves the idea as someone else speaks. He speaks mostly through his eyes, which keep giving you varied impressions depending on the contexts.

At times you feel Said is a confused person, but at times he surprises you with his clear will. He lets out only a few things about himself. He tells Suha once that his father was a collaborator, and he was executed. He stresses the fact that he was just 10 years old then. His mother tries to see the image of her husband in a grown up Said. The director presents very briefly the disturbing face of a young boy who serves tea to Said and Khaled in a wasteland next to the garage. He has a confusing expression on his face as he waits for a little more money from Khaled, or Said. Khaled commands him away with his eyes, while Said doesn't get involved in the whole affair and just fiddles with a matchbox. The expression on the boy's face haunted me. Was it sadness, helplessness, or anger? Said's reference to his ten year old self brought this boy's face to my mind. The siblings of the young men, on the other hand, didn't leave such a lasting impression on me, though their mothers did.

Some of Said's arguments make his case more intriguing. They sometimes serve as a critique to the way movies about wronged people and their 'wrong' decisions are perceived by the public. Here is a dialogue between Suha and Said after Suha gets infuriated by the fact that there are 'martyr videos' and 'collaborator videos'  for sale, and for the same price, in the shops around. 

Suha: Do you think it's normal that those videos are for sale?
Said: What's normal around here?
Suha: It's sick. Three million people are struggling to survive. Nablus has become a prison. I don't know what I am doing here. What a load of...
Said: My father was a collaborator. He was executed. I was ten.
Suha: I am so sorry
Said: No need to be. 
Suha: How did you deal with that?
Said: It was Okay. It's not as bad as you might think. 
Suha: Do you want to talk about it?
Said: What's there to talk about? Will it end the occupation? Will I stop remembering that my father was a collaborator? The whole world knows. 
Suha: I didn't.
Said: What do you know? You come from a different world. Abu Azzam's daughter. Living in a fancy neighborhood.
Suha: What are you talking about?
Said: Why talk? To get your pity? To entertain people whose life is a bit better?  

Said gives Suha a fleeting kiss and runs away to his father's grave after this. It is Khaled who takes part in the discussions on sacrifice and a paradise for the martyrs while Said is someone tormented by his past. However, the radical views of Khaled's arguments come to a comical end once again, when Suha cuts him short in the midst of a rant on martyrs to point out that if he doesn't drive carefully, they would end up being traffic martyrs. 

The movie's climactic moments revolve around the attitudes of the two men and who among them would stick on to their determination - Said, who is much loved by Suha, and has qualities that would suit a family person, or the short tempered, religiously indoctrinated Khaled. Khaled's brotherly love for Said from their childhood is also evident in many parts, and it is curious how the reticent Said would ever be able to return that. 

The moments that troubled me the most were the ones regarding Said's lack of choices, as a child and as a young man. He opens up a bit to the leader of the terrorist group, who is upset by the failure in their first attempt.

Said: I was... born in a refugee camp. I was allowed to leave the West Bank only once. I was six at the time... and needed surgery. Just that one time. Life here is like life imprisonment. The crimes of the occupation are countless. The worst crime of all is to exploit the people's weaknesses... and to turn them into collaborators. By doing that, they not only kill the resistance...they also ruin families... ruin their dignity and ruin an entire people. When my father...was executed, I was ten years old. He was a good person. But he grew weak. For that, I hold the occupation responsible. They must understand that if they recruit collaborators...they must pay the price for it. A life without dignity is worthless. Especially when it reminds after day, of humiliation and weakness. And the world watches cowardly, indifferently. If you are all alone, faced with this have to find a way to stop the injustice. 

It is curious that a martyr's daughter Suha gets involved in human rights groups and talks of peaceful ways of intervention, while a collaborator's son Said grows up with so much pent up anger that comes from his helpless situation. This is where the question of children who have to live with no choices become relevant. Said remembers his childhood vividly, he never forgets what happened when he was six and when he was ten. Suha's exposure to other cultures and her mobility help her look at the situation differently. But what about the many who are trapped in a situation forever, with no opportunity to distance themselves from it and to look at if from some sort of an informed position? What about the scholasticide that people don't consider as a serious crime? Just like many think certain historical balancing is inevitable, the only decisions that young people like Said are capable of taking become inevitable as well, if we leave them with no other choices in life.

And far more serious would be the lack of choices that the 'spectators' have in this case, whose lives are perhaps a little better, as Said says. There is no choice other than to be 'entertained' by the images we keep seeing. We end up dissecting the lives of those children who are dead, or those children who are alive and will have to go wrong, to take the 'wrong' decisions. And we raise our children to be such passive spectators, deriving pleasure from tears for others, and blaming the world around them for things they think they cannot change. Said doesn't ask you to continue doing that. In the plans he and Khaled has to blow themselves up, there is some space for a plan to put an end to many ways of thinking which they think are not right, just like the way we are bent on thinking that their plan is not right. 

Perhaps that is the complex issue dealt with in the movie, as its tagline goes, "from the most unexpected place comes a bold new call for peace." A peace that's beyond mindless slogans.   


  1. Excellent review sir.. It's impressive how you connected the tea serving boy to Said's won childhood self.. The boy's stony expression is indeed haunting but the connection did not occur to me. The movie is very much about the indelible marks of childhood experiences and the labyrinthine choices one is left with. It breaks our heart when Said says, "We have nothing but our bodies to fight with." The part that touched me the most was Said's confession to that gang leader. A Powerful movie! Your mention about 'scholastcide' is very significant. 'Rabia' is next on my list to watch. :)

  2. I'm glad you liked the post Lissy. Hope to watch another movie by him soon - 'Omar'.