[Note: No spoilers]
“If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t do it again. It’s not worth endangering your life for a movie.” – Hany Abu-Assad, Director.
Said and Khaled are two young men who work for a car repairman in the West Bank. There are few jobs, and they have little interest in the job or in keeping the customers. Though Said’s family is barely able to make ends meet, life goes on. That’s when Jamal, a family friend, visits Said to inform him that he and Khaled have been chosen for a very important task. From then on, we’re led into the world of the underground, of terrorists who prey on impressionable young men, and sacrifice them for the cause, in exchange for a place in paradise.
Paradise Now is a movie about how the humiliation of the occupation of the West Bank by Israel drives jobless youth to sacrifice themselves to keep a cause alive. The movie seems critical of both sides – of Israel with mentions of the occupation of the West Bank and the constant fear of bombardment, and of Palestine with its storyline that questions repeatedly the suicide bombing tactics employed by the Palestinians. There is justification from the terrorists too: Jamal reasons that if the Palestinians accept the rule of might and forsake their liberty, then they would be no less than animals; to survive, they must fight, and the freedom of a people is more important than the life of individuals.
The making of this film was as troubled as the land where it was filmed: the location manager was kidnapped during the shoot and an Israeli missile blew up a car near the set. The flick is slick, with some smooth camerawork and picturisation. Khalid, played by Ali Suliman, is the slightly comical, less mature and more enthusiastic of the two. Said (Kais Nashef) is the quiet and thoughtful one who repeatedly questions their motives, and the concept of paradise. Most importantly, the two are projected as innocent, naive and impressionable young men, caught between what they see and what they’re told to believe. As outsiders, we tend to believe that there are schools where children are brainwashed and trained to kill. Hany Abu-Assad disagrees, and presents a more humane, sometimes comical picture – there’s a scene where Khalid, with a gun in hand and a flag around his shoulders, speaks first dispassionately into a camera, reading from a text, and then, speaking from the heart, looks at his parents through the lens and apologises to them. On inquiring about how his performance was, he is told that the camera didn’t work and he’d have to give it another shot. Though emotionally spent, he tries again.
The two scraggly boys are shaved and dressed in smart suits. Explosives are stuck to their bodies and they’re brought to barb wire fence through which they make their way into Israel.
From then on, the film comes into its own as the plot takes several turns with one of the two on the loose in Palestine with explosives that could blow up if not deactivated properly, and the other, searching for him. En route to the end, we’re subjected to several, though unfortunately forced, arguments on how Palestine should respond to the humiliation of occupation, and whether the kamikaze course of action is justifiable or not. Eventually, the side you agree with depends on whether you believe in Paradise or not, and how you can get there. Hany Abu-Assad has probably ended up offending both sides by presenting a balanced viewpoint.