"Paradise Now", the new Palestinian film recently released on DVD, is an engrossing look at what life is like in a part of the world many of us will never get to see. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2005.
Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are two young men who have lived in the West Bank for their entire lives. They, like most of their friends and family, have long since learned to live with the constant presence of Israel in their lives. They don't give checkpoints a second glance, they barely duck when a bombing happens nearby, they have learned to live without many of the things we take for granted; variety of food, movies, freedom of movement. One day, Jamal (Amer Hlehel) tells them their time has come; they have been chosen to perform a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, in retaliation for the murder of Suha's (Lubna Azabal) father. When Suha, a friend of the two young men, finds out about their plan, she tries to stop them, believing that the violence will only lead to more violence.
"Paradise Now", written and directed by Hany Abu-Assad, is a surprisingly moving film. Shot in the West Bank, the film thrusts us into daily life in this very remote part of the world. I say remote because I think I can safely say many of us will never see this very different part of the world. It depicts the lives of the two young men, showing us their difficult struggles, in an effort to convince us why they would be so eager to participate in such a heinous act, why such a thing would make them `heroes'. And "Paradise" does a remarkably good job of convincing us. Their life is very difficult, but it isn't difficult because of the Palestinians or the Israelis. It is difficult because of a long standing history between the two groups. They have spent so many years hating each other, trying to eradicate each other; it is difficult to wonder if they will ever reach peace.
After the two men are chosen, we watch their indoctrination and training.
The process of any change they experience is a gradual one. They each share a last evening with their families, never revealing the journey they will take on the next day. These scenes are very emotional, yet low key. They can't reveal what will happen, to keep their parents safe from the news and the effects. Yet, they also have to maintain a sense of normalcy. They can't cry or get emotional or bid a long farewell. Perhaps it is this lack of a proper good-bye which helps to begin the journey of change. They are groomed, heads shaven, clothes changed, to make them appear more Israeli, so they can blend in. They receive detailed instructions. One of them should set off their bomb first, allowing the police and authorities to come to the scene and then the second should set off their bomb, to inflict more casualties. Then they receive the instructions about how to get into Tel Aviv and where to go.
But Said and Khaled go through with it, leaving for Tel Aviv. Complications arise.
Abu-Assad does a very good job of showing the conflicting emotions in his main characters. They have been trained, programmed, all of their lives to believe Israel is the enemy, and now they have the chance to become martyrs for the cause, to become heroes. Yet, they begin to question if this is the way to obtain their goals. After they arrive in Israel, they blend in, receiving only cursory glances. What really makes this film powerful is that it pretty evenly presents both sides of the story. It clearly wants to show peace is the way, but it has to give us an idea of what they have lived with all of their lives. To present only one point of view would not do the film justice. We need to see both, to make the right way seem all the more correct and powerful.
Kais Nashef is very good as Said, the more unemotional of the two, steely, reserved and determined to carry out his mission. Ali Suliman's Khaled is the more emotional one. He is more excited about his calling and also more scared when the effects of the mission become clear.
Suha proves to be the level headed member of the group. She is quite smitten with Said, but he doesn't seem able to reciprocate. When he learns of his fate, he becomes even more withdrawn, afraid to get her hopes up. As soon as she learns of their plans, she raises many good points, debating with them the need for their journey. She believes that the only way to end this current problem is through peaceful negotiations. Violence will only lead to more violence, as it has in their culture for years, for decades.
Shot in Nablas, the film depicts the town and life in it with an unflinching eye. Covered in dirt, debris and decades of war, Nablas is not an attractive place. To us, it looks uninhabitable. To these people, this is all they know, so they live with it. They have to, they have no choice. It is difficult for them to leave and obtain anything else, to improve their lives, because of the history of this place.
"Paradise Now" is all the more powerful because of it's ending. The ending is a little ambiguous, leaving it open to interpretation. The filmmaker's leave this to our imagination and it is all the more powerful for that reason. Our mind can make up a much more horrifying ending than they could ever film.