I saw “Paradise Now” with my roommate this afternoon (you can watch it too). It’s an emotionally compelling film which shows you the occupation from the inside out, from individual emotional perspectives and from how it affects families and relationships. The problem with the film is that it doesn’t tell a compelling story. In some of the reviews (the film was received positively by critics and was even nominated for an Oscar), this is almost seen as something good – something that reflects the film’s ability to convey the strangeness of the second intifada, of interrupted war, of brutal violence punctuated by boredom and waiting.
The film is about two childhood friends in the Westbank, and what happens when they are chosen to carry out an operation from which they won’t return. They are happy and perhaps a bit nervous to have been chosen, it appears that it is considered by everyone an honour. The operation doesn’t go as planned and they have to retreat, Chaos ensues when one of them does not come back with the other, and more chaos is introduced when a girl enters the male-dominated film and acts as the “voice of reason”, arguing that armed struggle is ineffective and that there are “other ways” to resist (although no other ways are ever actually suggested). When the operation is able to go forward and the men reach Tel Aviv one of them decides to return, being convinced of the pointlessness of violence. The other stays and carries out the bombing on a crowded bus full of Israelis dressed in civilian and military attire.
The film doesn’t demonize the attackers, there are no gratuitous scenes of violence, and the arguments between the characters on the role of violence and resistance seems decently honest. One annoying thing is that, just as in most Palestinian solidarity media, we are led to believe that “Occupation” means occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, although this is almost never what it means when uttered by Palestinians and it is not believable that this is what they would mean, especially when they are engaged in a military operation beyond the ’67 lines. But overall the film does a descent job of disclosing the complexity of political violence, and without sensationalizing or demonizing any of the parties.
That said, I don’t like the movie. I don’t feel it taught me anything I didn’t already know, and that it was trying to. The film presumes, in fact, that you don’t consider suicide bombers human, that you presume they don’t have difficult decisions to make, that they don’t have friends they argue with. If you were under that illusion, then you will learn a lot from the film. But I’m sorry, if you were under that illusion, then you are an idiot. That said, I’d be 70 out of a 100 people you meet on the street, if not more, are exactly this kind of idiot. So maybe this is a good film. But unless you believe all suicide bombers are foaming in the mouth religious fundamentalists, you don’t really need to watch it.
I prefer films that have a compelling story, that bring you along on someone’s difficult journey, ideally a journey that goes somewhere, and along which they overcome various challenges that might help you try to work through some challenges of your own. After all that is why we watch movies – because we learn from them, especially from the heros.
And what bothers me is that the story could have been told this way. If we weren’t so hung up on shoving it down your throat that the suicide bombers are complex people who have feelings just like you and live more difficult lives than you, the operation could itself be part of the movie – the background that motivated it, the intended goals, the actual aftermath, and how the goals are either met or not met. All these very interesting questions are hinted at in arguments between the characters, but are not explored in a satisfying or enlightening way. And since the film ends at the moment of the bombing, we never know how it is received, how it is covered, what the effects are of the attack on the war and on the occupation. And that’s because we already know – we “already know” that suicide bombing doesn’t work, and we “already know” that it just reproduces the cycle of violence. This really bothers me – if we already know what happens, then why are we watching a movie about it? This is my key problem with the movie – while it challenges our conception of the individuals involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it does not challenge our conception of the conflict itself, it doesn’t force us to ask questions about how we bear towards the conflict, the way our everyday speech reproduces Israeli power when we denounce “terrorism” and wish that Palestinians would just switch to “non-violent” resistance.
On the other hand, the film was made in 2005, and at that time maybe it was revolutionary to suggest that suicide bombers had families and girlfriends, lived oppressed lives, and had a difficult decision to make.
EDIT: you might want to read MERIP’s review of the film, it might be better than mine.
EDIT: another problem with this film that has come to my attention is its unrealistic depiction of suicide bombers, who in reality were not weak-willed flip-floppers but men and women of conviction who did not hesitate in carrying out their operations. In its attempt to “humanize” martyrs to the racist weest, this film turned out to be offensive to the memories of the actual martyrs.