FILM REVIEW - Blank Expression: The Impoverishment of Palestinian Life in “Paradise Now”

David Shasha

Posted Sep 4, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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FILM REVIEW - Blank Expression: The Impoverishment of Palestinian Life in “Paradise Now” (Hany Abu-Asad, 2005)

by David Shasha

The cinema is an art-form whose engine is powered by narrative.  Lives are most effectively examined by providing context and coherence. 

Looking at the ongoing critical examination of African-American life here in America, we must acknowledge Spike Lee’s epochal film “Do the Right Thing” (1989) which examines one day in the community of Bedford-Stuyvesant by painting a complex portrait of its various members.  The story revolves around the tensions between the White owners of a Pizza parlor and the Black community.  Each character is provided with a back-story and the events that build into tragedy on that one hot summer day are made coherent because we come to understand the people who act in the story.

It is important for the filmmaker to do two things in order to provide the viewer with an opportunity to understand and at times empathize with the protagonists of the movie: First, we must know something about the characters, and second, we must be able to immerse ourselves in a story that expresses some semblance of their reality.

In the fiction of the great Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, a PFLP activist who was assassinated in Lebanon by the Israelis in 1972, we see a masterful blending of the realist and the absurd.  In his best known work, the 1956 novella “Men in the Sun,” Kanafani creates an indelible portrait of three Palestinian men seeking work who are smuggled in the airless cabin of a truck going to Kuwait. 

Tragically, all three men die of asphyxiation before they reach their destination.  The novella is a scathing attack not only on Israel, but on the Arab countries that deviously and maliciously manipulated and abused the Palestinian people.

“Men in the Sun” expresses the tragedy of Palestine in the way it allows the reader to enter the world of the three men and their absurd and pathetic existence.  This despair is what Kanafani seeks to communicate to the reader.  In presenting the stories of the men and their sad and appalling lives, the novella artfully engages its readers with a narrative that touches our human feelings.  The realism of the story allows us to better appreciate the inhuman conditions that Palestinians have had to suffer through and provide us with a deeper understanding of their plight.

In 2005 Hany Abu-Asad created a great stir with his film “Paradise Now.”  The film was feted by critics all over the world and won a number of prestigious awards.  It was even nominated for an Academy Award.

“Paradise Now” tells the story of two young Palestinians who have been chosen by an unnamed militant group to conduct a suicide mission in Tel Aviv.  The film presents us with an important example of the way Palestinian self-representation has changed since the days of Ghassan Kanafani.

“Paradise Now” begins with the scene of a young woman named Suha arriving at an Israeli checkpoint to cross over into Nablus.  She soon leads us to an automobile garage where two mechanics, Khaled and Sa’id are working on a car.  We see the young men as average laborers with no distinguishing features.  Sa’id argues with the owner of the car he is working on about whether the bumper he is attaching is straight or not.  The men squabble and Sa’id loses his temper and takes a hammer to remove the bumper that he has spent so much time installing. 

We are ushered into a world of banal events lacking focus and drama.  Sa’id and Khaled are shown to us as bored and apathetic with their job.  Quickly, we come to learn that they have been chosen for what is to be a spectacular suicide mission.  Though the film gradually gives us some pieces of information about the young men and introduces us to their world, there is no sense of urgency to provide the viewer with any tangible information about who they are and what they experience.  In other words, by the time we see them being called on to sacrifice their lives, we have no real sense of who they are or why they would accept such a mission.

It is simply taken for granted that Israel is evil and that the only way to fight the Occupation is by strapping on a belt of explosives to kill as many Israelis as possible.  The nature of Israeli Occupation and oppression is made into an almost-complete cipher.  After the first scene we do not see any examples of Israeli actions that may precipitate the suicide mission.  It is all presented as obvious and necessary.

But in the cinematic art it is necessary for the narrative to make an argument; we need to be provided with cause and effect.  In “Paradise Now” tension is generated by what is implicit and understood.  The impulse to kill Israelis is abstracted to the point of banality.  Subsequent attempts by the film to fill in a number of pertinent details, most importantly the fact that Sa’id’s father was executed by the militants for collaborating with the Israelis, ultimately ring hollow because we never enter into the psychological world of the protagonists.  Their lives are tied to the suicide mission and not to life itself; it is the mission that gives their lives meaning.  They are marked as caricatures following a pre-ordained script without allowing us to understand why they are doing what they are doing.

To further complicate things, Suha, who has come from France to return to her family home in Palestine, is given the opportunity to make a number of preachy speeches decrying the use of violence in the struggle against Israel.  But as she is making her impassioned pleas to Sa’id, there is little for the viewer to fall back on in terms of the counter-argument. 

The film does not at all attempt to argue that suicide bombing is either moral or effective.  All we have is the residual theme of revenge that crops up at different points in the film.  Early in the movie, we hear a discussion at a café about how collaborators should be dealt with.  The assertion is made that they should be dragged into the street by their hair and slowly killed for all to see.

Sadly, although the film presents us with rhetorical assertions of violence, we never once get any sustained argument over why such violence is necessary.  The two men and their handlers are presented as already having made their minds up; this is the way things should be and that’s it. 

Or is it?

During the course of the movie the two young men begin to have their doubts, most significantly Sa’id whose concerns lead to the confusion that arises when the mission is underway.  We get to see the preparatory details of the mission in their chilling reality: the young men are given over to their handlers where they get haircuts, new clothes, eat a dinner that resembles “The Last Supper,” and make a “martyr” video (we are also told that “martyr” videos – as well as “collaborator” videos – are available for rent or purchase at a local shop for a nominal fee). 

Abu-Asad undercuts the taping of Khaled’s “martyr” video where he makes his impassioned plea for the camera, but is forced to do it over when the cameraman tells him that the first take failed to register.

What are we to make of this irony? 

Is the suicide mission itself a desperate piece of guerrilla theater with no connection to reality, or is it a necessary part of the struggle against Israel?

We are never told.

The vagueness and ambiguity of the narrative become emblematic of the failures of the movie as a whole.  The protagonists are presented in their prosaic lives, but we never really get to know who they are.  We see Sa’id in the context of his family, but, even as we are later told that his father was a collaborator, we never see any evidence of what his life means, how he really feels, and what could possibly bring him to accept self-destruction.

Contrasting this again with Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” another story of the pressures of living in a ghetto and feeling hopeless in the face of racism and persecution, we can point to the wealth of detail that we get for characters like Mookie, Sal and “Da Mayor.”  For those who have seen Lee’s classic movie, it is clear that the filmmaker took great pains to link context, motivation and action into a seamless whole.  The crushing progression of the film is accounted for at each and every stage.  Little is left to the imagination.  Mookie’s day is filled with relevant detail: who he encounters, how he feels about what he sees around him, the way events play a role in his psychological complexion, all contextualized in the wider framework of African-American history. 

By comparison, “Paradise Now” lacks any sense of self-reflection or historical context.  The protagonists have families and friends in their world, but we do not get to know who they are.  There is no attempt made to provide narrative devices to construct a coherent story.  The story is limited to the botched mission and is overloaded with the details of that mission. 

The mission is fetishized; to the last detail we witness all the pieces that comprise it.  What we do not get to see is the larger context in which to understand what the mission means and why it is being undertaken.  Violence is a tacit point of reference for the viewer who is left without any opportunity to enter into the private world of the bombers and those who send them on their mission.  It is unclear how anyone would be able to make sense of the cruel brutality that suicide bombings represent; it is a morally repugnant act.

And then we have the issue of politics.

In addition to leaving ambiguous the political affiliation of the handlers, we do not get a precise sense of their relationship to the young men.  We do learn that they have reasons for choosing the young men, but this too is left unexplored.  Are the handlers tied to some form of Islamist ideology?  Do they represent HAMAS or the PLO?  What is their place in the community at large?  How does the community really feel about the use of suicidal violence?

Again, we have tantalizing hints about possible answers to these questions, but the film refuses to explore the matter with any precision.

The failure of “Paradise Now” is a failure of story-telling.  The Arabic tradition is rich in narrative exploration.  When modern authors like Naguib Mahfouz and Abdel Rahman Munif sought to communicate contemporary concerns, they were able to deploy elements of the old tradition at the service of stories reflecting current realities.  In addition, they could continue to play with the forms and structures of their literary art in successful ways because they never strayed from the centrality of narrative in their novels. 

In perhaps the greatest novel written in the contemporary Arab world, Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, the author uses the history of 20th century Egypt as scaffolding to tell the intimate story of an average middle-class family that is undergoing some profound changes over the course of some difficult times.  Mahfouz takes great pains to allow the reader to enter into the inner world of the characters while he carefully reconstructs the wider socio-political context in which their lives are lived.  The intimate is presented in terms of the epic and vice versa; thus illuminating the whole of the Egyptian experience.

It is in such an Arabic narrative art that we are able to enter into the world of Egypt and to better understand the great developments of the era: we are treated to discussions of Imperialism, the breakdown of religious tradition, changes in the mores of social convention, and the political confusion that was brought in the wake of the often violent independence struggles.  Each character in the Cairo Trilogy is expertly drawn in order to provide the reader with the information necessary to process the complexity of the themes and the plot twists that comprise the epic.

In “Paradise Now” we have characters that we never truly get to know with any intimacy.  We have no information about how they grew up and what they believe about things.  Everything in the movie has been reduced to a single fact: Palestinians are alienated and need to kill Jews.

In a world where all things were equal, movies that fail to make their point or that cannot successfully tell a story are quickly noted and forgotten.  But in the case of “Paradise Now” and the Palestine question, things are not at all equal.

Earlier we noted the case of the Palestinian writer and activist Ghassan Kanafani.  As a public intellectual and activist Kanafani was deemed to be a great danger by the Israelis who took great pains to track him down and murder him.  Similar to its obsession with destroying the Palestinian documentary archive in Beirut during the 1982 war, Israel has been quite concerned with Palestinian self-representation and national memory.  While the more obvious struggle between Israel and the Palestinians has been through the overt use of violence, a lesser known but perhaps more important battle has been waged over perceptions of the conflict and the facts that inform it.

Kanafani’s 1969 novella “Return to Haifa” tells the story of a family of Palestinian refugees that goes back to Haifa to reclaim their home from the Jewish family that now lives in it.  The story is heart-wrenching because it establishes a narrative premise that provides the necessary details about the Arab family and their Jewish equivalent.  Kanafani shows us the tragedy of Palestine in a way that puts a human face on the calamity.  The Jews have names and are forced to confront those they have displaced.  The reader, regardless of their political viewpoint, is touched by the pathos of the encounter and the humanity of the tale. 

In “Men in the Sun,” Kanafani successfully humanized the plight of the Palestinian refugees by showing their valiant but pathetic struggle to survive in a world that was often oblivious to their plight.  In his fictions there is a calculated attempt to lay out a humanistic vision that does not seek to draw lines between people, but to explain why people are the way they are.  No one is exonerated from their sins.

In “Paradise Now” there are no named Jewish characters.  We meet the Jewish driver of the car that is to take the two men on their mission.  The man is called “Abu Shabaab,” father of the youth, but has no Hebrew name.  He, like all the characters in “Paradise Now,” is a mere cipher who is there to play a specific role, but not to let us know why he does what he does.  Is he merely doing it for the money?  Is he disgruntled against the Jewish state?  Is he a Sephardic Jew?  We are not told.

During the aborted first attempt at fulfilling the mission, Sa’id finds himself at a bus stop in Nablus where a bunch of Jewish settlers, including a young child, are peacefully waiting.  At an extremely tense moment, we see Sa’id considering whether to detonate the bomb that has been strapped to him.  The camera shifts from Sa’id’s face to an image of the settlers.  Abu-Asad once again makes no moral judgments, but in the blankness of the images that have now become ubiquitous in the movie we come to sense that Sa’id cannot kill these people.  In this sense, they are “innocent”; thus throwing into confusion the whole enterprise.

But it is not the enterprise that is confused, it is the movie.

You see, the images of the settlers are devoid of meaning – we have no idea who they are, how they feel and what they signify in the larger context of the story.  On the one hand, they are deemed “innocent” and spared by Sa’id, yet on the other hand we understand in the intuitive manner that the film projects for us that they are the obstacle to a normal Palestinian existence.  Their presence in the West Bank has led to the depredations of the Occupation forces and the violence that Palestinians live under.

But we never once during the course of the film see any actions by Israeli forces against Palestinian civilians.

The penultimate scene of the film does not improve the situation.  On a bus filled with Israeli soldiers, Abu-Asad presents them all smiling and joking.  Again, we are not clued in to their inner world and do not really know who they are.  Perhaps they are good guys, perhaps they are completely evil.  The movie refuses to tell us.

“Paradise Now” has since its release become a flashpoint in discussions about the Israel-Palestine conflict.  Many Israeli commentators have decried the film and called it an exhortation to terror.  Those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause have lavished heaps of praise on it to the point where we have been led to believe that it is a central statement in the Palestinian struggle.

But as I have tried to argue in this essay, the film does nothing to enrich our understanding of the conflict and, even worse, fails to tell a story that in theory is quite compelling and which desperately needs to be told. 

We can excuse the film at some level for the difficult circumstances under which it was produced.  There are numerous stories about the constraints that the filmmakers were under as they attempted to make the movie.  But I have to assume that no such constraints applied to the development of the story and the writing of its screenplay.  The weakness of the acting and the paucity of interesting imagery and camera work can be excused as the product of a lack of professional film facilities in the Palestinian world, but there are no excuses for wooden characters and unexplored narrative possibilities.

“Paradise Now” completely fails to tell the stories of ordinary Palestinians and their struggles.  As an examination of the phenomenon of the suicide bomber it fails to make any coherent argument for the moral logic or effectiveness of the technique.  Given the centrality of Israeli contentions regarding the use of such nihilistic violence by Palestinians, the movie only supports the charge.  Palestinians are presented in the film as unthinking and one-dimensional.

Over the years it has become clear to those who have looked deeply into the matter of Palestine that Israel has been quite successful in its attempt to stifle intellectual culture in the Palestinian world.  Knowledge is at the very heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

Israel has used its military might to preserve its national scientific and technological prowess.  In this sense, Israel projects to the world a “civilized” image that comports with the dignity and self-respect of a legitimate nation.  On the other hand, the progressive deterioration of Palestinian culture from the time of Ghassan Kanafani until “Paradise Now” has played into the hands of a Zionist HASBARAH campaign that uses knowledge and intellectual attainment as a means to demonize and delegitimize Palestinian claims.

In a harsh and self-fulfilling prophecy, Israel has forcefully sought to eviscerate the Palestinian intellectual classes, leading to the promotion of abstractions and the triumph of mindless violence.  Rather than examine the nature of the violence and tracing its causes, “Paradise Now” simply asserts the existence of the violence. 

Those who admire the film must argue that Israel has brought the Palestinians to this horrible state where suicide missions are all that is left to them in their resistance. 

Zionists will ironically argue that violence is a mark of Arab barbarity, forgetting that Israeli violence is itself a critical part of the conflict.

In the end, what we are left with are the endless and pointless justifications and rationalizations of violence as a legitimate means of defense by both sides. 

Israelis make the claim that they are only defending themselves and that Palestinians are complicit in their own tragedy.  Israeli violence is in this light always justified because it seeks to protect and defend Israeli citizens. 

On the other side, the Palestinians point to the usurpation of their homeland by Jews through the use of physical force and intimidation.  Palestinian logic contends that the only thing the Israelis understand is force because that is how they took possession of Palestine to begin with, and it is through force and might that they continue to control the Occupied Territories.

In Kanafani’s brilliant story “Return to Haifa” the conflict is marked as an absolute tragedy that has engulfed both peoples.  Since the death of Kanafani in 1972 the conflict has evolved in the form it takes in “Paradise Now” and in the larger discursive framework that we hear all around us.  For the Israelis, every Palestinian is a “terrorist” while for the Palestinians every Jew is an “occupier.”  The transformation of the discourse enables the violence to be perpetuated without examination or questioning the certainties of both parties.

“Paradise Now” is therefore a sign of the times we now live in.

It does not seek to humanize its characters as it does not attempt to provide credible reasons for why things are the way they are.  Unlike the morality plays of Ghassan Kanafani where the reader is brought into the psychologically tormented world of the protagonists, “Paradise Now” tells its story in a schematic fashion without meaning or nuance.  Its protagonists are automatons and its villains are nameless and faceless.

In order to come to terms with the horrible violence that is presented in “Paradise Now” we need more than platitudes and monochromatic equations.  We need to explore the humanity of people in order to better understand why things are the way they are and why people act in the way they do. 

“Paradise Now” presents an awful tale of two young men who are asked to make the ultimate sacrifice yet we are not told why they accept their task rather than simply walk away from it.  Are they truly persuaded by the argument that they are achieving their “paradise” by killing Israelis, or is there something else nagging at them that brings them to such despair?

As we never truly see the protagonists in real despair at any point in the film, it is impossible to know with any certainty what is going on behind their blank expressions.  The movie fits into the current patterns of discourse by arrogantly making assumptions and not seeking to work through a logical and coherent argument as to why people would choose to take their own life rather than to find another way of doing battle in their struggle for justice.

This inability to come to terms with the very real dilemmas inherent to the conflict sadly informs all sides of the debate; a debate that is now impoverished to a great extent and which “Paradise Now” does little to clarify.