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Film ponders the point of suicide bombings

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Palestinian film "Paradise Now," winner of a Golden Globe and nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film, shows at the Wheeler Opera House. (Courtesy Warner Independent Pictures)
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Driving from the West Bank town of Nablus toward the Israeli border, Said, a 20-something Palestinian with a bomb strapped to his torso, asks his handler if it’s true that angels will guide his martyred soul to heaven. “Absolutely,” says Jamal, cheerfully. Jamal (Amer Hlehel) then looks straight ahead, resolutely avoiding Said’s (Kais Nashef) eyes, and nervously taps his fingers on the dashboard.In “Paradise Now,” everyone is ambivalent about the act of suicide bombings. Perhaps no one is more uncertain about the practice than Hany Abu-Assad, the Palestinian-born, Netherlands-based director of the film. “Paradise Now,” which earned the Golden Globe for best foreign language film and is currently nominated for an Oscar in the same category, treads the line between defending the tactic and condoning it. Characters battle out their positions in their own minds; they flip-flop in their views through the course of the film.

No surprise, then, that this balance adds up to an ambiguous viewpoint. But given the reality of the situation between Israel and the occupied territories, such uncertainty seems appropriate. What “Paradise Now” does clarify is perhaps the essential point of the conflict: Both sides suffer. While the film doesn’t give a voice to the Israeli perspective, there are characters who persuasively argue against suicide bombings as a futile, even damaging method.The film opens with a balanced view of Palestinian life. Two friends, Said and Khaled (Ali Suliman), work in an auto junkyard. Their boss is a jerk; the job is not fulfilling or lucrative; the surroundings are far from comfortable. Still, life isn’t dreadful. In one scene, the two relax on a hillside, sipping tea and enjoying conversation. Said’s life at home is stable and nurturing; there is a loving mother, decent food, good neighbors. It is hardly a picture of abject misery. And into the picture enters something even more promising, as Said strikes up a friendship, tinged with romance, with a pretty, prosperous woman, Suha (Lubna Azabal), the daughter of a legendary resistance fighter. Through the film’s first scenes, there is no mention of the occupation, nor anything to suggest that Said and Khaled would give up their lives to kill a few Israelis.Jamal arrives, however, with word that their time has come. The very next day, Said and Khaled are to report to a factory, where they will be equipped with bombs, instructions on how to enter Israel, and orders on who to meet there. And assurances that their place in heaven, as adored martyrs, is confirmed. Said lies to his mother, telling her he has received a permit for work in Tel Aviv. Maybe he is afraid she will dissuade him from his mission; more likely, he is unsure about the wisdom of his intentions.The operation goes awry almost instantly. Said, finding himself disconnected from the mission and its backers, is allowed to indulge fully in his thoughts about the occupation, the humiliation of Palestinians, and whether suicide bombings will do anything to relieve both. There comes a moment when Said has a chance to kill a busful of Israelis – but with his head spinning with arguments and counterarguments, we know this is not his moment to join the martyrs. Instead, he heads back to Nablus, where he, Khaled and Suha espouse a range of viewpoints on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that has terrorized both sides for most of the last half-century.

Given this refusal to take sides, at least on the point of suicide bombing as a tactic, it is a good thing Hany Abu-Assad shows such a strong hand as a filmmaker. Anything less would have doomed “Paradise Now” as mush.If there is one clear message this thought-provoking film, with all its heavy-thinking characters, conveys, it is this: The Israeli/Palestinian struggle needs more thought and less action of the deadly kind.”Paradise Now” shows at the Wheeler Opera House Monday and Tuesday, Feb. 6-7.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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