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Four Lions vs. Paradise Now

May 9, 2010

Philip French’s review of Four Lions in the Observer today mentions the Golden Globe award-winning 2005 Palestinian film, Paradise Now. An excellent comparison, and one that didn’t occur to me at all.

Paradise Now is about two young Palestinian men who become suicide bombers targeting Israel. It’s better than Four Lions, yes, but it’s also doing something different – such violence is a much more common occurrence along the Palestinian-Israel border, not the extraordinary event it is in Four Lions, and was on 7/7.

The humour in Paradise Now is much more muted, and links the continuing political situation and the poverty of Said and Khaled’s families, to their decisions to become terrorists.

Four Lions doesn’t treat any of its terrorists’ concerns seriously, making them out-and-out cartoon characters.  Paradise Now presents us with human beings instead. Perhaps it’s a very British thing, to openly mock danger, and Four Lions does have all the best lines.

Anyway, my 2006 review of Paradise Now after the jump…

From Netribution

Rather than being “a bold new call for peace,” the first Palestinian film to be Oscar-nominated is an emotional look at what could possibly drive someone to become a suicide bomber.

Paradise Now, like United 93, is a film that relies upon the audience’s prior knowledge of world events for context. This device means that both films escape charges of didacticism, preferring to present the “human face” of the struggle onboard one of the 9/11 planes, or of  “the suicide bomber,” as Paradise Now director, Hany Abu-Assad, has put it.

The approach of each of these films, both garnering instant attention because of their inflammatory subject matters, is to place the audience in the positions of the characters caught up in circumstances that are too big or complex to comprehend, and force the question, “what would you have done?”

In Abu-Assad’s vision, the West Bank is a land devoid of opportunity for young men like protagonists Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman). The effects of Israeli occupation infuse every part of their lives, from the stringent checkpoint searches for anyone who dares enter or leave, to the cornershop stocking videos of martyrs on their way to bombing themselves to paradise, to the grim experiences of Said and Khaled’s fathers at the hands of the enemy.

In the middle of all this, the main characters eke out unfulfilling lives fixing cars and smoking a water pipe, while dreaming of change. Then, out of the blue, they get the call-up from their comrades at an unnamed Palestinian terrorist group, and are suddenly faced with their last 48 hours on earth.

Some criticism has been levelled at the Nazareth-born, Holland-dwelling director Abu-Assad (who co-wrote the script for the Golden Globe-winning movie) for the portrayal of the main characters’ motives. Said and Khaled’s reasons for turning to radical groups are pinned upon personal reasons, rather than on any religious or politically revolutionary zeal.

However, these personal reasons are inextricably linked to the political situation around them, and actually highlight just how long the Palestinians have existed under occupation. Khaled tells of how, as a younger man, Israeli soldiers broke into his father’s house and ask which leg he would prefer broken, crippling him for life. Said’s father suffered a much worse fate: he was executed as a “collaborator;” the various implications behind this word are left up to the audience to work out. Said was just ten years old when this happened, and the incident (somewhat understandably) drives him. By giving the characters backgrounds that the audience can find some empathy with, Abu-Assad goes a long way towards humanising that distant, terrifying monster, the suicide bomber.

There are also flashes of humour that light up some of the darkest moments, emphasising the inherent absurdity of the situation. There is a running joke about the efforts of Said and Khaled’s mothers to purify the unclean drinking water, highlighting the stoicism they have developed through living in poverty. In fact, halfway through his own martyr video, in which he bids farewell to the people he loves, Khaled drops into colloquial language again, to exhort his mother to change water filter brands. From the high-flown rhetoric of political challenge to the mundanities of everyday life: it again drives home the humanity and ordinariness of the concerns of these would-be killers.

The filming of Khaled’s suicide note is a farce in itself, as the crew sneak in sandwiches on the sly, the camcorder refuses to work and the repeated attempts at filming make the words lose all meaning. Where do these videos end up? After, perhaps, some fleeting glory on a news channel, they can be bought or rented at the local cornershop, although the owner informs Said that “collaborator” videos are much more popular than those of martyrs. So perhaps it will just end up gathering dust on a shelf, after all their efforts.

If there any straightforward ‘baddies’ to be found at all in this piece, they are the members of the terrorist group who prepare Said and Khaled – and other young lads like them – for a horrible/honourable death. While not demonised within the film, it is impossible not to condemn them for their manipulation of the impressionable young men that one, Jamal, has “known since their childhood.”

The unwillingness of the older men to get their own hands dirty for their ’cause’ is seen best in the scene when the two almost-bombers ask what will happen next, meaning after death. Jamal answers, “two angels will pick you up.” No one, least of all Jamal himself, seems taken in by the answer. This mission is not religiously-motivated; addtionally, the rewards of the afterlife, when spoken of, appear to be very hollow. Apart from Khaled and Said’s own grievances, mainly relating to their fathers, their motives seem anchored to the many complexities of the situation they have grown up in; not something that can easily be shoehorned into a feature film.

Admittedly, there will always be some margin of failure when seeking to understand someone who is prepared to take such extreme action. However, the power that the leaders of the terrorist group have over the main characters suggest yet another facet to their ‘rise’ to martyrdom: coercion.

Paradise Now is a film that demands re-watching , as its twists and turns, along with Said and Khaled’s decisions, confound expectations. It will only help us to understand the absolute desperation of a would-be suicide bomber to a certain extent, but at least the grey areas that it presents us with gives us the space to make up our own minds.

Above all, Paradise Now refuses to judge. It shows rather than tells. Watched in conjunction with United 93, it gives us an intimate view of a closed world.  Abu-Assad’s Palestine is a land where annihilation is preferable to continued existence. Even if we can’t ever truly understand how that would feel, the film gives us the chance to see that no-one is born a terrorist, but can be made into one by the demands of extreme and cruel circumstance.

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