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Paradise Now: A Review
By Brandon Judell
There has been a little celluloid festival going on that you probably have not heard of. The Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) in conjunction with ArteEast has pulled together "No Visa Required: Films From the Middle East" (https://www.tribecafilminstitute.org/tixSYS/2005/nvntickets/screenings.php#).
On five Saturday evenings through November 19th, 2005, challenging films from Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Tunisia and Iran were screened. After each showing, a director, such as the acclaimed Elia Suleiman, took questions.
Why? Jane Rosenthal, TFI co-chair, notes "the ability of cinema to transcend the boundaries of geography, class, and race allows audiences to experience worlds beyond their own."
Livia Alexander, Executive Director of ArteEast, adds, "The Middle East is too often captive to the one-dimensional, sound-bite sized representations of the media. The regions complexity and diversity remain shrouded from public exposure." This series is out to change that.
At the September 24th screening of "Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi" (1999), a mockumentary directed, written and starring Avi Mograbi, that mission was immediately accomplished. Here Mograbi plays himself as a director hired by Israelis to film an upcoming celebration of the birth of the state of Israel. He is then simultaneously employed by Palestinians to film within Israel the former Palestinian villages and landmarks destroyed and taken over by the "occupiers." Talk about conflicts.
Mograbi, who loves Israel but not its policies, spoke to an audience that at one point broke up into a shouting match. This director was used to these types of encounters and responded, when I asked him what he hoped his film would accomplish, that he doesn't expect any one film to change an audience. Only a stupid person could be transformed by a viewing of a film. He just hopes to take everyone one step closer to the reality of what he sees occurring in the Middle East.
I must disagree with Mr. Mograbi without proclaiming myself an oaf. The films of the Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, "Rana's Wedding"; "Ford Transit"), with their air of immediacy, have indeed metamorphosed me from being an unquestioning, immutable supporter of Israel, right or wrong, to one who now sees that there are two sides to the interminable battle centered around Jerusalem. As I do more research, the main early villains certainly appear to be the British politicos and the other European heads who helped create this political quagmire. (Otto Preminger's stilted but fascinating postcard to Zionism, "Exodus," certainly hits upon the ineptness of the Brits and their unbridled anti-Semitism. Also, check out the extraordinary documentaries on the post-Holocaust state of world that are being released by the Simon Wiesenthal Center on DVD such as "The Long Way Home.")
"Paradise Now" focuses on two impoverished Palestinian friends, Saïd (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), who are working as auto mechanics in a little dump. We first encounter them fighting with a customer who insists his bumper was placed on his auto askew. The pals insist that the bumper is level, but that the ground on which the car is parked is uneven. Tempers flare and the auto is soon altogether bumperless.
That business taken care, the guys soon encounter a lovely young woman, Suha (Lubna Azabal), whose car is being repaired. She and Said have sparks between them, and a romance of sort ensues.
Life is looking up until the buddies learn that it is their turn to be suicide bombers for an unnamed Palestinian organization. They had volunteered for such a mission awhile back, stating they would like to blow themselves up together. Target: a bus in Tel Aviv, no doubt one carrying Israeli soldiers, children, everyday shoppers, and so forth.
What follows is how the pals are prepared for their mission. Their last minutes with their families. How the bombs are attached to their bodies in a way that removal is impossible. How their final scripted words are pre-taped for publicity purposes. And how they are brought into striking area.
Surprisingly, amidst the suspense of whether the "hero/villains" will succeed or not is a comedy of errors. The members of the Palestinian group planning this bombing come off at times as egomaniacal, callous fools. The best-laid plans get unraveled, and Saïd and Khaled get separated from each other.
Then there are the human and political dramas. We learn Said's father was a collaborator with the Israelis in order to support his family, and that Suha is working for a peaceful end to the Middle Eastern crisis. She insists suicide bombers are mangling the Palestinian people more than anyone else.
That director/writer Hany Abu-Assad flawlessly melds all these genres together into a lively, frightening, seamless film is a startling achievement. A troubling question arises. Is liking two men who might become mass killers equal to condoning their actions. I hope not. Truly, only by comprehending one's adversaries and the causes of their inflammatory passions, and by seeing them as real people can anyone possibly understand them and achieve some sort of reconciliation. Let's hope I'm not being naïve.
Copyright © Brandon Judell 2005
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