Sunday, January 22, 2006

Paradise? How?

I saw the Palestinian suicide bomber film Paradise Now a few weeks ago and I've been wanting to write about it ever since.

First I thought I'd take a few days to let the film sink in. It's not an easy film to get a handle on, particularly if you live where I live and think about the things I think about. There may be people out there who can view this type of film primarily on the art/film/drama level, but I'm not one of them.

Then the film wins a Golden Globe award and I start reading about it everywhere.
Especially here.
Then this happens, and I start thinking I may be better off finding something else to write about, like maybe Spielberg's new film.

But it hasn't opened in Israel, as far as I know, so I'm back where I started.

The film begins at an Israeli checkpoint and ends on a bus in Tel Aviv. In between, two guys from Nablus are recruited by an unnamed Islamic terror group to carry out a suicide bombing against Israeli civilians. The film shows how the terrorists prepare the two bombers for their "mission" - everything from their baths, haircuts and last suppers to posing for their "shahid" posters and recording video taped messages for their families.

There is no doubt that the film "humanizes" the bombers. There are scenes in the second half of the film that would make anyone feel for one of the bombers. The terrorists who sent him seem to have abandoned him with a bomb still strapped to his chest and a warning not to try to remove it. The bombers seem like nice guys, the kind that would help you move or lend you their car in a pinch. They also believe the Palestinians have tried every peaceful means of improving their situation, and since nothing worked, suicide terror is legitimate.

There is one strong character who is opposed to terror. But she grew up in the West, enjoys foreign films, and her father was a big terror hero who died in a blaze of glory. Her argument is that the bombings are ineffective for the Palestinians. She doesn't seem to realize they are also morally repugnant. No one in the film expresses an ounce of empathy for any Israeli. In fact, that's the problem with the film. It humanizes terrorists and dehumanizes their victims. Maybe one is necessary for the other.


Three weeks after seeing the film, one scene continues to intrigue me. It's a small scene and I'm curious about the director's motivation for including it. The scene takes place in a cab. One of the bombers (before he sets out on his mission, and possibily before he was even recruited) needs a ride from one side of Nablus to the other. During the ride, the cab driver tells him - with no irony whatsoever - that Israelis are poisoning the water supply in the West Bank to lower Palestinian sperm counts. But since he's such a strong man, the driver says, the poison hasn't affected him. He has five children.

This scene has so many dimensions, I feel like it's a key to the entire film. On the one hand, the driver has no doubts that Israel is poisoning his water in order to lower his sperm count, ostensibly to bring down the Palestinian birth rate. On the other hand, he has five children. If people really believe Israel is capable, technologically and morally, of carrying out such a plot, is it surprising they would have trouble empathizing with the Israeli victims of terror?

I don't think the director included this scene to accuse Israel of poisoning the water. I think he was criticizing the Palestinian mind set that allows them to maintain victim fantasies that reach such a level. He's painting a portrait of life in Nablus, and it includes people who spread these stories and other people who believe them.

Interestingly, the driver doesn't see the fact that he has five children as evidence that the story may be false. In the driver's mind, the story is obviously true, but he, with his superior strength, managed to overcome Israel's plot.

And that, ultimately, is the main theme of the film. To the Palestinians in Paradise Now (if not necessarily the real Palestinians), pride trumps truth. And that leads them to make horrible horrible decisions.