March 9, 2006
This Week - Not Our Movie
By launching a public, pre-Oscar campaign against the movie "Paradise Now," Jewish activists all but guaranteed that people who might not otherwise see the movie would now be curious to give it a chance.
I was among the curious.
"Paradise Now," written and directed by Hany Abu-Assad, follows the lives of two would-be Palestinian suicide bombers as they embark on their final mission. The movie was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film.
The weeks prior to Oscar night saw a concerted publicity campaign organized by some Jewish groups to protest its nomination. The most plaintive voices were those of the fathers of three Israeli victims of suicide bombers. One of them, Yossi Zur, whose 16-year-old son Asaf was killed in a Haifa bomb attack, saw the movie and wrote an online commentary accusing the movie of legitimizing the kind of attacks that killed his son.
"The movie," Zur wrote, "attempts to explain away the actions behind mass-murderers. This mere act in effect legitimizes this type of mass-murder and portrays the murderers themselves as victims."
The letter spawned an online petition campaign that garnered almost 40,000 signatures from around the world. The movie lost last week to the South African film "Tsosti," but something tells me the controversy surrounding it won't go away any time soon.
I don't know Yossi Zur, and I can't begin to fathom his pain and his loss. But many people I do know, whose opinions on art and politics I respect, believe that "Paradise Now" is a dangerous movie, a piece of anti-Israeli -- even anti-Semitic -- propaganda.
I watched the movie last week, and I disagree.
In fact, if the Jewish protests against "Paradise Now" draw more attention to the movie, and encourage more people to watch it -- as is usually the case with such protests -- that is all to the good.
The crucial thing to keep in mind when you see the movie is that it's written and directed from a Palestinian point of view. An Israeli movie about suicide bombing would no doubt begin where this one ends -- after the screen flashes to white and freezes, indicating that the murderer has set off his bomb, obliterating himself and the Israeli bus passengers around him.
The Israeli movie would track those passengers' lives, the little dramas and comedies that filled their days leading up to that moment. Or it would dramatize the aftermath, when their families and friends are left to pick up the pieces -- literally at first, then figuratively -- of lives cut sickeningly short.
A Palestinian couldn't make that movie.
A Palestinian can make a movie that helps us to understand how it is that humans turn themselves into bombs.
That's what Abu-Assad has done. The reality he portrays is, of course, highly critical of Israel, but it is not as simplistic or one-sided as the film's critics argue.
Critics have said Abu-Assad doesn't just explore the phenomenon of suicide bombers, he justifies it. I would urge them to reexamine the movie.
We meet the two main characters after they have already agreed to their mission. They are impoverished, willful losers, empowered by religious belief.
But as much as the movie charts their commitment, it records their doubts.
The filmmaker clearly believes there is something absurd and wrongheaded in their decision. The terrorist leaders who control the bombers munch humus sandwiches as the men each prepare their last will and testimony.
The moral center of the movie is a woman, one of the bombers' love interest, the articulate daughter of a Palestinian leader.
"Don't you see what you're doing is destroying us!" she screams at her lover during a climactic car ride.
Her words echo those of the filmmaker.
"I make films to resist," Abu Assad said in an interview with journalist Jordan Elgrably. "There is a civilized way to resist, by using art to tell your story, or the uncivilized, violent way. I don't believe in bullets. I make films to tell stories, and to have a dialogue, but without denying the rights of others to have their stories."
I've seen all of this year's issue-oriented movies, and "Paradise Now" is by far the most gripping, the most challenging. If it weren't, I doubt its critics would bother to raise their voices against it.
This movie is not a justification for terror. It's a justification for movies.