Sunday, December 6, 2009

Paradise Now -- extreme self-sacrifice

Director: Hany Abu-Assad, 2005.

Set in Nablas in the occupied West Bank of Israel Paradise Now recounts the story of three Palestinians and gives stark insight into the minds and hearts of suicide bombers. As a political thriller its slow pacing allows the characters to take center stage. Writer-director Abu-Assad avoids turning this into simple propaganda and instead allows us to care about the fate of the protagonists, whether we are pro- or anti-Israel. And it earned the honor of being the first Palestinian movie nominated for an Academy Award.

Said (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are young car mechanics, barely making a living. When extremist Jamal informs them that they have been chosen to be suicide bombers, their lives and plans are suddenly interrupted. The terrorist cell group that Jamal is part of has decided that, after two years of inactivity, the time for violence is prime. Tel-Aviv is the place, tomorrow is the time.

During the movie, Said and Khaled offer perspectives on what has led them to this point. "Life here is like life imprisonment. The crimes of the occupation are countless." The West Bank settlers have brought injustice and discrimination with them. "They use their war machine and their political and economical might to force us to accept their solution: that either we accept inferiority, or we will be killed." From their position, life under Israeli authority is unacceptable; they have little freedom. Khaled's philosophy, perhaps drummed into him by Jamal and his extreme Muslim fundamentalism, offers him only one solution: "If we can't live as equals, at least we'll die as equals." There is another perspective, a different solution to injustice, which emerges later.

Said and Khaled are shorn and shaved, ritually bathed to prepare them for their personal jihad: to blow up themselves and as many Israeli soldiers as possible. As they allow the explosives to be strapped to their chests, they offer a study in contrasts. One is confident in his Islamic faith. He is ready to martyr himself and arrive in paradise now. The other is afraid. He is unsure. Is this what God (Allah) has decreed for him? The biggest contrast, though, is between the two soon-to-be martyrs and their handler, Jamal. His job is easy, to recruit, prepare, motivate, and send. There is no immediate personal sacrifice for him. He just needs to ensure his two recruits don't turn back.

The third person central to the film is Suha (Lubna Azabal). She is the daughter of a martyr and acquaintance to both Said and Khaled. When the operation becomes compromised and she learns of their plans, she seizes the opportunity to persuade them to give up the mission. She is the foil that allows us to see the other perspective. Her scenes become crucial to making this a balanced and fair film.

In one interaction with Khaled, the more devoted of the two bombers, she questions even the Koranic concept of paradise for martyrs, "There is no paradise. It only exists in your head." She seeks peace not war. As a survivor of a martyr, she knows firsthand the sorrow for those left behind: "And what about us? The ones who remain? Will we win that way? Don't you see that what you're doing is destroying us?" She highlights the fact that there is tremendous pain and grief for the families of these "heroes." Such martyrdom brings sorrow to all involved and merely promulgates the conflict it seeks to win. And there is no real paradise for such murderers. Biblically, there is an existence in eternal punishment that awaits them (Rev. 21:8).

In this one extended conversation, Khaled declares, "Don't be so naive. There can be no freedom without struggle. As long as there is injustice, someone must make a sacrifice." Suha responds, "That's no sacrifice. That's revenge. If you kill, there's no difference between victim and occupier." This highlights the other response to injustice -- sacrifice. Although Khaled's form of sacrifice is to kill others, there is a sacrifice that has already dealt with injustice: Jesus' sacrifice. He willingly allowed himself to be executed on the cross (Lk. 23:26-49). He did so, to absorb the punishment for sin, all the sins of the world (Rom. 3:23-26). His sacrifice came with the gift of forgiveness and life (Col. 1:14), not death.

Indeed, when Said speaks a monologue on what has driven him to his hopelessness, the contrast between Said and Christ is striking, "A life without dignity is worthless. Especially when it reminds you day after day of humiliation and weakness." Said sees worth in power and victory; Jesus sees power in weakness (1 Cor. 1:25). Jesus humbled himself, giving up his position on the throne of heaven (Phil. 2:8), so he could live a "worthless" life as a humble unknown carpenter in a forlorn and desolate country. His was a life of humiliation and weakness. His was the greater sacrifice. And his is the perfect paradise later, not now. Though he did not usher in an age of perfect justice, a paradise on earth, Jesus coming kingdom will be one where injustice has no place (Isa. 65:17-25).

In her first scene, Suha says, "One day things will be better." This is the film's only moment of hope. But it does portend the hope of paradise that will eventually come when Jesus, our sacrifice and martyr, returns as a conquering King.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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