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In Search of Paradise

The average movie going experience these days goes something like this. Plop down ten dollars for a ticket, another ten for popcorn and a drink, then sit through two hours of things blowing up, juvenile humor, or cheap sentimentality. You escape your job, family, and so-called social life by staring at screens depicting star-studded mindlessness. Then head back to your car to re-join the rat race.

How often do you ponder anything presented in a movie? Did “Saw II” or “The Legend of Zorro” force you to think about the challenging issues of the day?

A rare gem of a film is one that forces the wheels in your brain to inch forward by presenting compelling characters in interesting moral dilemmas. They make choices you are forced to consider. As people, they are uniquely human as complex as we are. Most of what we see coming out of Hollywood features super-human mega-stars playing stale cardboard cutouts in highly formulaic ways. They have as much to do with us as do the lives of the celebrities playing them.

Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s new release, ‘Paradise Now,’ is exactly the kind of movie worth seeing. It forces any viewer to grapple with it, and is far from predictable.

It is not simple; it is not cut-and-dry. It takes place in one of the most complex pieces of real estate in the world, occupied Palestine. Like the political context, the story bounces between the absurd and the deadly. Israel steals Palestinian land to build a wall around the Palestinians. It calls it a “security fence.” It is neither a fence, nor about security. The wall, which is mostly concrete, has as its main purpose the oppression and control of people.

Similarly, Israel claims its military occupation is out of the need for defense. In the same logic of pre-emptive war, offense is defense. Like Orwell wrote, war is peace, as well. And freedom is slavery.

Approached by a militant group, the two protagonists, Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), gladly accept the invitation to detonate themselves and others in Tel Aviv. Friends since childhood, they mix their rationales between the religious and the secular. On one hand, they think they might get to heaven, though Khaled expresses doubt. They naively ask a militant activist what happens when one dies. On the other, they want to be remembered as heroes, martyrs for the cause of freedom. Politically, they reason, they have no equality in life. This gives them equality in death and the freedom to choose their own fate, rather than letting Israel choose it for them.

The decision is not taken up with consistent enthusiasm. At first, Said is hesitant, and Khaled persists. After their effort to sneak into Israel proper is botched, a series of events leads to a reversal in their views. Central to this plot twist is the role of the militant organization itself. Run more like a modern corporation, they are presented advanced designs of their own martyr posters. Even the recording of their suicide videos is business as usual. Their recruiter munches on a Laban sandwich as the guy with the video camera fumbles to get the recorder working after several takes. Beyond arranging the logistics, they ultimately have little to do with the choices Said and Khaled make. Though initially they refer to fate after they are asked, it becomes about free will. They have their own reasons for their decisions.

On the surface, the film is about one of the most controversial elements of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. However, if you think that is really what it is about, you are not getting deep enough. Without giving away too much about the film, it is quite easy to say that the most important themes are the same ones behind every great story.

Abu-Assad confessed that he borrowed these themes from millennia of literature, including Shakespeare plays and ancient mythology. Stylistically, he also adapted the trademarks of the Western cowboy genre: the liberal use of close-ups, slow pacing, and wide shots of terrain. As the plot moved towards the climax, he depended more on the tools of the action thriller. The shots shortened in length and quickened in pace. The camera itself became more energized.

To escape the lure of the overuse of music to manipulate the audience’s emotions, Abu-Assad had no music in the soundtrack. There was no pouring of Celine Dion’s whining or fast paced techno music to bolster the action. Because the plot, character development and camera work kept me involved, I did not even notice the lack of music. It needed none at all.

I found ‘Paradise Now’ so artistic that overemphasizing the politics of the film sucks the creative life out of it. Politics is only part of the film’s equation.

That is strange for me to say since most of the time I tend to dissect Hollywood’s products for their political assumptions and ramifications. I need to in order to stay interested. Mainstream movies are important to understand because they resonate with the public. They reflect the public’s views or actually inform them. Pop culture can be a barometer of society in large. ‘Paradise Now’ has been critiqued for failing to directly show the most brutal aspects of the occupation. While it depicts checkpoints and Israel’s military presence, its more violent aspects are mostly left out or referred to in dialogue. However, this criticism is actually the film’s strength. If it sought to convince the public that Israel mistreats the Palestinians, it would fail to be a good, nuanced story and likely not be convincing. It would be bound and dogged by an overt agenda. Since it takes the obvious fact of Israel’s oppression for granted, as the film’s background, it is even more powerful.

Average viewers will have to accept the sub-text in order to get the story. That is worth a hundred documentaries.

WILL YOUMANS has a blog: www.kabobfest.com

 

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