Movie review: Video: Paradise Now

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This film got a lot of press in the last year, both for its controversial subject matter and for the Oscar nomination.

Plot summary: Two childhood friends are activated for a "martyrdom operation",  but have trouble crossing the border, get separated and end up stranded in Nablus, hair shorn, beards gone, in suits they don't own with explosives taped beneath, and no idea what to do next.

I don't know who said this movie would have you cheering for the terrorists. Personally, I was watching with a bird-and-snake fascination, much like I watched United 93, except the ending was in some doubt in this one.

I think it deserved the nomination; it's a well-made film. The photography and locations are nicely handled. The writing is good and there are only a few moments where the plot stops for the main characters to discuss their motivations etc. The actors are believable and human and they don't "chew on the furniture" the way an American would, given the same role. As for the subject matter, if you want to know what's inside a suicide bomber's head right before he pushes the button, the filmmakers are telling you what they think. They may be right. Everything else about the film looks and feels authentic.

Now, I have no idea what life is like in Nablus. Never been. In the film, it looks like life is fairly normal if foreign to my experience. Better than some third-world spots I have been to. But it's the little differences. Videos of "martyrs" are available for sale or rent, as well as videos of collaborators' confessions and execution. People have jobs, maybe not great ones, but there is work. The lead, Said, has a potential love interest, the daughter of a famous terrorist. His little brother and sister watch TV while Mom fixes dinner. He has a best friend from childhood, Khaled, with whom he is sent on the "operation". There are hints about the occupation – checkpoints, closed roads, mention that the border is closed for workers, but nothing really horrible. Given the hype this movie got, I was expecting them to show Israeli soldiers drinking blood etc, but there's nothing like that. A soldier gives a girl a hard look as she crosses the border, a bomb goes off off-screen and everyone ducks, some settlers give Said the stink-eye at a bus stop, but that's it. 

And yet, the filmmakers posit, the occupation is the casus belli for these suicide bombers. They are convinced, and repeat often, that they live in prison and that it's better to die and try to change things. The bleeding-heart liberal girl in the flick doesn't accept this, that it's the only way, and says so several times. Perhaps it's she the filmmakers are referring to when they say this is a film about peace. The impression one gets, though, and perhaps this is just my jaded American viewpoint, is that these two guys were brought up to think this way. They were taught from childhood that this was their fate and it becomes the fate they make. It reminded me of nothing so much as a cult-like following of leaders and dead men.

These boys have been raised to revere martyrs and terrorists as holy. It looks like religion being used to justify political action. I stopped to ask myself, what if this was a movie about McVeigh? He saw himself as resisting an occupation. He thought his actions were justified to "change things". And, in the end, he probably saw himself as some kind of martyr. How would I feel about him being portrayed as a human being instead of a hate-driven monster? The answer, he should be acurately portrayed as both the man and the killer. Said and Khaled aren't monsters or animals. They're men – raised on hate and victimhood and indoctrinated in the cult of martyrdom. They're not zombies; they're true believers. And this gets us to the root cause of terrorism. What they believe. That's it in a nutshell. That's the problem right there.

The movie does cop out on one point. The target. The target is military, not civilian. Not a pizza parlor or a disco, they're told to get close to some soldiers. Which I could buy – if only I had never, ever read the news about a suicide bombing in Israel. One of the bombers has an opportunity to get on a bus with a bunch of settlers, but notices a child on the bus and doesn't get on. I call bullshit on that one too. Suicide bombers have demonstrated no mercy whatsover with respect to killing women and children.

Bottom line: This movies is well-made and isn't going to change your mind if it's already made up. If you see the Israeli occupation of the West Bank as injustice and tyranny, this film will go right along with what you believe and preach to your Palestinians-as-victims choir. If you think the Israeli occupation is necessary and right, this film will confirm that the men who cross the border to incinerate themselves and as many Jews as they can are deluded and worshipping a false ideology. If you don't know what to think, the movie isn't really going to help you out there. 

Personally, I found the movie to be a great sales pitch for the wall they're building.

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