You surely cannot get much more topical and controversial than a Palestinian film about suicide bombers. Anyone who watches the news regularly will have seen and heard about little else for much of the last five years.
So the obvious question many would ask is, “Why would I want to go to the cinema for this when I can just turn on the TV?” The answer is simple – this is a beautiful, thoughtful, complex and emotional film. Whereas many – notably Nobel Laureate novelist V S Naipaul – have argued that the current post-September 11 crisis is simply too serious and awful to be effectively dealt with through fiction, this film has proved them all wrong.
The fact that Paradise Now is hitting our screens so soon after George Clooney has received praise and condemnation in equal measure for daring to get political in Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana just shows how low our expectations have become for movies of a political bent. Both of the Clooney movies – the first as director, the second as Oscar-winning actor – sensitively tackled serious contemporary topics. For his pains he has been called brave by some, foolhardy by others.
Yet whereas Clooney faced only the ire of the American political establishment in daring to criticise the Bush administration’s response to terrorism, the makers of Paradise Now risked their very lives. Shot entirely on location in Nablus and Nazareth, director Hany Abu-Assad’s home town, cast and crew had to dodge near daily gun battles while precariously filming in the midst of the ongoing standoff between the Israeli army and Palestinian militias. It would take a brave Hollywood star indeed to strap on a fake bomb belt in the disputed areas of Israel, or to dress up as an Israeli soldier and threaten a Palestinian with a gun with members of anti-Israel terrorist organisations sitting just around the corner.
Yet Abu-Assad has somehow turned the daily danger and first-hand experience of living on the frontline of the current much-discussed clash of civilisations very much to his advantage. This is a wonderfully ambiguous, somehow often darkly and deliberately absurdist take on both the ongoing conflict and the motivation of the suicide bombers who are at once pariahs and to be pitied.
A lesser filmmaker would have taken the obvious route of showing the bombers as either merely exploited or simply evil, taking definite sides in the Israel/Palestine conflict in the process. Others would have attempted to go for the almost equally simplistic “everyone’s a victim” approach. Yet Abu-Assad, unlike the vast majority of commentators of whatever political persuasion who deem themselves fit to analyse the situation based on little real experience, has used his direct and personal knowledge to gain the kind of impartial objectivity that so many people removed from the situation by thousands of miles have failed to achieve. In the process he has managed to find not only an interesting alternate perspective on the Middle Eastern situation, but also a genuinely engaging, expertly-shot film.