Here's a belated review of a film that is making the art-house rounds, which explores why someone would decide to become a suicide bomber. It's well-done, though on a small budget, and intriguing. Rest assured that the strongest voice in the movie belongs to a strong and beautiful Arab woman who keeps insisting that suicide bombing is madness. Still, its interesting to see the motivations, and especially the ambivalence, of the two men. The publication is the quarterly journal of the Council on Faith and International Affairs, a "leadership inititiative" of the Institute for Global Engagement,
I'll add another comment at the end of the review -- something puzzling I read in an interview with the director, that I figured out eventually.

In "Paradise Now," a new movie from director Hany Abu-Assad, there's a moment when the character Khaled (Ali Suliman) does a good imitation of a Wild West gunslinger. He faces a corner and then spins back out on one foot, turning toward his pals with a "quick draw" gesture and a grin.


The joke is that he has just had a set of explosives strapped to his chest. He and his friend, Said (Kais Nashef, an actor with exquisitely tragic eyes), are going to walk out of this abandoned tile factory in Nablus and, with the help of paid intermediaries, make their way into Tel Aviv. There they plan to find a likely spot, where one of them will pull the cord that sets off the bombs taped to his torso. The other will wait fifteen minutes, enough time for police and soldiers to cluster around the scene. Then he will do the same.


It is the genius of this film to compel the viewer to look at these two men as individual human beings, and not simply as crazy "bad guys." This approach confirms a lesson we learned in the decades after the Holocaust, that eager finger-pointing at Nazis can have the surreal side-effect of persuading us that we are sinless. When we turn the enemy into something incomprehensible, inhuman, we assume that we can learn nothing from him. And if there are no lessons to be learned from horrifying tragedy, the tragedy is compounded.


So Abu-Assad's film is careful and subtle, rather than agit-prop in either direction. (The direction he wishes viewers to tip is no doubt hinted by the film's tagline: "From the most unexpected place comes a bold new call for peace.") Thus, characters who make impassioned defense of violent action are countered by equally passionate arguments against it. We also see striking ambivalence within the two men themselves.


Khaled and Said are auto mechanics in Nablus, the major West Bank city surrounded by dozens of smaller Palestinian villages. It is a depressing cityscape, marked by bombed and burned-out buildings, with knee-high rubble lining the roads. Yet the two friends are much like young men everywhere, grumbling at the boss, joking, and sharing a smoke under the afternoon sky. A pretty young woman, Suha (Lubna Azabal), the daughter of a famed Palestinian leader, comes into their lives when she arranges for work to be done on her car. The film appears to be heading toward quietly-unfolding romance when everything changes in an instant.


Jamal (Amer Hlelhel), a resistance leader, appears and tells the men that the time has come for another action. It will be a double suicide bombing in the city of Tel Aviv, and Khaled and Said have been chosen. It will take place the next day. The men are stunned, but quickly agree. Jamal instructs them to spend the evening at home with their families, and to tell no one of the plan.


Khaled is exuberant, but Said is reserved, even perhaps regretful. The evening with his family is painful to watch, as his brother bickers with him about a borrowed t-shirt, and his mother, who shares his haunted eyes, cuts up vegetables for their meal. Said lies awake that night, then gets up before dawn to leave Suha's car keys at her door; she hears him and invites him in. Suha was raised abroad; she is sophisticated and apparently a-religious, and a bit flirtacious. She asks Said about his favorite genre of movie, and tells him his life is not boring, but interesting "like a minimalist Japanese film." Suha also criticizes violent action. "Resistance can take many forms," she says. She participates in a non-violent justice organization, and believes that violence distracts from more productive approaches. "We must accept that we have no military power, in order to find other forms of resistance."


But Said is clearly preoccupied and weighted down by some great grief, and things are not quite clicking between them. When Suha makes a flippant remark, there is a pause before Said quietly says, "May God forgive you."


Khaled, on the other hand, is eager to go. In the morning, when Said comes to his house to pick him up, he asks why Khaled's father limps. "During the first intifada, Israelis broke into the house," Khaled says. "They let him choose which leg he wanted to keep. He chose the right. I would have chosen both, rather than be so humiliated."


Thus Abu-Assam builds a careful tension, showing motivation on both sides, yet naturally and without a heavy hand. He weaves in humor, even at the unlikeliest moments. The morning is spent at the abandoned tile factory, as the men are prepared for the grim events of the day. Someone holds a videocamera as Khaled, standing before a flag and holding a gun, delivers the speech that will be his memorial. (We learn later that these recordings do good business at the local rental store, but that films of confessions extracted from collaborators before their execution are even more popular.) However, the videocamera fails to record, and Khaled has to repeat the routine. By the time everything is under way, it's gotten to be lunchtime and the other guys are eating pita sandwiches while Khaled delivers his impassioned last words.


In a private moment, Said asks Khaled: "Are we doing the right thing?"


Khaled replies, "Of course. In one hour we will be in Paradise. Under occupation, we are already dead."


Said asks, "Is there no other way to stop them?"


The terrible event seems increasingly inevitable, but from the time the young men are dropped off for their assignment, nothing goes as planned. Wholly apart from the subject matter, the film is an excellent entry in the category of suspense flick, incorporating chases, hair-raising scenes, and intriguing shifts within the characters themselves. The movie keeps the viewer guessing right up until the last frame, and beyond.


What's interesting about the film, and makes its scope broader than the immediate Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is the way it resonates with the American story. Khaled is not only a cowboy, he's Patrick Henry. His speeches, and those of others, are consistently about how intolerable it is to live in subjection. When Jamal says, "Death is better than inferiority," it's not far from "Give me liberty or give me death." Many of these lines of dialogue will ring uncomfortably familiar to Americans who base our beloved national story on the right of the oppressed to fight for liberty.


So what can we, who won our freedom by force, say to the Palestinians in this film? The first thing that comes to mind, of course, is that we are horrified and repulsed by the willingness to kill civilians. If a Redcoat boarded ship and crossed the Atlantic and began shooting at us, well, he's fair game. (And Johnny Reb will say the same about the Yankees who crossed the Mason Dixon line to shoot at him.) Invading soldiers clearly invite armed resistance, and are prepared to respond.


But it's different when the target is a weary secretary going home from work on a bus, a family celebrating at a wedding reception, an infant in a stroller outside a grocery. ("Paradise Now" nods toward this dilemma when a bomb-laden character is about to board a Tel Aviv bus and then, seeing a little girl in a frilly hat, draws back).


So it's fine to talk about dying for freedom, but dying is not the problem. It's killing that causes concern. If suicide bombing was merely suicidal, it would perplex and sadden the watching world, but not draw outrage. The problem is when those bombers take the lives of unsuspecting others with them.


A second point to consider is whether the resistance can possibly succeed. Among the principles of Just War (first propounded by St. Augustine and enduringly popular in the West, though not embraced by my own Eastern Orthodox Church), is the requirement that any military undertaking have reasonable hope of success. Jesus himself noted that a king will count his own and his opponent's troops before setting out to war. To begin an action that is doomed to fail is to shed blood for no purpose.


"Our bodies are all we have left to fight with against the never-ending occupation," Said says. The same might be said of Native Americans in the U.S. Their land was taken from them by an invading force which possessed overwhelming power, and successful resistance was unimaginable. They do not now engage in suicidal resistance to retake their land, because it would cost lives and gain nothing.


But who is to say, before the last page of history is written, whether a cause is futile? A strikingly similar situation prevailed in Jerusalem 2000 years ago, during the Roman occupation. The Jewish historian Josephus, to whom we are indebted for nearly all our knowledge of the first-century Jewish War, went as a young man to Rome. There he saw such might and splendor that he returned to Israel convinced that any attempt to throw off the Roman occupation would be suicidal. Even worse, it would provoke a crushing response from Rome that would destroy the Temple sacrificial system, and with it the means to practice Jewish faith.


Josephus tells a colorful and suspenseful story, but since he is virtually the only source, it is hard to judge his accuracy. But in his story of failed resistance to occupation two millennia ago, it in some ways resembles the current Palestinian situation. Rebel bands generally sprang up in the countryside, outside Jerusalem itself, but the big city was the locus of action. Roman officials were particularly on guard during the great feasts, when the city population would be swollen by pilgrims from the countryside, some of whom might be rabble-rousers and take advantage of heightened fervor to instigate trouble. In Luke 13:1we see an incident that no doubt was triggered by such a situation: "There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices."


During this time of resistance to Roman occupation, civilian Jewish blood was abundantly shed in the streets of Jerusalem. Sadly, it was other Jews who shed it. Josephus tells us that rebel gangs were harsh toward those who, like him, hesitated to join the revolution. At the end, when the Temple fell in 70 AD, three rival bands controlled the starving city, killing each other and ordinary citizens, who were already being driven by starvation to the point of cannibalism. In Jewish theology, the traditional explanation for the fall of Jerusalem has been that God punished the Jews for killing their fellow Jews.


Jesus, too, counseled his followers not to engage in armed resistance against Rome. Of course, we can't expect Jews and Muslims to heed his advice, but Christians should at least consider it. American Christians, in particular, are apt to feel kindred affection for armed rebellion against occupying forces. Yet, while living in a situation where taxes had to be paid to distant Rome, Jesus advised paying them. When a soldier could seize any citizen and compel him to carry his pack for a mile, Jesus advised offering to carry it a second mile.


A currently-popular interpretation suggests that Jesus meant, by this, to suggest a way to get the soldier in trouble. Such a notion indicates a complete failure to grasp the message of the Gospel. Jesus taught love of enemies - perhaps the highest and most difficult of spiritual disciplines, and the most contrary to our pride. He taught that, out of the raw material of humiliation, a conquered people can mine the gold of humility. This was borne out in the centuries of martyrdom, when Christians declined to defend their own lives, or even those of their children, and instead went singing to their deaths, convinced that they were conquerors.


Said says: "A life without dignity is worthless, especially if it reminds you, day after day, of humility and weakness." Jesus said "Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you" (Matthew 5:11), exactly because this fiery purification forges spiritual power. These words are as hard today as they ever were. But to skirt around them by suggesting that Jesus enjoyed snarky vengeance is to miss the ethos of the Gospel completely.


A final problem exists for the Palestinian strugglers, one unconsidered in St. Augustine's time: the court of public opinion. Toward the end of the film one character says, "They [Israelis] have convinced the world, and themselves, that they are the victims. How can the occupier be the victim?" It is understandably frustrating. Yet his conclusion, "I must also be a victim, and a murderer as well," is guaranteed to sour the goodwill of those who otherwise would listen to his plea. 


In an early scene, we see Said standing before a landscape of autumnal trees and homes scattered in a valley. Something seems wrong with the image; it's too flat and the shadows are off. We realize that he is in a photo studio and the image is on a pull-down backdrop screen, the kind they'd use at K Mart. Behind Said's right shoulder, amid the valley trees, there is a white clapboard church. This tranquil New England scene is emblematic of this land we love, and may well show a valley where the blood of Redcoats and Patriots are still mingled deep in the earth. The sorrow in Said's eyes is vaster than the sea.

After I wrote the review I saw an interview with the director in which he commented on a scene before the day of the planned bombing, in which the conspirators have dinner. There's a held frame in which the characters are posed like DaVinci's Last Supper. I thought "that makes no sense at all" -- what would it be referring to?
In the interview the director said that it was an intentional reference to Christ, and to the Cross: that Christian's understand that you can win a victory through dying in such a way that you take your enemy with you. I thought that was the strangest misunderstanding of Christian doctrine I'd ever heard.
But as I thought abt it I realized that, as a Middle-Eastern Arab, the Christianity he'd been exposed to would have been the one taht emphasized the "Victory" understanding of salvation -- the view of "atonement" that I was writing about last time. As in the hymn repeated thousands of times in Easter season, "Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!" From his observation of Christianity, Christ's work on the Cross was all about dying in such a way that he "took the Devil with him". Rather than any concept of it being a transaction with the Father, or a payment for sin. Really interesting.
Frederica Mathewes-Green
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