Two men argue about repair work performed on a car in a dusty and crowded junkyard. The owner of the car—older, slightly smug—is convinced the bumper being put back on the car is now crooked. “Looks can be deceiving,” says the younger man doing the work, monotonous but polite, but the customer is resolute: A mistake has been made, the repair is worthless, the car is damaged. He sticks to his story. He won’t change his mind when it’s proved that the bumper is straight and the ground is crooked. He won’t change his mind when the truth is right in front of his face.
And so another employee—less interested in accommodation, resolutely loyal to his coworker and friend—picks up a sledgehammer and smashes the bumper off the car. The destruction of the problem is preferable to accepting an insult or tolerating a mistruth. “You might be mistaken,” the first man says to their customer, but the second man has no interest in a moral grey area. It was or it wasn’t. It is or it isn’t. It will be, or it won’t.
That scene is the entirety of Paradise Now captured in just a few minutes: the helplessness of facing an unmovable force, the rapid escalation of conflict, and the choice to demonstrate resilience by destruction instead of compromise. That is the ebb and flow of the first Palestinian film ever nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, a movie that was mired in controversy from its production to its release, a crushing cinematic experience that feels as relevant now as when it hit the festival circuit in 2005.
“One day things will be better,” says Suha (Lubna Azabal) to a taxi driver. The daughter of a Palestinian resistance leader, Suha has returned from abroad to live in the city Nablus in the West Bank. “Sounds like you’re not from here,” he scoffs back, not knowing her history but knowing what his life has been like, surrounded by checkpoints, enclosed by fences, overseen by Israeli soldiers. The act of living in Paradise Now is itself an act of resistance, and yet as Palestinians in the film say over and over again, their living is in a prison, and their resistance only results in more devastation. “Under the occupation, we’re already dead,” they agree. So why continue to live?
Paradise Now doesn’t begin with that car scene, but with another. Suha, wearing a jauntily tied silk scarf and carrying a leather suitcase, approaches a checkpoint leading to Nablus. We see her face and its look of set determination; we watch her in profile as she walks through the cement barriers, we see her from behind as she approaches the guards and presents her pass. The man rifles through her suitcase, pulling out clothes. He says nothing to her—gives her first an assessing look, then a dismissive one, until she is free to go. Another soldier had a rifle trained on her the whole time. And as she passes through the checkpoint, she sees dozens of other people, men and women and children, carrying luggage and plastic grocery bags and all sorts of items, all of them accustomed to this process, all of them surveilled, assessed, and judged.
It is a scene without dialogue, mirroring how Paradise Now will eventually end, and yet one that gets its point across immediately and entirely. Think of that Rage Against the Machine lyric “The front line is everywhere;” remember English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the “Panopticon,” of a constant feeling of inspection that leads to paranoia and self-surveillance; observe the spray paint all over the abandoned buildings in Nablus, scrawling the phrase “al intifada” in Arabic. (Those words, encouraging an uprising, would show up the next year in Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece Children of Men, similarly graffitied throughout a dystopian occupied territory.) An overwhelming sense of futility permeates the environment of Paradise Now, and it feels less coincidental and more foretold that the film’s production was plagued by violence from both the Israeli military and a Palestinian resistance faction.
Reality is intolerable in Paradise Now. The two men working on that car know this, and they talk about it, and yet what is there to do? Said (Kais Nashef), the first man from the car scene, is quiet but steely, with an unflinching gaze and unexpectedly gorgeous green eyes. Transplant his curly hair and too-small clothes to a member of an indie rock band and no one would bat an eye, but his look isn’t affected. He’s too poor to afford a haircut, and he shares his clothes with his younger brother. The second man is his best friend Khaled (Ali Suliman), brash and gregarious, affectionate and goofy with his younger sister and resentful of his father. Of his father’s limp, he explains, “During the First Intifada, Israeli soldiers broke into our house. They let him choose which leg he wanted to keep. He chose the right. I would’ve let them break both rather than be so humiliated.”
Writer and director Hany Abu-Assad and his co-writers Bero Beyer and Pierre Hodgson present a sort of cultural shorthand throughout Paradise Now, one in which everyone has a shared frame of reference about what has happened to their people over decades and generations. Men mention how their grandfathers were displaced by the creation of Israel in in 1948. The First Intifada, which Khaled references, was from 1987 to 1993 and saw the deaths of 277 Israelis and 1,962 Palestinians. The Second Intifada, during which Paradise Now is set, took place from 2000 to 2005 or 2007, depending on whose narrative you accept, and approximately 1,000 Israelis and more than 3,000 Palestinians died.
What has changed in the 14 years since the release of Paradise Now? Not much. Thousands more have died, both Israelis and Palestinians, but the majority of them the latter, living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Not even a decade after Paradise Now, during the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict, sparked by the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers by members of Hamas, thousands of Palestinian homes were razed. Seventy-three Israelis died compared with more than 3,000 Palestinians. In 2014, information by B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, demonstrated that 4% of those killed since 2005 have been Israeli, compared with 96% Palestinian deaths. And more recently in 2018, according to B’Tselem, 290 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces, and 14 Israelis were killed by Palestinians. The March of Return protests beginning in late 2018 at the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip gathered some international news coverage, and an image by photographer Mustafa Hassouna of protestor A’ed Abu Amro carrying a Palestinian flag went viral in October. In November, Amro was shot by Israeli security forces, and the violence has continued since, lasting through March of 2019.
Paradise Now doesn’t trot out this data. No one in the film ever says the word “terrorist.” In the world of Paradise Now, there are only three groups: occupiers (the Israeli forces and settlers who have seized Palestinian land that is overseen by the Palestinian Authority), collaborators (Palestinians who work with the Israeli forces, hundreds of whom were executed during the First Intifada), and martyrs (suicide bombers who enter Israel from the West Bank and take as many lives as possible while sacrificing their own).
Why be a martyr? Why take the path of resilience as violence? For Said and Khaled, the choice seems like their only option—in fact, the only choice they’ve ever had the opportunity to make. Nablus has basically zero infrastructure or funding. Jobs are incredibly scarce. The men can’t leave; the only time Said was able to exit, he explains, was for a surgical procedure when he was 6 years old. As the eldest sons, they’re meant to provide for their families and eventually get married, but with no stability (and no young women around), who would choose them? And because Palestine isn’t recognized as a state by Israel (or the United States), these people are denied the very identity that unites them. Their place of heritage isn’t even acknowledged as a place.
A lifetime, essentially in captivity, stateless and powerless and living in what could be compared with an open-air prison, has taken its toll. Nothing seems to faze the citizens of Nablus, because they’ve seen it all, lived it all, and survived it all. They know which roads lead to checkpoints, because they nearly all do. Those soldiers and cement blocks seem to materialize out of thin air. Some people duck when they hear what sounds like an explosion off in the distance, but far more go about their business; Said barely flinches as he stands inside a photo store. That same photo store sells and rents videos of martyrs’ farewell messages and collaborators’ confessions. The owner laments that he can’t charge more for the collaborator videos, but he would have to change his whole cashier system, and he’s not sure if it’s worth the effort. And the men who recruit Said and Khaled for an “operation”—a dual suicide-bomb attack—have everything about this process down to an emotionless ritual.
They have transformed resistance into something flat, something soulless, something violent for the sake of violence. Their camera doesn’t work as Khaled delivers his impassioned martyr’s speech, and they shrug off a legitimately personal moment for him—when he adds in his video that his mother should buy water filters from one specific store rather than another because they’re slightly cheaper. They give the men props in the forms of rifles and keffiyeh scarves and bomb vests. They take their photos, and hours later already have slickly printed promotional posters advertising their deaths. They twist their faith into something corrupted, and they twist that corruption yet again into entertainment. And they ply them with a lavish final meal, presented on a long table where the men gather in a row, arm to arm, side by side. The same imagery as Jesus’ Last Supper, an event that was presented as unity but was defined by betrayal, that mirrors what is occurring with this resistance group, who sees these men as a means to an end. Not as individuals, but as weapons; not as people, but as tools.
Suha is the only person, outside of Said and Khaled’s families, who doesn’t see the men in this way, who doesn’t automatically assume that they will one day sacrifice themselves for this cause. She is the daughter of a leader killed in the name of the resistance, who then lived abroad and who is convinced that there must be another way toward peace. She is simultaneously an insider and an outsider, and her perspective is a privilege the others don’t have. Her time away from Nablus was her salvation, and is now her point of difference. She lightly tries to ask Said what movies he likes and whether he’s ever been to a cinema, and is caught off-guard when he responds that he has: “10 years ago, when we burned down the Revoly Cinema…When Israel decided not to employ workers from the West Bank, we demonstrated.” “Why the cinema?” Suha asks, but she has no response for Said’s answer: “Why us?”
There is no method to understand being born into this, for either Said or Khaled, or to understand how a conflict with so much disproportionate bloodshed has gone on for so long. (“What’s normal around here?” Said wonders, a rhetorical question with no satisfactory explanation.) But Paradise Now charts the men’s differences in how they respond to failure—how they react when the operation becomes derailed—and in doing so tries to make sense of how their desire for autonomy was perverted. An argument with Suha steers Khaled into questioning his motivations and realizing that the lines they have been fed by their recruiters (“Death is better than inferiority”) diminish their individuality and quite literally and figuratively tear them apart. But it is different for Said. He carries the knowledge that his father was a collaborator who was executed for his betrayal and is mourned every day by his mother, who still clings to the idea that her husband was trying to protect them. As Said tells the resistance leader who wonders whether he and Khaled are suitable for the mission:
“A life without dignity is worthless. Especially when it reminds you, day after day, of humiliation and weakness. And the world watches cowardly, indifferently. If you’re all alone, faced with this oppression, you have to find a way to stop the injustice. They must understand that if there’s no security for us, there’ll be none for them, either. It’s not about power. Their power doesn’t help them. I tried to deliver this message to them, but I couldn’t find another way. Even worse, they’ve convinced the world and themselves that they are the victims. How can that be? How can the occupier be the victim? If they take on the role of oppressor and victim, then I have no other choice but to also be a victim, and a murderer as well. I don’t know how you’ll decide, but I will not return to the refugee camp.”
During this monologue, the camera stays steady on Said, granting him the time to make this admission, to explain his motivations, to share his fear and his anger. He stares directly into the camera, unflinching and unyielding, and demands our attention. His decision reverberates throughout the remainder of the film. In the last moments, when we cycle through the other characters connected to Said—Suha, his handlers, his mother, a sobbing Khaled—they are given the same courtesy of portrait-style shots that center their faces, and therefore their uniqueness, in the frame. But to think Paradise Now approves of Said’s choice is to ignore the film’s clear connections between the loss of self that is engineered by an occupying force and furthered by a destructive agenda.
Paradise Now doesn’t ignore the inequalities with which these characters live. When Said and Khaled make it to the other side, they see Israeli citizens walking around in cities dotted with skyscrapers and gigantic advertisements, see bikini-clad women enjoying gorgeous beaches, and see a sort of life that is bright and fearless. This is all opposed to the trash-filled streets, underdeveloped communities, and paranoia of their childhood and adulthood, and the contrast is startling and shocking. Only one chain-link fence, one length of barbed wire, separating such opportunity from such barrenness.
But by showing how quickly Said and Khaled’s handlers were ready to abandon them, Paradise Now demonstrates their disinterest in individual freedom, too. Their dedication is to the cause, with no authentic care for the people they have enlisted. They have no true knowledge of what happens after death, but they say what Said and Khaled want to hear anyway, about angels and God and paradise. Yet their promise is arbitrary, unsubstantiated, and based in control—an overlap with the occupying forces also intent on dictating Said and Khaled’s lives, on governing their movements, on limiting their futures. Neither side has an interest in the men past their own agendas. Neither side has a respect for their resilience.
In the final act of Paradise Now, Said has decided to go through with the attack, and tricks Khaled into returning to the West Bank without him. Khaled is a blubbering mess, a man shattered by the realization that his self is not what he thought, but Said has made his choice. He previously had refused to board a bus when he saw a child on it, but in the film’s last moments, we see him sitting on a bus in motion, still wearing his explosive vest, surrounded by Israeli soldiers in military garb, all facing the camera. There is no dialogue, no sound, as we zoom in on Said’s face, on those shockingly emotive eyes, closer and closer and closer, until the screen flashes white, then black. Until there is an explosion, or until the movie just concludes. Until a single act of violence continues a decades-long cycle of violence, or until the narrative admits to us that there is no end.
Whichever way Paradise Now resolves, the film’s ethos comes from Suha, who challenges Khaled on the concepts of sacrifice vs. revenge, whose arguments are informed by years spent outside Palestine but are defined by concern and love for its people. “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 asks, this daughter of a murdered man, who has fallen for Said, another man who has chosen to become a murderer, whose entire life has been defined by death.
The despair of Paradise Now is undeniable, its uprising feels fruitless, and there is no straightforward consideration of the future. “In this life, we’re dead anyway,” Khaled says, but Suha is able to change his mind, to make him see another path. How Paradise Now provides humanity to the oppressed—even as years of continued violence continue to chip away at that personhood—is a defense of the disenfranchised, and a portrait of damaged resilience that remains incomparable nearly fifteen years later.