Little Martyrs

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Independent

“If you fear death, you’re already dead.”

“Under the occupation, we’re already dead.”

“If we can’t live as equals, at least we’ll die as equals.”

“In this life, we’re dead anyway.”

These lines of dialogue, scattered throughout director Hany Abu-Assad’s remarkable Paradise Now, suggest the extreme mind-set of the Palestinian citizens portrayed in this harrowing fictional portrait of two suicide bombers. Although Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are a couple of likable slackers—childhood friends who goof off from their low-paying jobs as mechanics, drink sweet tea, and share puffs on a hookah—tension always runs just beneath the surface of their existence. Everything is a matter of life or death for these Palestinians trapped in the impoverished city of Nablus; they’ve come to believe that there is no future in an occupied territory.

As such, they are ripe candidates for radicalization, and Paradise Now, co-written by Abu-Assad and Bero Beyer, charts their recruitment with the terseness of a thriller, the clarity of a documentary, and a mixture of high drama and low humor. It’s impossible to say whether Said and Khaled’s recruiter, Jamal (Amer Hlehel), a taciturn point man in an unnamed Palestinian organization, views the pair as model martyrs or patsies—some combination of the two, one suspects. Preying upon their restless discontent and their resentment of the perennial presence of the Israeli Army (whom Said and Khaled view as exercising a choke hold on the town’s freedom and its economy via armed muscle and arbitrary curfews), Jamal persuades the pair to strap on explosives and make videos proclaiming their loyalty to resistance by death. “Take out as many soldiers as you can” is Jamal’s chilling order.

What gives Paradise Now its power are elements that, in less-deft filmmakers’ hands, would be hokey or insulting. The scene in which Said and Khaled videotape their militant proclamations of martyrdom is black-humored funny—these two sad sacks have to be shown how to hold the guns they brandish; the camera stalls or they flub their lines, and they ask, like assiduous amateur actors, for retakes. (Later, we’re taken to a local shop that sells or rents bootlegged copies of such tapes for local entertainment and inspiration—the casual cynicism of this is breathtaking.) One character, Suha (Lubna Azabal), whose father is a famed martyr to the same cause, exists primarily to argue for peaceful negotiations and to turn the boys’ heads.

She’s the only didactic tool used in the film, however. Paradise Now is most compelling for its meticulous following of Said and Khaled as they undergo their transformation. These bedraggled jokers shave their hair into handsome crew cuts and put on black suits and ties (their cover story for journeying to crowded Tel Aviv is that they’re on their way to a wedding). The clothes cover the explosives taped to their bellies. A statement one of them has made earlier in their videotaped proclamation—“Our bodies are all we have left to fight with against the never-ending occupation”—suddenly becomes vividly real.

With their funereal garb and newly scrubbed faces, the duo become at once more stoically determined, tragic, and inadvertently foolish, like a pair of displaced Samuel Beckett characters. They bicker over the best place to enter Tel Aviv without being caught and clamber over rocks whose gray soot clings to their suits; they dust each other off and squabble both nervously and amiably, just as two lifelong friends would. The plan goes awry in ways that should not be revealed.

Ultimately, director Abu-Assad has tried to humanize terrorism while running the risk of being criticized for making his characters too likable. The result is a film that has a certain lurching tone—one minute, Said and Khaled are boobs; the next, dedicated warriors. I think that what Abu-Assad wants to get on film comes through less in the characters’ actions than in the experience Paradise Now affords of watching the daily grinding down of the dignity and hope of an entire population, the everyday Palestinians who surround the main characters. The film may frequently endorse peaceful solutions; its subtext is far more bleak and despairing than that.

Paradise Now
Directed by Hany Abu-Assad.
Warner Independent Pictures. PG-13.

Little Martyrs