Man-made martyrs in the age of mechanical reproduction: disturbing manufactured martyrdom in Paradise Now
by Phoebe Bronstein
In the span of two days, two lifelong friends, Said (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), make the transition from car mechanics to suicide bombers. Their mission requires them to move undetected across the Israeli-Palestinian border and detonate two bombs in sequence in the city of Tel Aviv. Paradise Now (2005), written and directed by Palestinian-born Dutch director Hany Abu Assad, is set and shot on location in Nablus, a portion of the West Bank under Palestinian control. In combining fictional and documentary elements Abu Assad takes a cue from Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1967 film Battle of Algiers; and in a nod to Pontecorvo, Khaled even quotes a line from the paradigmatic film of the Third Cinema: “If we had airplanes, we wouldn’t need martyrs” (Rich). [open endnotes in new window]
As a young Jewish woman, with a particularly religious extended family, I must first admit that I had my reservations about seeing (and later about writing on) a movie about Palestinian suicide bombers. I saw the film for the first time in 2005 in a New York art house theater. The movie had yet to gain ground in the United States and many people, myself included, knew little about it, save that it was a political thriller dealing with a hot-button issue. However, what is remarkable about this film, in a year when Stephen Spielberg’s film Munich (2005) premiered, is that Abu Assad refuses to engage in the melodramatic discourse that too often defines Israeli-Palestinian relations from the rhetoric of political news coverage to dinner-table conversations. According to Abu Assad this discourse often figures suicide bombers as either heroes and martyrs or villains and criminals. Instead, in Paradise Now Abu Assad works against these prevailing notions by revealing the construction and production of martyrdom. In this way, he calls attention to the incorporation of individual identities — that are neither good nor evil — into the collective identity of the Palestinian Resistance. Abu Assad insists on a heterogeneous collective identity, all under the auspices of Palestine, which defies and subverts the dominant hegemonic ideologies that consistently stereotype and do violence to Palestinian identity.
The Palestinian Resistance in the film both relies on the individual identity of its martyrs and on the construction of what Faisal Devji refers to as the “forging of the generic or universal Muslim,” a process both compelled and constructed by the media. By showcasing the production of the two men as martyrs instead of focusing on the violent back and forth of Israeli-Palestinian relations, Paradise Now presents an image of the Palestinian Resistance that subverts both the Resistance’s self-representation and Western media’s representation of it. By representing these tensions and suggesting a larger system outside of this violent back and forth of colonial/anti-colonial aggression, Abu Assad insists on a dialectical mode of thinking about, and a new image of, the Palestinian Resistance. In this way, the film does not function to condemn the men, the Palestinian Resistance, or even Israel, but instead it condemns this cyclical system of violence perpetuated by both sides, the destruction reaped on the individual by the infrastructure of colonial and anti-colonial aggression, and the mediascape that compels and compounds that violence.
(Un)Spectacular violence: contextualizing the media, martyrdom, and Paradise Now
Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, pioneers of Third Cinema, argue in “Towards A Third Cinema” that systems of mass communication are akin to napalm, or in the 21st century perhaps weapons of mass destruction. Today, more than ever, these systems are all pervasive — from the Internet to television to Hollywood films — and so whoever controls and knows how to manipulate those channels holds incredible, potentially deadly power. However, Faisal Devji suggests in Landscapes of the Jihad that suicide martyrdom, particularly in the Islamic world, is a phenomenon compelled and constructed by the mass media, and so it makes use of those very same channels of mass dissemination through which oppression functions. This phenomenon is alluded to in Paradise Now in the Resistance’s shooting of martyr videos and again when Said and Suha, his female friend and potential romantic interest, come across videos about both collaborators and martyrs for sale. By making use of the same channels of dissemination, the Palestinian Resistance remains locked in a violent conversation with the Western mass media in a type of colonial/anti-colonial struggle, where both sides produce and thrive on images of violence. This mediascape, which is reiterated time and again in political thrillers like Stephen Spielberg’s Munich or Peter Berg’s The Kingdom (2007), engages us emotionally rather than intellectually and discourages us as viewers from engaging critically with the films or issues represented, and so such media representations reiterate the “prevailing ideologies of society” (Hill 115).
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