Before starting on our feature presentation, Phong treated us to a short (if, at about 35 minutes it can be called such). The Tonto Woman (directed by Daniel Barber) is a film based on an Elmore Leonard story, a slow, meandering Western that eventually pays off. It starts at the end, with bandito Ruben Vega giving confession to a priesthole – after he emerges we realize he is gutshot and likely mortally wounded. It then moves to the beginning, where Vega, planning a cattle heist, comes across a desolate cabin where a topless woman is drawing water from a well. Naturally, he’s curious, but she is not particularly welcoming, so he heads out.
When he finally hooks up with his hopeful heist partner he asks about her story and learns that she is the wife of the rancher he hopes to plunder – she was kidnapped by Native Americans shortly after their wedding, kept captive for about a decade, and given a totally hot facial tat. Unfortunately the facial tat is not quite as socially acceptable as it might be today, so she’s been relegated to the back 40. Vega returns with a dress and takes her out to dinner in the big city by the watering trough, where her husband and his minions find them. And just as her husband is about to take her back (and regain his humanity), Vega is shot on the street by the minions. It develops better than the review, really, if for no other reason than the slow, deliberate pace.
The feature presentation was Paradise Now, the controversial Palestinian film by Hany Abu-Assad. Like practically any controversial film (The Last Temptation Of Christ, anyone?) its reputation almost certainly outdoes the reality. Still, it’s not hard to understand why the film is not universally beloved.
The film follows the story of two seemingly average young Palestinian men, Said and Khaled. Said is a perceptive, responsible mechanic who is just getting the ins with the hottie Suha, daughter of a famous martyr (and outspoken advocate for Palestinian non-violence). Khaled is a bit more of a loser, bitter and angry, and through his own impatience has just lost his job working beside Said. So naturally, when the buddy-buddy terrorist handler informs them that they have been selected for a suicide bombing mission, Khaled is all for it while Said seems to have more to lose.
But, Said has apparently been prepared for this for years, and he isn’t backing out now – he and Khaled have asked to martyr themselves together. Following a final night with their families, Said and Khaled are brought to a basement to prepare for their mission.
After making their martyrdom videos (which don’t go particularly smoothly – an opportunity for the film to add a small but realistic bit of comic relief) Khaled and Said are cleaned up, fitted with their bombs (only removable by the bombmakers) and put in some really natty suits before being taken off to the border. Lesson: it’s not the scraggly, hippie-style Palestinians to worry about. It’s the clean-cut ones in the tuxedos. You know, given the poverty of the West Bank, the really conspicuous ones. Watch out for them.
Khaled (still gung-ho) and Said (still reluctant) cut through a border fence in a remote location, but before they can get to their transport car on the Israeli side, they run into an unexpected patrol and are forced to flee back to the Palestinian side. In the confusion, Said is separated from the rest of the group. With Said missing, the terrorist group abandons their original hideout out of concern that Said may have been compromised – this severely complicates things for Said, who is trying to get back in touch with them…considering he has this bomb vest on and all.
He ends up trying to go back to his old familiar haunts – his home, his work, etc. – in order to find Khaled, who is also out looking for him. In the process (during which nobody seems to question his new haircut and fancy suit), he runs into Suha and somehow his greatest shame is exposed – when he was young his father was executed by the Palestinians as a collaborator. This old wound is too much for Said to take, so when he finally meets up with his friends, he insists on carrying out his mission, and he and Khaled are eventually brought over to the Israeli side.
Finally, it’s Khaled who loses his nerve, and gets back into the handlers’ car, while Said (who he tried to convince to come back with him) gets onto a bus and the film ends in a silent flash of white.
There’s a lot to say about this movie – a lot to like and a lot to dislike. For one, the film starts out at a disadvantage because insofar as there are any protagonists, they’re destined to become members of a group that’s not particularly easy to have sympathies towards – suicide bombers. During the entire film, it’s easy to worry about whether the film is intended as an apologium for the deplorable practice of suicide bombing. I’m still not sure whether it is or not, but I’m not inclined to think so. Obviously, as a Palestinian film, it comes from a relentlessly Palestinian point of view. While Suha (and eventually to some extent Khaled) act as the Palestinian voices against perpetuating a cycle of violence, the remainder of the characters in the film basically hold to the terrorist party line, and there’s no hint of the Israeli point of view to be found.
The film is relentlessly realistic – it goes into pretty deep detail about the entire process, none of which is particularly flattering. There are the handlers, who transparently manipulate their young martyrs from positions of relative safety in the higher ranks of their organization. There’s the traditional “final night at home” where the soon-to-be bombers spend their final hours with their families, but with a handler present (under a pretense) so that they don’t blab about their mission or chicken out. And there’s the portrayal of a culture so violently set on their objectives that they prefer to watch videotape of “collaborator” confessions than martyrdom videos.
One of the difficult parts of the film is that even if you don’t know the ending coming in…you know the ending coming in. You know it’s going to end with a bombing. And by 3/4 of the way through the movie it’s clear that the victims aren’t going to get any consideration – the Israeli victims, that is. I think from the film’s point of view, the victims are Said and Khaled themselves. Whom are they victims of? The Israelis? The terrorist handlers? A bad lot in life? And whom does the filmmaker want us to think they are victims of? I just can’t tell. Does the movie want you to come to your own conclusions or does it want you to come away with a particular one? And if the latter, which? I just don’t know. Are you supposed to sympathize with them? I just don’t know. What I do know is that instead of viewing them as killing machines, you’re supposed to see them as human beings. Given their actions, that’s a courtesy they rarely receive in the West, and believe that it is a courtesy that is difficult to grant them throughout the film. Yet until the final decision, you do find yourself from time to time granting them that courtesy, and in my eyes that’s the success of the film.