I finally watched this film, over the weekend.
The highest praise I can give to a movie is that it is well made. I remember one of the best ever comments on an essay I wrote was: “well written.” That was all, and I was beaming. Since then, whenever I read a book, or see a movie, that I thought was particularly good, I think: “well written / made”. Not really the most useful review, however. (Not that this post is a review, except in so far as it says: It’s good. I reckon you should watch it, if you have not already.)
This film is about two young men, who are given a suicide bombing mission. The mission does not go to plan. As a result, the audience is presented with an insight into why each of the young men (but one in particular) has decided to accept the mission. It is a tense movie, exploring the issue from a number of angles. The film is set within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the young men are Palestinian.
I like the myriad ways one can read the title. Paradise Now: could be a statement that where we are at the moment is paradise, or an impatient demand for change, or ironically drawing attention to the poverty and despair of one’s current situation. These meanings come to play in the film; it is what makes the film so very interesting.
The complex reasons for why one of the young men, Said, chooses to partake in the mission are laid out carefully, and subtly. There is talk – Said persuades the mission leader to take him back – but there is also demonstration – Said asks his mother questions about his father. The reasons are so much more than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There were some very powerful images: Said, with bomb strapped all around his chest, staring into a bus and deciding whether or not to get on; Said leaning against his mother’s window, watching her prepare food; Said’s friend (I’ve forgotten his name already!) torn between what he believes, and being a good friend.
The film reminded me of the reasons why people choose to do extreme things for a cause, whether removing oppression is possible without violent means, and of my own family’s attitude towards war.
One of the main reasons that Said chooses to participate in the suicide attack is because of his father. Although he has reasons connected with the overarching conflict, his greater concern is his family’s dignity. Said’s friend’s decision is much less complicated, and much more passionately intertwined with the conflict: he is oppressed and he hates his oppressors (that is simplifying it somewhat – after all, there are good reasons for why he hates his oppressors). There is also a young woman – she is the first image of the film that we see – who is the daughter of a martyr and who passionately believes in non-violent means of change. She makes an argument that you may be familiar with: the value of showing to the world the criminality of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the poignancy of being seen as victims, rather than aggressors.
I do not know suficient about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to brave an opinion. But I do understand that there may be reasons worth dying for, even if I do not think I would ever believe in anything enought to die for it.
In university, I demonstrated. When I asked a young woman to join me (in a peaceful Reclaim the Night march), she refused and proffered the following reasons: her parents had emigrated from an Eastern European country to Australia for fear of persecution for their political activity. In Australia, her parents had been persecuted for their past political activity in the Eastern European country. She would not participate in public political demonstrations.
I recall being surprised by this, and (because I am egocentric) relating it to myself: my parents emigrated from Viet Nam because they did not think they could make a life under the incoming communist party. They were not engaged in the political dimensions of the war around them; I always understood their reasons to be very simple. For the entirety of my father’s life in Viet Nam, there was violent conflict – Viet independence from the French, WWII, the American-Viet Nam War, the Viet-Sino War, the Viet-Cambodian War. My father was a nationalist – but he was also very principled and he thought everyone was corrupt. He was quite disengaged from the political aspects of the wars: it did not matter what they were about, they always inhibited his making a life for himself and his family. All my parents wanted was a good and peaceful life in which they and their children could prosper, one they did not think they could have in Viet Nam. It was only when the American-Viet Nam war occurred, and when the Viet Cong won political power that my family felt it was unbearable to continue trying to make a life in Viet Nam.
It is more complicated than I am currently explaining, and probably more complicated than I – or even any of my family members who made the decisions – understand. But the reason my family left Viet Nam was not because they held a political view that communism was wrong.
I believed that my family was pacifist. This was borne out when my maternal grandmother, normally mild-tempered and sweet, threw a riotous tantrum and threatened to cease speaking with her second-youngest son when he indicated that he wanted to join the Australian Defence Forces.
It surprised me then to learn from my father’s reminiscensces that he had wanted to join the South Viet Nam army, before he was married to my mother. Ba told me he thought it was a way to get away from the hard work of farming and fishing. Because Ba is a dutiful son, he asked his mother and father for permission. From what my father has told me about my paternal grandmother (Ah Ma) and from what I know of literary tropes, Ah Ma was a stereotypical dowager empress type: strong-willed and manipulative. Although Ba was not one of Ah Ma’s favourites, she appreciated his hard-work and general aptitude at most of the things he tried his hand at. Ah Ma found a family with a marriageable young woman (my mother!) and married my father off to her. (I will tell that story in better detail another day.) Now, my father could no longer join the army as he had a wife, and would very soon have children, to support.
During the American -Viet Nam war, my father’s primary concern was how to keep his growing family fed. He did what he needed to do: during the day, if he was found, he assisted the South Vietnamese army; at night, the Viet Cong. He tells me of occassions where he would build a bridge during the day, and dismantle the same bridge at night. Mostly he spent his time evading either army and working with whomever would take him on.
I have always known that my family are not strongly politically motivated. The paramount value in my family is the continuation and prosperity of the family. When I watch movies like Paradise Now, I am moved to wonder what would motivate me to take extreme action, or even actions that are politically dangerous in a more oppressive political climate than the one in which I grew up (Australia). I am much more politically and ideological interested than my siblings, but I think I would behave more like my father (preserve at all costs) than like Said in Paradise Now.
I have participated in protests and demonstrations: anti-war ones, feminist ones and a few feminist anti-war ones. I recall one particular march from my early university days, protesting the introduction of voluntary student unionism. I did not know anyone else on the march, and I looked different: I wore all black (I almost always wore black, back then. Not goth black, just kind of boring-please-don’t-look-at-me black). I befriended the people nearby me: a young woman in flowy skirt and wild red hair, and a young man in brightly coloured clothes. The march was mostly peaceful but I somehow found myself in a group that was attempting to storm the administration block. When I realised what was occurring, I tried to leave. As the crowd surged forwards, I was edging out and away. People shouted at me, and I shouted back – such articulate things as: No! Stop! Stop it! Let me go! I’m not part of this! The brightly coloured man called me a coward. This hurt, but I kept trying to leave. I did finally extract myself and I ran away from the demonstration and into the safety of the library where I stayed in a quiet corner with my favourite journals until I felt I could emerge. The students ‘occupied’ the admin block for two days, and I think a lot of them found it very exciting. I wondered then how many actually believed taking the admin block would aid their cause, and how many were there because of the momentum and peer pressure.
I am wiser these days when I choose my demonstrations. If they might turn violent, I do not attend. I believe there are other means for me to effect change, and have my voice heard.
I am not suggesting that participating in demonstrations is akin to being a political martyr or a suicide bomber, but it is doing something which may have a detrimental effect on oneself for an ideological cause. My family would never understand if negative consequences were visited upon my head for a political or ideological reason. When Ba and Um gave up so much to ensure my prosperity, how can I do otherwise but ensure that their sacrifice was not in vain?