Provost's Film Series
October 18, 2008
On January 27, 2002, a 28-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank town of Nablus walked onto Jaffa Street in the heart of a Jerusalem shopping district and detonated a bomb. Two people died: the assailant, reportedly linked to the radical group Fatah, and an elderly Israeli bystander. Body parts were found among the inventory of the shoe store devastated by the blast. More than 100 were wounded, many lacerated by flying glass or singed by flames. Terrorist assaults were rising in Jerusalem—this neighborhood alone had seen thirty violent deaths in the previous five months—but the Jaffa Street explosion sounded a shrill new alarm: it was the first suicide bombing in Israel by a woman. Wafa Idris was not an indolent, rock-throwing teenager from the streets. She was a university student and a Red Crescent nurse.
Idris’s attack—and several female suicides that soon followed—helps explain the grim war of nerves that opens Hany Abu-Assad’s film Paradise Now, the 2005 Golden Globe-winner about two terrorists. In the earliest frames, Suha, an attractive, well-educated Palestinian, pauses with her suitcase before the checkpoint into Nablus. The daughter of a famous “shahid,” or suicide martyr, she is met by the silent, contemptuous glare from the guard. Now that women have now joined the suicide warriors, the Israeli guards have reason to fear anyone.
Paradise Now is a maze of such fearful silences. Quiet vignettes leave characters within their own private dread, unable to cross psychic or historical boundaries to achieve understanding or divert violence. Underneath the taut silences there are also political contexts not readily apparent to many viewers, most notably the collapse of the Oslo Peace Accords and the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada. Some critics deplore the film’s laconic style, lamenting that it hides the depths of the Palestinians’ suffering or the grisly aftermath of terror for the Israelis. But the dramatic silences effectively convey the pent-up anger over recent political failures and the growing reticence to talk about religious faith, either as a catalyst for martyrdom or an antidote to violence. Paradise Now reveals a generation able to embrace suicide without spiritual reward, even as religious rhetoric and imagery devolve into ironic forms. The film ventures into the brackish waters between faith and secularism. It is an ambiguous, often silent space. But it is now the place that where traditional rivals—Muslims, Jews, Christians and non-believers—must find the words for peace.
Click here for my full article, “Fearful Silences: Faith and Secularism in Paradise Now,” which was used as the basis of my presentations at the Kalland Lecture Series at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in October 2008 and a talk at Boston University in November 2009.