This semester, one of my classes at my university is International Cinema, where we are given sections of cinema around the world to read about and then watch films from those countries and those time periods. A movie I watched recently for the class was “Paradise Now”, a Palestinian film that I remember being released around 2005 or 2006. At that time, I was in my early teens, and I didn’t have much interest in the movie. But after having watched it, I can now say it’s one of the most powerful modern foreign films I’ve seen in a while.
The film centers around two friends, Said (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman). They are young men probably in their late-20’s or early-30’s who have grown up together, worked together, and suffered through the hardships in their country together. We see them working together at a run-down auto repair where Said runs into a friend—or lover—named Suha (Lubna Azabal) who has returned to Palestine after spending time abroad.
One night, Said meets with an old friend who is involved in the organization of suicide bombings as demonstrations against the government. Said, we find out, is the son of an executed collaborator, and he himself has been involved in protests such as burning down a movie theater. And when his friend approaches him about him and Khaled leading a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, Said is not hesitant to agree to the mission, as he says, “if it is God’s will.”
So eventually, the two friends are armed with a bomb, cleaned off and shaven, and dressed in suits so they will not look like regular settlers. They each go in front of a camera with a gun and record a statement about what God tells them about injustice and why they must be His martyrs. They also leave a goodbye to their families, apologizing for the way they have to be separated but assuring them that they will one day be reuniting. These scenes, I have to say, are disturbing yet fascinating at the same time. As I’ll explain later on, it gives a fresh perspective to the sacredness that these would-be martyrs put on these attacks that Americans like me rarely think about.
When Said and Khaled are taken to their destination, however, they are driven away by gunfire, and Said and Khaled soon get separated. Khaled returns to the people who sent him on the mission, who believe that Said betrayed them. Khaled, on the other hand, knows that Said would do no such thing, and we see Said trying to find his way back to Khaled. On his journey (mostly on foot), he runs into a lot of familiar faces, though not meaning to, including his mother, his former employer, and even Suha, with whom he shares a kiss before he runs back to his mission.
Suha eventually catches on, and when she finds Khaled driving in search of Said, she interrogates him about what’s going and why the two of them would want to sacrifice their lives in this way:
KHALED: If we can't live as equals, at least we'll die as equals.
SUHA: If you can kill and die for equality you should be able to find a way to be equal in life. …Then at least the Israelis don't have an excuse to keep on killing.
KHALED: Don’t be so naive. There can be no freedom without struggle. As long as there is injustice, someone must make a sacrifice.
SUHA: That’s no sacrifice. That's revenge. If you kill, there's no difference between victim and occupier.
Through a series of events, Said and Khaled meet up again, and when they are sent the next morning to try again in the city, Khaled eventually calls up his driver and tells them that the two of them want to return. Said says he agrees, but when the driver comes, Said lets Khaled in the car but sends the driver ahead without him. And Khaled, helpless as the car drives away, weeps as he sees his friend probably for the last time. And the film ends with Said sitting on a bus in silence before the screen cuts to white, fades to black, and rolls the end credits.
In those earlier scenes where Said and Khaled are preparing for the mission, it dawned on me how religious “Paradise Now” is. It’s not a Christian movie by any means, but it starts out as two men wanting to sacrifice their lives for Allah and his prophet Mohammad, but then they feel conflicted about it. And again, that’s something I don’t think about very often. These men are as zealous for Allah as I am for Jesus—or at least as zealous as I know I ought to be. But even though we both worship God, it’s a very different God—or at least a different image of God. I think of a quote C.S. Lewis wrote: “That is why horrible nations have horrible religions: they have been looking at God through a dirty lens.”
But if I were to look at God from the perspective of a pure heart, what would I find? I would indeed find that Jesus said, “‘Whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.’” (Mark 8:34) But He also teaches us to “‘love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us]”. (Matthew 5:44) I should not be afraid to be a martyr for my faith. But what good is it if I were to do it in a way that killed others as well? I’m sure other people smarter than I am can debate this more thoroughly, but all I can say is, my prayer for you today is that you would sacrifice your life by loving others and giving up yourself for others.