Paradise Now is a film about suicide bombers, co-written and directed by a Nazareth-born Palestinian. On the surface, it is easy to dismiss such a film as anti-Israeli propaganda, and to find it unworthy of serious examination. But what happens when you find out that the film has an Israeli producer, who thinks it’s crucially important that the film be shown in his homeland? Or that, while shooting in Nablus, the production team was constantly under threat from groups who thought they were making an anti-Palestinian film? And that a location manager was kidnapped from the Nablus set? Dismissal is suddenly harder. Like the story of its creation, Paradise Now is in fact a work of great complexity and passion that refuses to reduce the issues it tackles to simple black and white.
When the film opens, long-time friends Said (Kais Nashef, who gives a quietly soulful performance) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are working as car mechanics, though neither bothers to disguise his total lack of interest in his job. They end the day as they obviously do most days, sitting together on a hill above the refugee camp in which they live, smoking a hookah, drinking tea, and passing the time with the idle chatter of friends in a directionless rut. Far below the pair, the camp is shockingly dense, with dingy white homes crammed into every square inch of available space. Their perch is surrounded by discarded car parts and other household garbage, but the poverty around them is a fact of life for Said and Khaled, not something to lament.
After they part, both men are approached by friends who inform them that they have been chosen to carry out a suicide attack the next day; both absorb the news with quiet acceptance and a hint of pride. After spending a final, melancholy night at home with families to whom they are forbidden to say goodbye, the friends are taken to prepare for the bombings. The process of preparation, from cleansing to filming martyr’s videos; from haircuts to a final meal, takes the form of a soothing ritual, during which Said and Khaled finally surrender themselves completely to their shared destiny. Dressed in simple black suits with new, short haircuts, the friends are totally transformed; they now will fit in easily wherever they are sent. Finally, after a meeting with the unnamed group’s strikingly charismatic reclusive leader, the details of the attack are explained, and the bombers are driven towards the border.