I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a son. I especially can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a son to something as barbaric as a suicide bombing. My heart goes out to Yossi Zur, whose son Asaf was killed in a suicide bombing in 2003.
My heart does not go out to the 24,000 people who have so far signed a petition, based on an essay by Zur (reproduced below, in its entirety), asking the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to take the radical step of un-nominating Paradise Now for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. These people are deluded, foolish and – maybe worst of all for movie lovers like you and I – anti-artistic philistines.
Here is Zur’s essay. My comments follow.
An Award for Terror
By Yossi Zur
My son Asaf was almost 17 years old when he was murdered in a suicide bomb attack in Haifa, Israel on March 5, 2003. This year, on precisely the third anniversary of his death, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may grant an Oscar to the very dangerous movie "Paradise Now."
The film, nominated for best foreign language film of the year, follows the path of two young Palestinians from their decision to become suicide bombers to the moment one of them boards a crowded Tel Aviv bus.
"Paradise Now" is a very professional production, created with great care for detail. It is also an extremely harmful piece of work, not only for Israel and the Middle East, but the whole world.
My son Asaf was an eleventh-grader studying computer sciences, when one day after school he boarded a bus in Israel to return home. On the way, a suicide bomber from Hebron, 21 years old and himself a computer sciences student in the Hebron Polytechnic, also boarded the bus and blew himself up. Of the 17 people killed, nine were schoolchildren aged 18 or younger. Asaf was killed on the spot.
I went to see "Paradise Now" to try to understand what message it was trying to convey. Was it that the murderer is human and is as deserving of sympathy as his victims? He is not. Was it that he has doubts? He has none. After all, he is so sure of his mission that he is willing to kill himself along with his human targets.
Or maybe, I wondered, the film was trying to give the message that it is the Israelis who are to blame for this horrific act, for the phenomenon of suicide bombing. In that case, are the Israelis also to blame for the similar terrorist attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center, the Bali nightclub, the Amman hotels, the shop in Turkey, the restaurant in Morocco, the underground stations in London, the trains in Spain and so many others?
What exactly makes "Paradise Now" worthy of such a prestigious nomination? At a time when Hamas, a terrorist organization devoted to the destruction of Israel, has won a landslide victory in the Palestinian legislative elections, and Iran’s president has stated his desire to "wipe Israel off the map," what sort of message would an Academy Award triumph send to more than 1 billion viewers around the world?
Would the entertainment writers who chose to honor this movie have given the same accolades if the film had been about the young men from Saudi Arabia who moved to the U.S., took flying lessons and then underwent Islamic ritual preparations for their holy mission to crash airplanes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon? Would they have dared to nominate a version of "Paradise Now" for a similar award?
This movie attempts to deliver the message that suicide bombings are a legitimate tactic for those who feel they’ve exhausted all other means of resistance. But a suicide-murderer who boards a bus and snuffs out the lives of 15 or 20 innocent people, or who walks into a city carrying a biological, chemical or nuclear weapon and kills 10,000, or even 100,000 people, is that still a legitimate tactic? Where does one draw the line?
The world should draw the line at one person. My son was almost 17; he loved surfing, he loved pop music. He is now gone because a suicide bomber decided that blowing himself up on a crowded bus filled with children was somehow a legitimate act.
Awarding an Oscar to a movie such as "Paradise Now" would only implicate the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the evil chain of terror that attempts to justify these horrific acts, whether the number of victims is 17 or 17,000.
As tragic as the loss of Zur’s son is, it has no bearing on the Oscars, or for that matter, Paradise Now’s status as a work of art. Zur has seen the film (which is probably more than can be said for the 24,000 who signed the short-sighted petition), but his grief didn’t allow him to see the movie for what it is.
Zur asks “What exactly makes "Paradise Now" worthy of such a prestigious nomination?” The answer is simple – it’s a well made film, shot beautifully, acted with nuance, and written with an ear for reality and truth. It’s a good movie. That’s what exactly makes it worthy of the nomination.
But that’s the easy question to answer. Zur goes on to talk about current events and Israel as reasons that this film is dangerous. Setting aside any personal feelings I have on the Israel situation, it’s exactly those current events that makes this film important, and not dangerous. It’s a movie that is about the world we are living in today. There’s only so much that we can get from the news and the papers and books – movies, like all art, fill in the gaps between facts. A good movie allows us to experience a new point of view, seamlessly seeing the world through the eyes of another. A camera, in the hands of talented and honest filmmakers, becomes a window onto a deeper, more emotional understanding than can be achieved in hundreds of column inches of balanced, well-researched reporting. Is Zur worried that Paradise Now will inspire suicide bombers? They certainly don’t seem to have needed major motion pictures to find the wherewithal to strap explosives to their chests before.
More than that, Zur, and I assume the 24,000 people who signed the petition, has no understanding of how art works. The depiction of something is not an endorsement of that thing. This is the simplest thing, yet somehow something many people – from the United States to marauding cartoon-hating mobs – seem to have a hard time understanding. Zur is unable to separate the actions in the film from the filmmaker’s beliefs. Anyone who sits through Paradise Now and sees a movie that supports suicide bombing has had their eyes closed for two hours. The movie shows us how two young men are chosen and prepared to become suicide bombers, and then shows us how one of them changes his mind and tries to convince his friend to do the same. Director Hany Abu-Assad doesn’t leave much room for interpretation in the picture, and even sacrifices some of the realism that makes the film work so well to have characters deliver speeches to us about how suicide bombing is not the answer for oppressed Palestinians.
For Zur to claim that the movie presents suicide bombing as a legitimate tactic is silly, and completely dishonest. The film makes that abundantly clear. Even if it didn’t, when I spoke with director Hany Abu-Assad last year, he spoke eloquently – and bluntly – about why the film is not condoning suicide bombing:
I think this will make the situation worse. It will not solve the situation. First of all you kill yourself with other victims – who is driving the bus, who is on the bus? Poor people. The poor people from Palestinian society is killing themselves with the poor people of the other society. They are not killing the people responsible for the policy.
Secondly, you are letting the other side misuse your action to spread fear in their own society and continue the injustice against you.
Last thing, I will be against it even if I will be in favor of a military action. I am against it because you are losing the best soldier on your side. Somebody who is willing to die for your cause is the best soldier you have. You are letting him be killed in a place to kill the cheapest people on the other side, from a military point of view. So I will never be in favor of these kinds of actions. Again, I am speaking from military.
One of the most troubling aspects of Zur’s essay is this thought: “I went to see "Paradise Now" to try to understand what message it was trying to convey. Was it that the murderer is human and is as deserving of sympathy as his victims? He is not.” Again, I defer to the words of the director of Paradise Now: The deed is inhuman, but they are human beings.
To me that is the key to understanding Paradise Now, and really to just interacting with other people. The act is not to be forgiven or downplayed, but that doesn’t mean we can’t examine why the act happened. We live in a world of cause and effect, and finding the cause is not the same thing as condoning the cause. In the days after 9/11, any one who was interested in looking at the hijackers as anything more than lunatics was accused of sympathizing with them. Not only is that view point patently offensive, it’s destructive. If you understand why something happened, you may be able to stop it from happening again. If you walk into a hornet’s nest, you should try to learn from that experience so you don’t do it again. You’re not soft on hornets. Suicide bombings are a horror. They are a horror for what they do to innocent people, as belts of explosives, often packed with metal to act as shrapnel, end their lives in a monstrous moment. But they are also a horror because of how they degrade the killer, and his people. It’s a horror that there is a situation where someone would feel that such a response is justified. To say that it’s a defect of certain people or a certain religion is ignoring the glorious and storied history not only of suicide attackers, but also attacks against soft, civilian targets.
Zur brings up 9/11. Would Hollywood award a film that looked at the 9/11 hijackers as human beings, he asks. I would hope so. Paul Greengrass’ Flight 93 will not shy away from showing the almost unbelievable brutality these men used on the innocent passengers of that plane, but my conversations with him have led me to believe that he will not be portraying these men as mindless lunatics. They weren’t. Maybe it would be nicer if they were, if we could pretend that there’s no way an actual human being could perpetrate such a thing. That’s too bad, because they can, and they do. Horrible, unthinkable acts happen every day in this world, and the men who carry them out often go home and have dinner and have families and lives. Is there evil? Yeah, but the uncomfortable truth that Paradise Now examines is that it’s inside every single one of us – the question is what will it take to bring it out.
Paradise Now is a powerful, well-made film. It deserves the honor it has received on its merits as filmmaking, separate from its politics or its bearing on our lives today. Those aspects give it a deeper meaning and immediacy, but the quality of the film is inherent in the talents of the people who made it.