Israelis petition to stop suicide bombing film from winning an Oscar

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The Independent Online

One of the few charges that hasn't been levelled against Paradise Now, the Palestinian-directed film up for the best foreign film Oscar tomorrow night, is that it's boring.

From the opening sequence in which Suha, a young woman returning from exile abroad, confronts the relentless, hostile stare of the Israeli soldier going through her bag at the Hawara checkpoint outside Nablus, to the last scene when the screen goes blank rather than show the suicide bombing on a Tel Aviv bus which drives the story, the film grips just like the thriller that its director, Hany Abu-Assad, intended it to be.

Many of the scenes, some haunting, some darkly tragi-comic, linger in the memory: the moment when Said meets his handler from the unnamed militant faction and is told that the bombing mission is on for the next day; the release that spreads across Khaled's face when he believes they have aborted the mission; the laughing Israeli soldiers in the bus in closing sequence.

But then it's exactly because even Paradise Now's harshest critics agree that it is so well made that it has triggered a campaign for the withdrawal of the Oscar nomination. At an event run by the Israel Project, an advocacy group funded largely from the US, the Academy received a 33,000-signature petition against the nomination. Yossi Zur, the Israeli who organised the petition, wasn't there to hand it in personally because tomorrow is also the third anniversary of the day his 16-year-old son, Asaf, a computer science student, was killed, along with 16 other people, by a real Palestinian suicide bomber who boarded the bus he was travelling home from school in Haifa.

And yesterday's issue of Variety carried a full-page advertisement placed by the Israel Project, entitled "An Unseen End to Paradise Now" with a page of "screenplay" describing the 2003 Haifa bombing to replace the one that is never shown in the movie. The fact the film refrains from showing the carnage left by a suicide bomb - as it refrains from showing bloodshed on either side in the conflict - is part of what has infuriated its opponents.

"The victims do not have a voice," says the Israel Project's Calev Ben David. "Imagine a film about 9/11 which didn't show the consequences, which ended without the planes going into the World Trade Centre. Would it have been nominated?" This week Mr Ben David chaired a press conference here given by Mr Zur and two other fathers, one of whom, Yosi Mendellevich, whose son Yuvi, 13 was killed in the Haifa bombing, said the film was "dangerous propaganda" and "artistic terror" which would "actually contribute to the death industry".

Amir Harel, the film's Israeli producer, says he "can understand and sympathise with the families' sorrow and grief" but argues that such claims are "irrelevant" to a film "which rejects terror as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict". Certainly, the often appreciative reaction by the 20,000 Israelis who have already seen the film suggests a more complex reality than claims that it "justifies" suicide bombings.

The film has been playing to above-average audiences for an arthouse film, 150-a-sitting, at the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem Cinematheques; yet in Nablus, where the film is set and much of it was made, there is yet to be a public showing after community leaders given a private viewing advised against it. One reason was that Said and Suha kiss each other on the lips; another was that some faction leaders objected that Said, the son of a collaborator who goes ahead with the bombing, and Khaled, who does not, were not given sufficient religious and ideological motives, as opposed to the ones of personal despair that are depicted in the film.

The latter group, like Israeli opponents, will not have liked the "martyr video" scene which Hany Abu Assad has said "catches the heart of the film's idea by simultaneously breaking down the martyrdom-heroism as well as the monster-evil and making it human. And humans are often quite banal, but also funny and emotional," he says. "In real life there often is comedy in the most tragic moments. I understand that it will be upsetting to some that I have given a human face to the suicide bombers; I am also very critical of the suicide bombers, as well."

Part of its impact on Israelis is to show, in far from exaggerated terms, daily hardship under occupation. "It's a film everyone in Israel should see," said Vered Borhalevy, 28, a teacher, as she left Wednesday's showing in Jerusalem. "It makes you identify with the other side." Was she bothered that the bombing itself is not shown? "That you can see all the time [in television news]. This you don't see."

Jochanan Minsker, 70, an architect, said the "most terrible thing" in it was the contrast between living in a "prison" in the West Bank and the - relatively - "normal life" in Israel.

But the film has also challenged Palestinians. East Jerusalem student Maiada Barkhoum, 24, who was in Thursday's Cinematheque audience, emerged "confused" by the equally compelling characters of Said, and Suha, who argues passionately against suicide attacks in the film. On the one hand, she said, "you have to sympathise with Said. I cannot support what he has done but I can understand it ... I identified with Suha's role. She has lost her lover and she can't do anything about it."

Film that showed Academy's 'double standards'

If Paradise Now is in contention for a foreign-language Oscar, it's largely thanks to a fight waged on behalf of another Palestinian film, Divine Intervention. The story of two lovers separated by the Israeli occupation in the West Bank was disregarded for Oscar contention in 2002 because foreign language entries need to be sponsored by their country of origin, and Palestine did not count as a country. The Academy was accused of anti-Arab bias and blatant double standards, since Puerto Rico, Hong Kong and Taiwan have been submitting entries for years although they are not countries with full United Nations representation. In 2000, the Welsh- language film Solomon and Gaenor was nominated for the best foreign film category, with Wales as sponsoring "country", 800 years after it lost its independence. The Academy eventually relented, saying it would make an "exception".