Images of Paradise Now:
Here we see the making of Khaled’s martyr video (considering again the use of the video camera in The Kingdom).
This proves to be a difficult and frustrating process.
Hany Abu Assad’s “The Last Supper” ...
... and da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”
The production of the men as martyrs:
In these shots the camera pans left to right...
... mimicking an assembly line ...
... as various men prepare Khaled and Said for their mission as suicide bombers.
Ritualistic practices lose traditional value and historical weight as ...
... they become part of the production process of creating martyrdom itself.
This part of the narrative traces the “forging of the generic Muslim, one who loses all cultural and historical particularity by his or her destruction in an act of martyrdom.”
Each of these poster images was used to market Paradise Now.
Each emphasizes the anonymity of the men.
The posters showcase the two friends' almost identical post-transformation images and the way they were turned into bombs.
Abu-Assad’s attachment to realistic location shooting in Nablus, coupled with the cast and crew’s experiences while filming, creates and reinforces a sense of imprisonment and claustrophobia in this location.
Within this framework I turn to focus my discussion of the film on the central montage sequence, which documents the evolution of the two main characters from mechanics to martyrs. This sequence functions to erase the identities of the two friends and turns them into commodities produced for and traded by the Resistance on the market of war. Even the rhetorical framework for Said and Khaled’s mission is locked into the discourse of an “endless cycle of vendetta and reprisal” — where every violent act is met with an equally violent reaction. Said’s handler Jamal comments that their mission is one of retribution for a previous Israeli attack, and Suha differentiates their act as one of revenge rather than sacrifice despite Khaled’s assertion to the contrary. It is within this context that the men are produced as commodities, human bombs — a process that unsuccessfully attempts to strip the men of their individual identities. This montage sequence showcases on a smaller level the tensions discussed in the previous section, between the individual, the image of the universal Muslim, the heterogeneous nature of the Palestinian Resistance more generally, and the mass media. By representing this tension, rather than engaging in the continual violent back and forth of Israeli-Palestinian relations, perhaps Abu Assad presents a resistance in line with Chatterjee’s decolonized imagination, a basis for a new nationalist sentiment, and provides a model for Solanas and Getino’s “cinema of liberation.”
The production and reproduction of the men as martyrs begins with the shooting of the martyr video. What we see are a series of retakes, and this collage of versions inserts a slice of dark humor into an otherwise unfunny process. The night before their mission Khaled and then Said are handed big black guns, made to stand in front of a video camera on a makeshift stage, and asked to recite scripted yet impassioned speeches.
For Khaled, the camera does not work the first time, nor the second time. By third time he is visibly irritated and so he lashes out at the cameraman. This moment seems to be Abu Assad's idea of a joke, and the momentary rupture eases the tension of the scene while also un-suturing the viewer from the film. To this end, as spectators, we are reminded of the world outside the frame and the construction and performativity of this image of the martyr, both in the film and also in the larger mediascape of the Resistance. In the film, a few men — part of this particular cell — watch the debacle unfold and bear witness to this staged spectacle as they nonchalantly eat pita sandwiches and chitchat amongst themselves. These onlookers are revealed in a shot/reverse shot sequence as Khaled gives his scripted speech. The camera’s usual invisibility is here made visible by this series of retakes, which leads into the montage sequence that takes the men through a purification process that mimics traditional preparations for a Muslim burial (Twair). Furthermore, this sequence of events is the most stylized and visibly technologically reliant in the whole film.
The fiasco involving the video camera reveals the performativity and construction necessary to martyrdom, both in the context of the film and in the mass media. As Devji suggests, the filming process “strives to achieve authenticity by its very extremity, just as in reality television shows, it in fact achieves exactly the opposite by becoming a piece of theater” (105). This allusion to reality television seems particularly applicable here, as it calls up an extreme desire to appear and convey the “real” or “authentic,” despite the obvious fact that each moment is scripted, directed, and edited in order to achieve that desired effect. Thus, filming the shooting of the video of Khaled (and Said) works against the testimonial discourse’s supposedly authentic intentions. The camera does not work after the first, and arguably Khaled’s best, take so that he is condemned to repeat and rehash his speech and unnatural posturing. This repetition and the time in between the retakes distance Khaled as an individual (or character) from the persona of the martyr that he is embodying: he relaxes between takes, grows frustrated with the camera, and finally makes an onscreen appeal to his mother about finding cheaper water filters. Khaled’s aside to his mother about water filters calls attention to the Israeli control of water in the region and the daily challenges and suffering that this particular material oppression causes an individual family. Khaled’s deviation from his scripted speech disrupts the image of what Devji refers to as the universally forged image of the Muslim terrorist, and in this case it is an image crucial to this wing of the Palestinian Resistance. Rather than seem a martyr, in this moment, Khaled is first and foremost a concerned son. This supposedly authentic testimony from a Muslim terrorist is revealed as an elaborate production, and so it subverts and complicates the authenticity of commonly understood images of Muslim terrorists. [open endnotes in new window]
This series of retakes leads into the montage sequence and perpetuates viewers’ awareness of the construction of “reality” that they are witnessing. As Benjamin — drawing from Eisenstein — argues, the work of art is produced, and I would add becomes visible as art, via montage (29). First, the retakes de-naturalize video-making, revealing how contrived the scripted video really is. And finally, the montage sequence ends with the men eating, in a filmed replica of Leonardo daVinci’s painting The Last Supper, with Khaled and Said sitting in the places of Jesus and one of the disciples. This moment calls attention to the reproducibility and re-appropriation of art. Specifically, the reproduction of daVinci’s painting calls attention to the art of the film, and how the men are actors who are playing characters that have been positioned, framed, lit, and scripted. Coming at the end of the montage sequence, this moment seems the perfect culmination of the artistic process: the men resemble Christ, the paradigmatic martyr of the western world. Furthermore, the construction of martyrdom through art and technological reproduction is revealed and compounded in this parodic moment of feasting. By the time we arrive at this scene, the men have been utterly transformed and they, like Christ, are ready to be packaged, sold, and traded on the international market of martyrdom.
As the men transition from individuals to archetypal martyrs, the process of their being washed, dressed, and strapped with bombs mimics the process of mechanical production. As the camera pans from left to right, it often speeds up, reproducing the movement of assembly line production. Initially, the naked bodies of the men are shown in segments followed by a shot of hair being cut off of an anonymous head. Next, the camera pans smoothly down Khaled’s body being scrubbed — starting at his head and moving down his frame as he lies still on a wooden slab. The image of Khaled’s body is disrupted by the presence of a stone wall that fragments not only the body being washed, but also the bodies of the men performing the washing. Through framing we witness fragments of both bodies throughout the production process, until the final, sheared, shaved, dressed, and strapped-with-bombs human products are revealed.
In the filmic reproduction of this process the martyrdom preparation comes to resemble a mechanical process of industrial reproduction, recalling Henry Ford, the poster boy for capitalist and assembly line based-industry. In principle, the assembly line for Ford meant “the reduction of the necessity for thought on the part of the worker and the reduction of his movements to a minimum” (Ford 61). Thus, each man does a different and yet essential job to the completion of the project as a whole. With this in mind, the men performing the work on Khaled and Said begin to resemble parts of a well-oiled machine piecing together (over and over again) the paradigmatic martyr. Most shots of these unknown men are fragmented and each person performs a separate task: the hands that cut Said’s hair, the arms and hands that wash Khaled’s body, the anonymous man who shaves Khaled, or the bomb-maker with mechanical hands who is only shot from the waist up—with the initial focus on his machine-like hands. The assembly line-like production subverts the uniqueness of the men’s experience through its potential for mass-production and even mass-consumption.
This process of production obscures and distances the individual identities and histories of the two men as they are produced according to the image of the universal martyr. To this end, Benjamin argues that “the technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition” (22). Thus, these rituals of burial (described above), separated via reproduction on the assembly line from their traditional and meaning-laden moorings, become objects deprived of their unique histories. It follows, then, that not only the men’s identities but also these ritualistic preparations lose their cultural or historical weight. By filming this praxis, that is, the conversion of individual to martyr, and by calling attention to the filming process, Abu Assad further insists on the production process of creating martyrdom itself. Furthermore, this erasure or hollowing out of meaningful ritual can be seen in how Abu Assad films the prayers accompanied by gestures and chanting; in the context of this production, these movements are distanced from their traditional value via repetition and are finally reduced to mechanical motions.
This assembly line-like purification process relieves the characters of any personal markers or identifiers, and after all is said and done, the two friends are left with nothing that distinguishes one from the other, or perhaps from any other previous or future martyr. By the end of this mechanical process of martyr production, the men are hollowed out and are ready to be re-filled with new signification. As the men’s individual identities, as well as those of their compatriots, are erased or obscured, we witness myths-in-the-making. As Roland Barthes argues in Mythologies,
More specifically, the individual identity that is erased is refurbished into a mass producible one. Recalling that for Benjamin if “the technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition” then “by replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence” (22). When read through the lens of Benjamin, it follows that both Said and Khaled’s individual identities are appropriated by and incorporated into the Resistance as the two men are distanced from their own unique identities.
It is then the reproduction and dissemination of certain images that detaches the men from their own bodies, and once detached those images can be endowed with new meaning: that of the paradigmatic martyr for the Palestinian Resistance. The image that formerly represented their own individuated identities comes to represent a mythical “martyr” as they are absorbed into mass culture by the reproduction and dissemination of their images on both posters and television. In the martyr videos and posters the two men resemble western media images of Muslim terrorists, which is in opposition to the final product of their martyrdom preparations — wild hair with guns prior to the burial rituals and clean cut and shaved with suits post-burial rituals. Devji argues that the performed violence reinforces stereotypical images of Muslims as barbarous and that it is this “forging of the generic Muslim, one who loses all cultural and historical particularity by his or her destruction in an act of martyrdom” that perpetuates the image of the universal Muslim (94). He suggests that “once their particularity is destroyed, their very roots eradicated, these blasted habitations and their former occupants are transformed into universal figures” (94). Thus, the images of the unshorn and unshaved Khaled and Said of the martyr videos both reify and resemble the expected image of the Muslim terrorist, while their post-transformation images disturb any typical notion of that terrorist. It is the reiteration of this “barbarous” man with a gun in the videos and posters that then becomes the universal signifier for the Muslim terrorist, an image (or sign) easily identifiable by both the West and East, a notion called into question and critiqued by the film.
The final tangible product of this production is the ultimate commodification of the two men reduced to their ‘use-value’ in their martyr posters and videos. Hamid Dabashi, writing on Heidegger, argues that for Heidegger the essence of technology is the categorical reduction of things, including human, to their use-value” (117). Thus, technology, for Heidegger, works to reveal how all things have been reduced to their use value in a relation of causality: for example, “agriculture is now the mechanized food industry. Air is set upon to yield nitrogen, the earth to yield ore,” etc. (15). These relations are exposed or unveiled as relations of production and consumption within human society, which aims to garner the maximum profit at the minimum expense — land no longer merely exists, but only exists in relation to human needs (Heidegger 15). As such, through the use of technology, and in particular the media, the two friends are reduced to their “use-value”: nameless martyrs or stand-in airplanes, recalling Khaled’s initial comment. Following this logic, the minimum expense — of one man — garners the maximum profit: destruction, posters, media attention, and fodder for potential recruits. The process of production ends with the men having bombs strapped to their chests, and in this capacity they quite literally become part of the violent colonial/anti-colonial machine. This unmasking of the two men as reduced to their “use-value” reveals the ideological drive behind the perpetuation of violence: the men become cogs or “standing reserve” in the machinery of the Resistance.
The moment when the two men are ready to carry out their mission comes as they are shown their martyr posters: they are visually presented with variations, which will be hung on poles and buildings around town. That visual presence will work to produce a celebratory, though violent, national sentiment to attract new martyrs to the cause. The two men, looking at the posters, witness their unique pasts and existences absorbed and commodified. However, as in the video shoot, Khaled has a personal reaction to the images and requests that their posters be hung in the center of Nablus, so that his family can see them. Despite his production as an archetypal martyr, his individual identity and relationships remain intact. Nevertheless, the posters and videos are the only tangible evidence the two men will leave behind, and it is these images that will be produced and reproduced so as to create and maintain the visual landscape of the Resistance. In the larger mediascape of the Palestinian — or more generally Islamic-aligned resistance — as Devji argues, not only do supporters of the Resistance constantly refer to the role of media in the culture of martyrdom, but also many conversion stories feature media images (87).
Once again recalling Said and Suha’s experience at the video store, the confrontation between the mechanical production and the individual experience of martyrdom comes to a head here. Ironically the production process that eradicates the individual identities of these men, and that relies on them as universal symbols, also relies on the individuality of their faces to recruit new potential martyrs to the cause of liberation. The Resistance, it seems, must posit itself as looking for the individual despite the underlying mechanical process that it relies on.
In the film the men’s individual subjectivities consistently jut up against both the Resistance and the Western media’s mechanical reproduction of the men, which attempts to fix their meaning as universal martyrs. Abu Assad toys with our expectations as he showcases the attempted erasure of this individuality against the constant assertion of that individuality: the botched effort to cross the border, the constant close-ups on their faces, and even the previously mentioned final scene which alternates between shots of individuals, including Khaled, Said, Suha, Said’s mother, and the men’s handlers. Said and Khaled’s first attempt to cross the border into Israel results in a tumultuous series of events which show the impossibility of these men functioning as parts of a well-oiled machine: Said crosses the border, almost boards a bus, returns to the West Bank, sees Suha, lies on his father’s grave, and finally returns to the location where his martyrdom preparations took place. The sequence ends with Said’s impassioned speech to the Resistance cell leader, which documents his individual, rather than universal, reasons for becoming a suicide bomber. The camera is initially positioned to look over the cell leader’s shoulder, but as Said’s monologue grows more personal and as he begins to discuss his collaborator father, the camera slowly moves in closer and we as viewers see Said from the point of view of the cell leader. All the while the camera remains steadily on Said who sits on a bed in the middle of the frame — his subjectivity, his mistake and confusion are both at odds with the Resistance, or any universal image of the Resistance, but nevertheless he desires to be part of that vision and movement.