These images (and others like them) of the World Trade Center Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001 resemble, as Slavoj Zizek suggests ...

... explosions from Hollywood blockbusters, like Munich and The Kingdom (below).

As in this scene from Munich, fantasy and fiction are barely (if at all) distinguishable.

We have come to expect spectacular violence from political thrillers like Munich and ...

... The Kingdom.

Such scenes tap into our emotions and might even recall the devastation of September 11th.

The opening credits of The Kingdom set up the context for the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia, including reiterating fear of terrorist attacks and the "War on Terror." In this image the message is paired with what appears to be an Arab man dressed in traditional garb. Subsequent shots list places where terrorist attacks took place in the 1990s.

Contrasting with the opening credits is the image featured here on the poster for the film. It sets up the cast, led by Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner (of Alias fame), and Chris Cooper. They are the action heroes against a backdrop of violence, chaos, and terrorism.

Images from Munich:

Here Avner (Eric Bana), alone in his room, must kill one of the men deemed responsible for the 1978 Munich Olympics killings. Avner pauses and looks at the lamp. Turning it off will be the cue to set off the bomb.

Avner approaches the lamp, then pauses again, before turning out the lights.

He appears conflicted by this killing. The slow pace of the scene reinforces his sense of confusion and contemplation.

And then the room explodes, which sends Avner flying. Next we see the results of the bomb: crumbling hotel rooms, explosions, a hand hanging from the ceiling, and a honeymooning couple caught unsuspectingly in the carnage. Engrossed by the violence we forget the reason this violence took place and sympathize with the honeymooning couple stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Alternating shots here, between Avner and his wife with their newborn baby, emphasize a world of light and dark, a world of Manichean dualities.

This lighting gives us a sense of a world split in two, where Avner’s wife and child represent hope for his future.

This kind of lighting is distinctly absent from Paradise Now, where a realist aesthetic dominates. The latter film's realism also comes from the fact that it is predominantly set and shot in one location.

Images from The Kingdom:

Bomb violence and images of the ‘terrorists’ in these shots recall and reiterate the location, the Middle East, as a place of violence and chaos. Such cinematic imagery fulfills expectations inherent within a mediascape defined by these same kinds of violent images.

Furthermore, this sequence places an emphasis on witnessing – the older man holds a young girl’s face to watch the explosions as she films the attack.

And we witness the attack on the U.S. base through another man’s binoculars.

As viewers then, we inhabit the position of the "terrorist."

Globally recognized, manipulated images of Muslim terrorists:

A New Yorker cover features President Obama as Muslim and the First Lady as a militant black radical (perhaps a Black Panther).

Man-made martyrs in the age of mechanical reproduction: disturbing manufactured martyrdom in Paradise Now

by Phoebe Bronstein

In the span of two days, two lifelong friends, Said (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), make the transition from car mechanics to suicide bombers. Their mission requires them to move undetected across the Israeli-Palestinian border and detonate two bombs in sequence in the city of Tel Aviv. Paradise Now (2005), written and directed by Palestinian-born Dutch director Hany Abu Assad, is set and shot on location in Nablus, a portion of the West Bank under Palestinian control. In combining fictional and documentary elements Abu Assad takes a cue from Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1967 film Battle of Algiers; and in a nod to Pontecorvo, Khaled even quotes a line from the paradigmatic film of the Third Cinema: “If we had airplanes, we wouldn’t need martyrs” (Rich).[1] [open endnotes in new window]

As a young Jewish woman, with a particularly religious extended family, I must first admit that I had my reservations about seeing (and later about writing on) a movie about Palestinian suicide bombers. I saw the film for the first time in 2005 in a New York art house theater. The movie had yet to gain ground in the United States and many people, myself included, knew little about it, save that it was a political thriller dealing with a hot-button issue. However, what is remarkable about this film, in a year when Stephen Spielberg’s film Munich (2005) premiered, is that Abu Assad refuses to engage in the melodramatic discourse that too often defines Israeli-Palestinian relations from the rhetoric of political news coverage to dinner-table conversations. According to Abu Assad this discourse often figures suicide bombers as either heroes and martyrs or villains and criminals. Instead, in Paradise Now Abu Assad works against these prevailing notions by revealing the construction and production of martyrdom. In this way, he calls attention to the incorporation of individual identities — that are neither good nor evil — into the collective identity of the Palestinian Resistance.[2] Abu Assad insists on a heterogeneous collective identity, all under the auspices of Palestine, which defies and subverts the dominant hegemonic ideologies that consistently stereotype and do violence to Palestinian identity.[3]

The Palestinian Resistance in the film both relies on the individual identity of its martyrs and on the construction of what Faisal Devji refers to as the “forging of the generic or universal Muslim,” a process both compelled and constructed by the media. By showcasing the production of the two men as martyrs instead of focusing on the violent back and forth of Israeli-Palestinian relations, Paradise Now presents an image of the Palestinian Resistance that subverts both the Resistance’s self-representation and Western media’s representation of it. By representing these tensions and suggesting a larger system outside of this violent back and forth of colonial/anti-colonial aggression, Abu Assad insists on a dialectical mode of thinking about, and a new image of, the Palestinian Resistance.[4] In this way, the film does not function to condemn the men, the Palestinian Resistance, or even Israel, but instead it condemns this cyclical system of violence perpetuated by both sides, the destruction reaped on the individual by the infrastructure of colonial and anti-colonial aggression, and the mediascape that compels and compounds that violence.

(Un) Spectacular violence:
contextualizing the media, martyrdom,
and Paradise Now

Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, pioneers of Third Cinema, argue in “Towards A Third Cinema” that systems of mass communication are akin to napalm, or in the 21st century perhaps weapons of mass destruction. Today, more than ever, these systems are all pervasive — from the Internet to television to Hollywood films — and so whoever controls and knows how to manipulate those channels holds incredible, potentially deadly power. However, Faisal Devji suggests in Landscapes of the Jihad that suicide martyrdom, particularly in the Islamic world, is a phenomenon compelled and constructed by the mass media, and so it makes use of those very same channels of mass dissemination through which oppression functions.[5] This phenomenon is alluded to in Paradise Now in the Resistance’s shooting of martyr videos and again when Said and Suha, his female friend and potential romantic interest, come across videos about both collaborators and martyrs for sale. By making use of the same channels of dissemination, the Palestinian Resistance remains locked in a violent conversation with the Western mass media in a type of colonial/anti-colonial struggle, where both sides produce and thrive on images of violence. This mediascape, which is reiterated time and again in political thrillers like Stephen Spielberg’s Munich or Peter Berg’s The Kingdom (2007), engages us emotionally rather than intellectually and discourages us as viewers from engaging critically with the films or issues represented, and so such media representations reiterate the “prevailing ideologies of society” (Hill 115).[6]

Solanas and Getino call for a “cinema of liberation,” a cinema that stands outside the system of Hollywood dominance, and in the case of Paradise Now that stands outside even the Resistance movement. This “cinema of liberation” then functions to complicate and disrupt both Hollywood and Palestinian representations of suicide bombers or martyrs. In this section, I consider the violent and visual landscape of the Palestinian Resistance within the context of colonial and anti-colonial resistance, and in conjunction with the larger mediascape of Islamic Resistance and representations of the Middle East by Hollywood. I read Abu Assad’s film against Munich, The Kingdom, and even Paradise Now’s U.S. preview as a way to contextualize how the film functions in, and interacts with, this larger mediascape.

Violence has defined the landscape of Israeli-Palestinian relations since the 1948 British Mandate that ceded part of Palestine to newly emigrated and already resident Jews. Given that the land in dispute was colonized by Britain and subsequently ceded to Jews displaced by World War II, it is important here to consider this ongoing violence in relation to a discussion of colonialism in the historical and political context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A colonial legacy marks the land in dispute, and colonial/anti-colonial discourse and violence continue today, including the presence of new oppressors — which includes, for example, the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and the continual involvement of the United States as a behind-closed-doors controlling imperial power.[7] The continual and vocal U.S. support of Israel adds a global dimension to the mediascape of the Palestinian Resistance.

The violence continually enacted by both Palestinian and Israeli sides has become a reactive and cyclical kind of violence, where men stand in for airplanes, and every act of violence guarantees an equal and opposite reaction. As Frantz Fanon argues in The Wretched of the Earth,

“… colonialism is not a machine capable of thinking, a body endowed with reason. It is naked violence” (23).

If anti-colonial resistance is a direct response to colonial oppression, then it too becomes a machine incapable of thinking and this relation produces an economy of continuous violence.[8] In this model, when the resistance takes the form of opposition to the colonial oppression or occupying powers, it engages in the same violence it opposes, creating what Devji refers to as a community of exchange. It this kind of community — or at least the Palestinian portion of it — that is represented and critiqued in Paradise Now. However, Abu Assad does not represent this violent exchange in a typical way; instead he refuses to aestheticize, engage, or appropriate this violence for his own means. What he shows us are the results of the violence: shots of crumbling buildings in Nablus such as the headquarters of the Resistance cell, panning shots of Nablus itself, the sounds of bombs exploding in the background, or soldiers at the checkpoints.[9] By refusing to showcase violence and or project a morally didactic message, Abu Assad engages in a new brand of resistance. Like the Algerian FLN, according to Pontecorvo, in order to succeed the Palestinian Resistance must move away from reactive engagement and arise out of a third space not defined by the oppressing power. For Abu Assad, this space seems to be one of art.

Paradise Now represents a counter-narrative to both the Western mass media and to a jihadist cult of martyrdom. By showing us the men prior to their becoming suicide bombers, the film has us witness their relationships with their families, their individual reasons for this choice, and even their job troubles and romantic woes. Instead of engaging in the spectacle of suicide bombing and reiterating the visual landscape of the Palestinian Resistance, Abu Assad introduces us to the men prior to their entrance into that visual landscape of martyrdom. In Paradise Now, instead of sympathizing with the victims of the suicide bombing — as we might in The Kingdom, in news coverage of the bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004, or the coverage of planes flying into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 — we develop a relationship with the bombers, before they in fact become bombs. It is Abu Assad’s insistence on the lives of these two men rather than their final decisions and the result of those decisions — which, in fact, remain unknown and unseen — that refuses the cathartic release of melodrama.

In some ways then, Abu Assad offers us an anti-Fanonian critique, reminiscent of Partha Chatterjee’s critique of Benedict Anderson’s discussion of nationalism in Imagined Communities. In response to Anderson, Chatterjee suggests that in Anderson’s model, the emerging nationalism and the boundaries of the nation in formerly colonized countries will remain determined by the European model. Chatterjee writes:

“History, it would seem, has decreed that we in the postcolonial world shall only be perpetual consumers of modernity. Europe and the Americas, the only true subjects of history, have thought out on our behalf not only the script of colonial enlightenment and exploitation, but also that of our anticolonial resistance and postcolonial misery. Even our imaginations must remain forever colonized.” (5)

This is to say, if postcolonial nationalisms must always resist colonialism, then the formerly colonized stay locked into the colonizer/colonized dichotomy even after the end of official colonialism. Where Fanon argues that violence is an equalizing force between colonizer and colonized (8), and thus, Chatterjee’s model suggests, via Anderson, that any resistance defined by the force of oppression remains locked into the script of colonialism. Put another way, violent anti-colonial resistance remains reactionary and so forever part of colonial oppression and so another force of oppression. In the same vein as Chatterjee, Abu Assad suggests that anti-colonial violence, as resistance to colonial violence, only breeds more violence and destruction in an un-resolvable cycle. Assad’s model figures this violence, which masquerades as power, as a mode of action trapped within the colonial/anti-colonial relation, rather than being a liberating — or celebratory — force.

Despite the aesthetic beauty of Paradise Now, Abu Assad refuses to aestheticize or celebrate war and violence in the way that many contemporary Hollywood films and the mass media do. For example, in both Munich and The Kingdom, beautifully shot and highly edited on-screen violence abounds, from point-blank assassinations, and explosions destroying an entire army base, to shoot-outs in the streets. Walter Benjamin famously warns in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”[10] that with Fascism (and particularly in reference to the Futurists) our own self-alienation reaches a point in which we now witness our own “annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure” (42). For Benjamin, when politics are aestheticized (as they currently are in films like Munich and The Kingdom, both marketed as political thrillers and both based on real events) we are entertained by the spectacle of these violent images and so view destruction as pleasure, or even as catharsis.[11]

At the same time, we may begin to confound fact and fiction. Slavoj Zizek notes in Welcome to the Desert of the Real that in a mediascape saturated by images of violence, many viewers tuning in to the destruction of the World Trade Center (September 11, 2001) on live television initially believed they were watching a film (11).[12] That is, we are now so anaesthetized to watching on-screen violence, that reality and virtual reality become in some ways indistinguishable; and Benjamin’s warning rings all too true. However, Paradise Now refuses to engage in this violent spectacle embraced by many Hollywood films set in or about the Middle East. In both the film’s narrative and its visual presentation, Abu Assad subverts the expectations inherent in a mediascape saturated by images of both real and fictional violence. He suggests a new mode of representation in line with Chatterjee and the tradition of Third Cinema: the viewer is not simply entertained or lulled by images of violence but rather compelled to think and possibly act.

However, ironically in the United States Paradise Now was marketed as a political thriller; the trailer does not differ substantially from trailers for films like Munich or The Kingdom: fast edits, a sweeping score, and a voice-over with a morally didactic message, all stand in contrast to the aesthetic of the film itself. Despite the film’s insistence on moral ambiguity and Abu Assad’s refusal of melodrama — emphasized by the distinct lack of a “thriller” soundtrack, save for diegetic noise — the marketing for the film frames it in a melodramatic, if not clichéd, way. The trailer combines what Linda Williams refers to in Melodrama Revised as the basic tenets of melodrama: an intertwining of action and pathos in a world of Manichean dualities.[13] In the trailer a voice-over says:

“In a land forsaken by hope, in a culture searching for its place, in two extraordinary days, two life long friends will struggle with an impossible choice … where one moment can change the world.”

The trailer closes with the on-screen text: “sometimes the most courageous act is what you didn’t do” (Warner Independent Pictures trailer). It suggests that the story, per Williams, will generate sympathy for the “hero who is also a victim” and lead to a climax wherein we recognize “that character’s moral value” (58) — expectations that are fulfilled in Munich but not in Paradise Now.

Even if, as John Hill suggests in “Finding a Form: Politics and Aesthetics in Fatherland, Hidden Agenda and Riff-Raff,Munich complicates “prevailing ideologies of society,” it does so

“by employing the same emotional patterns of involvement as films which offer the contrary view, and hence fails to encourage audiences to engage critically with political ideas” (115).

In Munich, Avner (Eric Bana) must lead his off-the-grid Mossad team through a series of assassinations of the Palestinian group, Black September, responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Avner is hero, villain, and victim at the same time, and the film generates sympathy for him and the moral cost of his violent decisions. A.O. Scott, New York Times film critic, notes that Munich is far from a-typical in this sense. He contends that for the last decade bloody revenge thrillers have dominated the Hollywood mediascape: “Sometimes the urge to repay blood with blood [is] treated with skepticism or at least with a sense of moral complication, as in Mystic River” or arguably Munich, “but the tone for mainstream commercial entertainment … [is] caught up in a Manichean struggle defined by an endless cycle of vendetta and reprisal” (22). Unlike Paradise Now, Munich uses the form of the political thriller to engage audiences emotionally, rather than intellectually, and we identify with the hero/villain/victim who is stuck within this violent struggle. At the end of Munich, and after Avner leads his team through a series of revenge assassinations, we are relieved and understand Avner’s final refusal to return to either Mossad or Israel. Avner’s refusal to continue the endless violent “cycle of vendetta and reprisal” allows for his reunion with his family and the cathartic release of melodrama even though his past continues to haunt him.[14]

The language of the Paradise Now preview promises a similar moral clarity and a “call for peace,” a position, which is refused by the film itself: Abu Assad neither sides with Khaled nor Said nor constructs the men as heroes or villains. Instead, the film’s narrative insists that audiences engage critically with both men’s decisions. This ambiguity is reinforced by the final moments of the film; Paradise Now closes with alternating shots of the photograph of Said, Khaled, Suha, Said’s mother, Said’s handler, and ends with a close-up of Said sitting on a bus in Jerusalem. This sequence, which ends without any explosion, reiterates the heterogeneous nature of Palestinian identity and resistance, while neither condemning nor celebrating suicide violence. However, the marketing of the film as seen in the trailer, though at odds with the film itself, suggests the expectations inherent within a mediascape defined in large part by images of violence, the “War on Terror,” and Hollywood films set in or about the Middle East, like Munich or The Kingdom.[15] Unlike Paradise Now, these images and films reiterate the Middle East as a place of war, terror, and chaos.

Upon returning home from Israel, Avner’s past continues to haunt him – and most disturbingly he experiences violent flashbacks while having sex with his wife. Furthermore, the violence showcased here is the initial violence at the Munich Olympics – - the originary violence that began the cycle of vendetta and reprisal. The couple makes love, though in a fashion violently different from their initial love scene. Mournful music plays in the background.
Avner is forever changed by both the violence he was responsible for and the violence he witnessed. Action and pathos combine in the character of Avner. We sympathize, as does Avner’s wife, with him despite the violence he has committed.

Despite Abu Assad’s refusal to engage in this melodramatic or violent discourse, which even defines the trailer for Paradise Now, it is this kind of rhetoric, which almost exclusively dominates critical discussion of the film. Critics presume Abu Assad’s engagement in the spectacle of Israeli-Palestinian relations and forcibly re-insert the film into a good vs. evil (or political thriller genre) framework. In this way, what’s been written about the film dismisses the truly subversive nature of the film.

Much of the criticism and commentary on Paradise Now centers on the issue of humanizing suicide bombers, either critiquing or praising Abu Assad for his project, according to Israeli, Palestinian, and international perspectives. Stephen Holden rightly observes in The New York Times that: 

“Given the explosive political climate in the Middle East, humanizing suicide bombers in a movie risks offending some viewers in the same way that humanizing Hitler does. Demons make more convenient villains than complicated people with their complicated motives.”

Despite, and perhaps because of, the film’s moral ambiguity, public reaction to the film spawned wide-ranging anger and debate on the morality of depicting the lives of suicide bombers. Though the film received wide critical acclaim, was nominated for best foreign language film at the Oscars, and won the Golden Globe in the foreign film category, many pro-Israel critics dismissed it as a Nazi film. One Israeli citizen, whose son was killed in a suicide bombing attack, even collected thousands of signatures and petitioned to have the film’s bid for the Oscars revoked.[16] At the same time, in “some quarters there is a sense that the film has demartyrized the bombers by making them all too human, perhaps even banal” (Georgakas & Saltz 17) — a move which disturbs notions or tropes of the suicide bomber as a mythical martyr hero.

The critical reaction surrounding the film here mimics the media response to suicide bombing more generally: suicide bombing is a phenomenon both constructed and compelled by the media where both sides rely on tropes or stereotypes of Muslims as heroes or villains (Devji 87-88). Devji argues that perhaps the most important way in which the jihad develops its universality is through the use of media, and the Jihad — or in this case the Palestinian Resistance — “can be seen as an offspring of the media, composed as it is almost completely of pre-existing media themes, images and stereotypes” (87-88).[17] These images and stereotypes abound in Hollywood and Western mass media: from the fictional leader of the terrorist cell in The Kingdom, to media representations of the September 11th hijackers, and even images of Osama bin Laden. We only recognize these images because, as Devji suggests, “the jihad is experienced visually” and these stereotypes are made available and constantly reiterated through international media, posters, literature and art (93).[18] These images and stereotypes and the forging of the “universal Muslim,” a figure constructed and promoted both by Palestinian and Western media, are what Abu Assad suggests consistently do harm to Palestinian identity and fuel the ongoing conflict and violence.

These images of the “universal Muslim” work to create a nationalist sentiment: through these images their martyrdom is inscribed into national and diasporic history and consciousness, a move that recalls Anderson’s discussion of print-capitalism’s relation to the rise of European nationalisms.[19] In Paradise Now, the martyr videos and posters, which will be hung according to Khaled’s request in his town’s center, define the mediascape of both the Resistance and the oppression, since both present an image of a universal Muslim. Within the context of the film it is the forging of this generic Muslim, in opposition to the heterogeneous nature of the Palestinian Resistance, which is constructed as central to this new Palestinian national consciousness, and thus integral to the success of the Palestinian Resistance. In Paradise Now the Palestinian Resistance’s reliance on capitalist technology and media outlets inextricably and ironically connects the success of the Resistance to the system it is fighting against. The new nationalist sentiment is anti-colonial or anti-Israeli and so is trapped in the “forever colonized imagination” described by Chatterjee. This new national consciousness — which stands both opposed to and exploited by the oppressors, in this case Israel and perhaps the United States — builds on the continual economy of violence and its perpetuation through its media reproducibility.

At the same time, this insertion of violence into the national memory is counter to the process of forgetting, which Anderson argues is crucial to the nation-building project. As Anderson writes,

“To serve the narrative purpose (of the nation), these violent deaths must be remembered/forgotten as ‘our own” (206).

Instead of forgetting the violence, the community celebrates it and turns it into spectacle. The martyrs — or heroes — of this war are inscribed via posters, print, and television into that nationalistic sentiment. An example of this occurs in the film when Said and Suha, who is the voice of peace and human rights, are offered martyr and collaborator videos at the video store. As Said picks up photographs of himself (one of which he will give to Suha later in the film) the store clerk attempts to bargain with the pair over collaborator video rental and sale prices. Further complicating this awkward interaction is the fact that Palestinians killed Said’s father as an Israeli collaborator. Here the personal or individual reasons for Said’s brand of resistance — his decision to become a suicide bomber — in fact are at odds with the cult of martyrdom and the celebratory nationalistic sentiment built around the image of the universal Muslim. At the same time, the Palestinian Resistance’s reliance on capitalism as a mechanism to disseminate a nationalist ideology and promote future martyrs ironically confronts other ideological and religious aspects of martyrdom.

As Devji suggests, these stereotypes are reiterated time and again, here in the highly controversial Jyllands Posten cartoons. We also see such reductive and inflamatory images in films like The Kingdom and in newspapers, magazines, and television. This circulation of a public discourse around Muslims continually reinforces, without questioning, ideas about the stereotypical or "universal Muslim terrorist."

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