copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 52, summer 2010

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.

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.

Reproducible bodies: a close reading

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.[20]

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.[21] 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.[22] 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.[23]

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.[24]

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.[25] 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.[26]

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,

“myth prefers to work with poor, incomplete images, where the meaning is already relieved of its fat, and ready for a signification” (127).

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.[27] 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.[30] 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.[31]

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.

Re-imaginings of a Palestinian Resistance

Bertell Ollman writes that the dialectic is revolutionary because

“it helps us to see the present moment through which our society is passing, because it forces us to examine where it has come from and where it is heading as part of learning what it is, and because it enables us to grasp that as actors, as well as victims, in this process in which everyone and everything are connected, we have to power to affect it” (18-19).

By refusing the spectacle of violence as well as the melodramatic rhetoric and stereotyping of one side as good and another as evil, Abu Assad leads us to see this “moment through which society is passing” and to observe both victims and oppressors as well as victims who might also be murderers. Without the distraction of spectacular violence the film moves beyond articulating  the colonial/anti-colonial struggle and pushes towards a third, or decolonized space for resistance, in line with Chatterjee’s decolonized imagination. This new space showcases the devastation reaped by this economy of retaliatory violence: the image track moves from destroyed families like Said’s or Suha’s to shots of a crumbling Nablus, in stark opposition to shots of a bright and sun-filled Tel Aviv.

In Dreams of a Nation, Edward Saïd writes that Palestinian cinema provides “a visual alternative, a visual articulation, a visible incarnation of Palestinian existence” that works against common media images of Palestinians as violent terrorists or heroes and represents a  “collective identity.” Therein lies the most subversive aspect of Abu Assad’s film: Paradise Now intervenes in, and complicates, a mediascape that generally depicts, and engages with, only two sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Paradise Now refuses the cathartic release of melodrama and the “pre-digested” message of the political thriller; the film offers a “visual alternative” and demands a new space for resistance, which emerges from and thrives on the heterogeneous nature of Palestinian identity itself.


1. Abu Assad’s attachment to a realistic setting, coupled with the cast and crew’s experiences while filming, create and reinforce a sense of imprisonment and claustrophobia in this location. Multiple shots of the border patrol, the fence on the border itself, men with guns, and the sound of bombs exploding lend to the film’s sense of entrapment and panoptical surveillance. Abu Assad’s desire for realism came with its own set of trials and tribulations: one member of the crew was kidnapped during filming and the whole crew and cast were made to sign waivers prior to entering Nablus that would relieve Israel from any responsibility if anyone were killed during the shoot (Garcia).

2. Hany Abu Assad contends: “We are in a moment in the world when the majority of people have one of two views on suicide bombers: either the bombers are criminals or super-heroes. My film is about destroying those prevailing perceptions, those images, to build a new perception. The film does not force viewers to change positions. It just allows them to experience things they will never experience in their own lives. So it has enemies on both sides. We are disturbing their established perceptions” (Georgakas & Saltz 17).

3. I primarily chose to use the term Palestinian Resistance instead of Jihad — meaning holy war — in this paper. This choice reflects the acknowledgement of the Palestinian Resistance and suicide bombing as non-religiously motivated acts of war. As the jihad and suicide bombing are often conflated in Western mass media, I have tried to be specific in my discussion of the Palestinian Resistance as separate from jihad, but it seems important to consider the Palestinian Resistance in the larger mediascaape that often figures that resistance movement as part of the jihad.

4. I am drawing here from Bertell Ollman’s discussion of dialectical thinking in Dialectical Investigations. He writes that dialectical thinking, “through establishing its connections tries to reconstruct the larger whole, dialectical research begins with the whole, the system, or as much of it as one understands, and then proceeds to an examination of the part to see where it fits and how it functions, leading eventually to a fuller understanding of the whole from which one has begun … a system whose functioning parts have been treated as independent of one another at the start can never be reestablished in its integrity” (12-13). Instead of treating only the violence, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or even just the two men, Abu Assad indicates a larger system which encapsulates the heterogeneous nature of the resistance, how its aspects mesh, and also its relation to Israel.

5. Devji is primarily referring to Al Quaeda and he uses jihad in his book; when referring to his work I will also use the term jihad. Also, the use of the term jihad calls attention to how the Palestinian Resistance, which is represented in the film, figures into the larger mediascape of suicide terrorism.

6. I am  using John Hill’s discussion of political thrillers here. In “Finding a Form: Politics and Aesthetics in Fatherland, Hidden Agenda and Riff-Raff,” Hill writes:

“Opponents of the political thriller have argued that, by virtue of a reliance on upon individual characters and stars with whom we identify, suspense which engages us emotionally rather than intellectually, the political thriller ‘makes up our minds for us.” It may challenge, as Hidden Agenda does, the prevailing ideologies of society, but 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).

Even though Abu Assad relies on the individual characters of the Said and Khaled within a script that sympathizes with them, he refuses the general “in the nick of time” or “too late” narrative trajectory of melodrama or more specifically of political thrillers. Nonetheless, this impulse — as a way to market to U.S. audiences — is picked up in the trailers for Paradise Now, a point I discuss in detail.

7. Vanity Fair reported on the U.S. involvement (under the Bush administration) in Israel and Palestine. David Rose writes that “the United States has been involved in the affairs of the Palestinian territories since the Six-Day War in 1967” and current U.S. involvement has been referred to as “Iran-Contra 2.0” with the Bush administration striking backroom deals with Fatah and making covert weapons deals with the party (194).

8. Fanon calls for this violence and discusses it as an equalizing force between colonizer and colonized — a point I will return to shortly.

9. The images of Nablus stand in stark contrast to the images of Jerusalem: the capital has large office buildings, wide streets, nice cars, and a beach replete with palm trees.

10. Though Benjamin’s essay is most commonly translated as “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” I am using a new translation, which translates the title differently. 

11. For example, The Kingdom opens with a violent and graphic assault on an U.S. housing compound in Saudi Arabia replete with shoot-outs and suicide bombers. The rest of the film then sets about tracking down and killing — in the nick of time — the “terrorists” responsible for the attack. The film taps into our fears and emotions and offers viewers — unlike Munich — a pre-digested moral, which celebrates a triumphant U.S. revenge in a world of Manichean dualities: Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) and his breaking-the rules type of team take out the villain and return home triumphant heroes.

12. Zizek  writes that corrupted by Hollywood, “the landscape and the shots of the collapsing towers could not be but reminiscent of the most breathtaking scenes in big catastrophe productions” (15).

13. Linda Williams suggests in Melodrama Revised that melodrama combines action and pathos, “that action-centered melodrama is never without pathos, and pathos-centered melodrama is never without at least some action” (58). The trailer for Paradise Now suggests this combination of action and pathos, despite the morally ambiguous nature of the film itself.

14. At the end of Munich Avner meets his wife and child in New York but is constantly haunted by his past actions: he blocks doors with chairs, he cannot sleep, and he even bursts into the Israeli embassy in a fit of rage and fear. Unsure of the actions he took in eliminating Black September, Avner leaves Mossad. As he develops a conscience, so too does the audience. As John Hill suggests in reference to the political thriller, the message of the film is “pre-digested” (115) as we sympathize with our hero, villain, and victim.

15. A.O. Scott suggests that the violence in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ seemed shocking at the time, but it “now seems fairly typical of mainstream popular cinema saturated with images of bodily torment” (22). As such, the distinct absence of any onscreen violence is almost shocking in Paradise Now in a mediascape where religious iconography and martyrdom are so clearly intertwined with notions of melodrama and violence.

16. USA Today reporting on the petition to remove Paradise Now’s Oscar nomination states that “Yossi Zur, an Israeli who lost his 17-year-old son in a suicide bombing three years ago, has mounted a campaign to revoke the Oscar nomination. Zur claims to have collected 33,000 signatures on a petition.”

17. In effect, Devji suggests, the jihad is then much more a product of global mass media, which disseminates the images of the Muslim terrorist, then it is a product of any traditional Muslim practices (87). As such, we might consider suicide bombing since the 1990s as inextricably intertwined with the forces of the global economy and mass media, rather than tied to any particular religious affiliation.

18. It is relevant here to note the Danish cartoon scandal that began in late 2005 but really gained international notoriety in January 2006. Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten printed a series of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, which aroused rage across the international Muslim community—it even spawned death threats for the cartoonists whose work was printed and incited riots. One of the more problematic caricatures featured the face of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. Jyllands Posten’s editor-in-chief Carsten Juste replied: "We live in a democracy. Satire is accepted in this country, and you can make caricatures. Religion shouldn't set any barriers on that sort of expression" (BBC). Though the newspaper eventually issued an apology, it insisted that it had only been exercising its right to freedom of speech, while Muslims both in Denmark and across the world felt that the cartoons were aimed at expressing anti-Muslim hatred. At a meeting, key Muslim leaders expressed deep concern over the cartoons decrying the “use of freedom of expression as a pretext for defaming religions” (BBC). This kind of tension defines the media landscape of Western/Middle Eastern and Muslim relations. In this case, the media became responsible for inciting violence and outrage at images, many of which connoted to the Muslim community a tie between Islam and violence.

19. In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson suggests that print-capitalism “laid the bases for a national consciousness” (44) and set the stage for the modern nation. For Anderson these communities were linked and fixed within a certain space — a concept that the stretch of global communication has complicated substantially. Furthermore, (and importantly) for Anderson the modern nation is inherently a European form.

20. I am drawing here from Roland Barthes’ claim that myth “transforms history into nature” (129). Thus, to reveal that myth is a construction rather than a truth, it must be made to appear strange. To that end, this scene showing repeated takes with the video camera de-naturalizes the “authentic image” of the Muslim terrorist and reveals it as myth rather than reality.

21. In an interview Abu Assad comments on the final meal: “From their own point of view… crucifixion is also about redemption, and taking the guilt of others. Said wants to take the guilt of his father, who was a collaborator, so it's very dramatic. Also, Da Vinci's painting is lit from above, from God. Mine is lit from a gas lamp” (Christianity Today). Furthermore, similar to Da Vinci’s work the two men are still the ones who are lit while the rest of the table sits in shadow.

22. Chuck Kleinhans suggests that in the torture scenes in Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (partial drowning of the FLN rebels by the French forces) that the rebels are lit, shot, and positioned so as to resemble a the chiaroscuro of a Caravaggio painting “Descent from the Cross.” The replication of Renaissance painting in Paradise Now and the equation of resistant forces with Christ also seems a nod to Pontecorvo and to a larger history or tradition of resistance and martyrdom.

23. It also seems interesting to consider representation and worship of Christ — to whom the men are compared to through the reproduction of the Last Supper. Christ’s images have long been disseminated across the world, and paintings of Christ hang in many of the most famous museums of the West. This line of thinking also brings up religious issues around representation. That is, Christianity does not prohibit the representation of Christ or God, whereas Islam typically prohibits the representation of divine figures. That said, this issue, too, arose with the problems surrounding the Danish cartoon controversy mentioned earlier.

24. The explosive devices the men wear have a design imported from the Tamil Tigers and as such connote a relation to Marxism but also solidarity between oppressed non-religious groups across the world.

25. Also, the way the organization works on a larger level resembles a similar production process. There is a leader, a handler, a driver, anonymous members who perform the washing and dressing, etc. Together all these different parts work to produce Said and Khaled as suicide bombers.

26. The way I read the prayer sequence which comes near the end of the montage sequence is informed by both the initial repetition of takes to make the video and camera failure and also by the technologically stylistic montage sequence. To this end, it seems the prayer sequence calls attention to the repetition of gestures that have significant religious and cultural meaning. However, when rehearsed and filmed, these gestures begin to lose their firm grounding in tradition.

27. It seems significant here to note that earlier in the film Said, while getting a picture of himself developed, questions the cost of the martyr and collaborator videos shown in the store. The clerk replies that the tapes are both for rent or for sale, and tries to offer Said and Suha a good deal on the tapes. The clerk specifies that the collaborator tapes are particularly valuable. This point is particularly relevant to Said, whose father was killed as a collaborator. His own decision to become a suicide bomber seems in part linked to his father’s betrayal. Abu Assad uses this incident to highlight the commodification process and capitalistic marketplace that surrounds the production and reproduction of these martyr and collaborator tapes and posters, but also to trace out personal or unique experiences that both support and propel this market and work against the commodification of men and martyrs.

28. Unlike the trailers the posters for the film convey a different sense. The images on the posters and DVD-covers for the film both reify and complicate the reduction of the two characters to their use-value as nameless martyrs. All the images are “post-transformation” images and all of them show virtually no identifying characteristics. Instead, the posters and DVD-covers feature the image of a faceless martyr with a bomb strapped to his chest or merely show the backs of the two friends in suits after the transformative martyr-making process. Here again the marketing is set up in opposition to the film’s own narrative and visual style. The poster and DVD cover belie that this is a film about humanization. They erase the individuality of the main characters by marketing them as a commodity, an identity-less bomb. At the same time, the clean-cut image of Said and Khaled complicates the notion of the “universal Muslim.” Said’s face turns to the left revealing his profile and I suggest that trace still can be read as a manifestation of the tension between the universal and the individual represented in the film

29. Hamid Dabashi’s gloss of Heidegger seems particularly apt and concise.Heidegger provides a further helpful example in “The Question Concerning Technology” that also demonstrates this principle:

“The coal that has been hauled out in some mining district has not been supplied in order that it may simply be present somewhere or other. It has been stockpiled; that is, it is on call, ready to deliver the sun’s warmth that is stored in it. The sun’s warmth is challenged forth for heat, which in turn is ordered to deliver steam whose pressure turns the wheels that keep a factory running” (15). 

What Heidegger calls attention to here is the causal relationship between coal, sun, power, and production. The coal that is stockpiled does not exist there for its own purposes or uses but is put to use in a way that aims to extract from it the most energy and production value possible. Furthermore, technology conceals this relation. This image of stacked coal also calls up images of a standing army, waiting to be called into action, and always kept ready for use in battle—as in the case of the terror cells in Paradise Now. Similarly, Marx also wrote extensively on the reserve army of labor in capitalism: the unskilled, last hired, and first fired, who are useful for times of economic expansion and depression. Furthermore, it is important here to note Marx’s extensive work on the commodity and his notion of use value. For Marx, in capitalism the commodity’s use value obscures, and is separate from, its social or personal value. When mapped onto Paradise Now this notion further helps us understand the necessary distancing or erasure of the men’s social, personal, or individual value as sons, friends, lovers, etc. in order for them to become human bombs. Only once this distancing or erasure occurs, can the men become commodities to be fetishized (and used) as martyrs.

30. It seems interesting to note here, too, that when all does not go according to plan, what happens is viewed as a malfunction, Said is thought to have gone rogue. The two men were expected to work in perfect harmony, relying on cell phones and their own efficiency. Furthermore, their work as machines for the resistance is complicated by Said’s first visit to Israel. At that point, Said waits at a bus stop to board a bus with Israelis. We see multiple close-up shots and then a shot of a child on the bus. Said lets the bus pass him by. When he finally does get on a bus, it is a bus full of army officers or recruits rather than civilians. This initial mishap, including Said’s crossing the border, return to Nablus, and brief disappearance in which he visits his father’s grave, seems important as it points towards the personal reasons for Said’s decision to become a suicide bomber and suggests the importance of such individual narratives as Said’s.

31. Also, by “larger machine” we can consider this resistance as part of that larger unthinking machine mentioned earlier that is locked in the colonial/anti-colonial struggle.

32. To re-visit Devji briefly seems useful here: he argues that “the jihad is experienced visually, as a landscape initially made available by the way of international media and then redacted in conversation, posters, literature, art-work and the like” (93).

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