Star power deflects attention from ongoing debate

Film still from Paradise Now: The two main characters prepare to become bombers

Last week in Ramallah, two major cinematic events took place; one was reported by the English-language press, while the other wasn’t. On April 6, the Ramallah Cultural Palace was packed with people for the second world screening of Hany Abu-Asad’s award-winning film Paradise Now. The following night, the same venue was filled with an invitation-only audience, consisting of youth bussed in from refugee camps and Palestinian ministers, to see the new Arabic-dubbed version of the 1982 Academy Award-winning film Gandhi.

However, Tuesday’s screening of Paradise Now, which was followed by a rigorous debate, was unreported by the New York Times, BBC, Jerusalem Post, and the numerous other media outlets that ran stories on Wednesday’s event and Gandhi star Ben Kingsley’s visit. The mostly upbeat stories on the Gandhi screening trumpeted the film’s message of nonviolent resistance, and how the “Gandhi Project” aims to screen the film all over the occupied Palestinian territories and refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, with the goal of inspiring pacifism as a means of resisting Israeli occupation.

But in many ways Abu-Asad’s film, which was filmed mainly in Nablus and Nazareth, and is a fictional portrayal of two would-be suicide bombers who come to doubt violence as a means of national resistance after their plans go awry, is a more interesting cultural catalyst. Because it was shot by a Palestinian-Dutch filmmaker in Palestinian cities, the film hits more closely to home than Gandhi, the biographical film chronicling the life of the celebrated Indian leader.

Receiving a fair amount of press after it won both the audience prize and the award for best European film at the Berlin Film Festival in February, Paradise Now is quiet and introspective, and its complicated characters can’t be written off as simply as glorified freedom fighters or terrorists. The film’s most dynamic character is a young man from Nablus named Said, the son of a collaborator, who despite his love interest Suha’s pleas to reconsider, goes to Tel Aviv on a bombing mission.

Said gains the audience’s empathy because he is emotionally vulnerable and fed romantic lines by his recruiter, such as “death is better than inferiority,” and because he is shown stagnating from the lack of opportunities in a besieged Nablus. But the audience also sympathizes with Suha, the daughter of an assassinated Palestinian hero, whose perspective is shaped by the fact that she was raised abroad, and begs Said to reassess suicide bombings as a morally sound and effective means of fighting the Israeli occupation. She tells Said, “If you kill, there is no difference between victim and occupier.”

After the film was screened in Ramallah, some objected in a discussion with the filmmaker that the film wasn’t factually accurate, and cited how the film improbably depicts the two would-be bombers as being trained in one day, and that the French-educated Suha doesn’t represent any visible part of Palestinian society. Some audience members were concerned that the film was compromised by being funded by Western sources.

A minister even went so far as charging the film with Orientalism, as he said the film only focused on the ugly parts of Nablus and Palestinian society. He was countered by other members of the audience, however, who thought the film was beautifully shot, and credited it with emphasizing the human dimension of suicide bombings, rather than the political dimension, making it relatable to all audiences. And when this reporter asked a few skeptical audience members that despite the various liberties the director took if they thought the filmmaker was accurate in depicting Palestine, the answer was yes.

Unfortunately, this compelling debate was completely unreported by the Western press. But plenty of journalists covered Ben Kingsley’s visit to promote Gandhi’s message of nonviolent resistance, as part of a project sponsored by a group of American businessmen, including Internet auction site eBay founder Jeff Skoll.

A BBC story on Wednesday’s Gandhi premiere described its goal “to school Palestinians in the Indian leader’s message of nonviolent resistance, and point the way to a possible resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The report completely omits any history of Palestinian nonviolent resistance and stands in stark contrast to the major Palestinian publications Al Quds and Al Ayyam, which almost daily feature a photograph of an Israeli soldier haranguing a nonviolent demonstrator protesting the West Bank wall.

The news story by the New York Times reduces the Palestinians’ history of nonviolent resistance to two sentences: “Palestinians argue that they have pursued nonviolent resistance at various times over the years, to no avail. Over the past two years, unarmed Palestinians have staged numerous protests against Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank, but they point out that their efforts have attracted relatively little attention.” However, the lead to the report on the Gandhi project already stated that, “For the Palestinians, nonviolent resistance has rarely been the guiding principle in their struggle with Israel.”

Naturally, this would offend many Palestinians who might cite their history of strikes and nonviolent resistance, which drove their 1936 peasant rebellion as well as the Intifada that erupted in the 1980s. Indeed, the Gandhi Project hasn’t exactly been embraced with open arms by an exhausted Palestinian society. Twenty-one-year-old Dea Opahi told the The Times of London that the situation of the Palestinians was too different than that of Gandhi’s India, and that “if we stopped resisting Israel, it would probably confiscate all the land left to us.”

This wasn’t the first time in recent months that Gandhi’s message of nonviolent resistance has been pitched to the Palestinians. Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson Arun visited the West Bank late last August, meeting with Palestinian leaders and participating in a demonstration at the Wall in Abu Dis, where he drew a comparison between the circumstances of the Palestinians to that of black South Africans during apartheid. However, while not rejected, the idea of nonviolent resistance as an effective means of overthrowing the Israeli occupation has been met with a fair amount of uncertainty by a people tired of violence but who witness Israeli settlement expansion and deal with severe movement restrictions on a daily basis.

In some ways, the futility of the American businessmen interested in showing Gandhi as a means of instilling nonviolent resistance as a guiding principle in the hearts and minds of young people in refugee camps is similar to that of Paradise Now’s character Suha trying to get Said to embrace the same idealistic principles. And the mostly doubtful reaction of Gandhi’s refugee audience members may have been predicted by that of Tuesday’s Paradise Now screening, many of whom rejected the lofty talk of Suha, who, because raised abroad, didn’t have to endure the worst of Israel’s horrors that Said lived first-hand.

Of course, there are some questions regarding the usefulness of screening Gandhi as a means of encouraging Palestinians to give up arms during their struggle for independence. Indeed, some might say that it presupposes that Palestinians aren’t already debating the usefulness of the violent tactics, including suicide bombings, employed against Israel during the past four years.

Recent polls indicate an erosion of support for suicide bombings — some 71 percent opposed the most recent suicide bombing attack in Tel Aviv — but this shouldn’t necessarily be taken as an indication of a movement amongst Palestinians toward pacifism as a means of achieving peace. Rather, it may be an indication of a feeling of general defeat. A poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) last month found that 65 percent of Palestinians in the territories did not believe that a “permanent peace with Israel was possible,” while only 3.1 percent thought that it was possible.

Perhaps what Tuesday’s screening of Paradise Now and these polls do demonstrate is that an argument over what tactics Palestinians should employ in their resistance against Israel does already exist. And what the prevalence of news stories on the Gandhi screening might indicate is ignorance amongst the Western press of this debate, and of the daily nonviolent resistance Palestinians employ individually or en masse throughout the West Bank.

This article was first published on 13 April 2005 in Palestine Report Online, a project of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center in Jerusalem, and is reprinted with permission. Palestine Report Online is a continuation of the print Palestine Report, which was established over twelve years ago as a means of informing English-speakers about Palestinians and their daily lives in the context of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Also in this week’s edition: Bush Sharon to abide by roadmap commitments as anger in Rafah erupts over three dead teens, and PR Online interviews Islah Jad on the Sharon-Bush press conference.

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  • BY TOPIC: Film
  • The myth of Gandhi and Palestinian reality, Ali Abunimah (8 September 2004)