"This is a terrorist film!" the man roared through the darkened auditorium where hundreds of viewers, mostly Israeli, were watching "Paradise Now," a deeply controversial film about two suicide bombers. "You have no right to play this in Israel," he bellowed, with his wife joining in: "Terrorists, terrorists!" The outburst prompted a quick smattering of applause from some, but others were clearly angry.
"Shut up and sit down!" snapped one. "If you don't like it, leave!" Four months after its release, the controversy surrounding the 90-minute film shot entirely in Arabic has not abated, particularly with the film now in the running for a best foreign language Oscar.
The story tells the tale of two childhood friends who volunteer for a double suicide bombing. It is set mainly in the northern West Bank city of Nablus, but also in the coastal city of Tel Aviv, the intended target of their attack.
Set over a period of 48 hours, the story twists and turns as the director seeks to explore the strength of their motivation, their doubts and fears until the finale, when one goes ahead and the other backs out.
For many in Israel, the film is little more than a gratuitous attempt to glorify those behind the deaths of hundreds of Israelis.
For Palestinians, it is a rare attempt to try to show something of the human face behind the headlines and the process, which leads to such an extreme act.
First, I'm very impressed that this film is being screened in Israel at all. Second, I can understand why people might be angered by it, as its depictions of the pre-bombing procedures, the ablutions, the videotaped declarations and farewells, the strapping on of explosives, and the calm rationalizations and instructions of the Hamas controllers are chilling. They are meant to be. But the charge that the film is "pro-terrorist" is nonsense. The clear message with which I came away from the film was that the suicide bombings have done virtually nothing to advance the Palestinian cause, have provided the perfect excuse for Israel to intensify their military presence and ramp up settlement expansion, and serve primarily as a way for emasculated Palestinian men, after a lifetime of humiliation and brutality at the hands of their Israeli occupiers, to stick it to The Man (and his women and children) one time. It did not make me more sympathetic to terrorism, but it did help me to better understand what creates it.
I think the more interesting controversy is whether to classify the film as "Palestinian."
Many Israelis were irked when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in publishing the nomination, said Paradise Now came from Palestine.
While the tag remains on the academy's website, an Israeli diplomat said he expected the film to be described as coming from the Palestinian Authority during the awards ceremony.
"Both the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles and several concerned Jewish groups pointed out that no one, not even the Palestinians themselves, have declared the formal creation of Palestine yet, and thus the label would be inaccurate," the diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The film involved Palestinian crews, an Israeli producer and European funding.
The writer-director, Hany Abu-Assad, is an Arab Israeli. I think it would be reasonable to classify the film as being from Israel-Palestine, but ultimately I think it should be left up to the filmmakers.