Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Hani Abu-Assad's Reply to my Review of His Film, Paradise Now. A friend of mine sent Hani Abu-Assad a copy of my review of his latest movie, Paradise Now. He replied with a most thoughtful and careful message although I still disagree with him, especially toward the end when he seems to imply that Palestinians should fight Israeli brutality with books and pencils. I shall reproduce his letter below, after obtaining his permission. I was so impressed with his sincerity that I will spare him my annoying ritual of nit-picky and tedious rebuttals and counter-rebuttals:
"Dear (),
Thank you for sending me Dr. As'ad Abukhalil's review. In general, I don't react to reviews. I find films are an individual experience, and everybody is entitled to interact with and read them as they wish. Reviews usually tell more about the reviewer than the film. To react will always put me in a defensive position, which I hate. But in this case, because some people I care about have similar judgments, I felt there was a need to put this on paper once and for all. For myself, in the first place, and also for you.
I can't take anyone seriously who speaks on behalf of "the audience". As long as I've been in this field, I've been surrounded by people (producers, writers, critics, professors) who claim to know how the audience will interpret a film, and reduce the audience to one person. One thing I can assure you is that nobody can predict how audiences will react or comprehend, including me. I don't believe in the "one audience", and for sure not the "Western" audience. What does that mean—who is the "Western Audience"? People who live in a certain place, or have certain thoughts, or share a certain political leaning, or the racist, dominant white men, or those exposed to western film genres? After defining the Western Audience, does that mean there are no differences between the well-educated and the less-educated, the influential and the less-influential, the professionals and the hobbyists, the rich and the poor, the average or the eccentric, etc.? Not to mention the fact that much research has proved that one's personal external circumstances at the time of viewing a film will greatly influence their reaction. It has even been proven that with time, through their greater enrichment of experience, the same person will change their interpretation of a film. Neglecting these facts, reducing all these people to one person and claiming that you know how they're going to read a film, without doing any serious research, will not result in me taking the review seriously. Funny enough, there is an Israeli writer named Irit Linor who approached the film from the same logic as Dr. As'ad, but concluded differently. She found it an anti-Semitic, Nazi film because she thought the audience would conclude that it only corroborates the prejudice that exists against the Jews and defends the idea of exterminating them. I only take seriously the critic who writes how he or she personally reads the film, not those who claim to know how others will, unless there is proven research from the field. (Even research does not constitute complete proof. It is always swayed by methods and agendas.)
For marketing purposes, we did conduct a small study before the film was distributed and before people started writing about it (as this too influences how one views the film.) Every film is an experiment, and because I don't believe you can be sure how audiences will react, I wanted to be sure that I wasn't unintentionally serving the dominant politics. We couldn't conduct a large-scale study—even big studios don't have the money for that. We exposed the film to a group of 80 people with all different levels of knowledge, cultures, and social classes, both supportive of and against suicide bombing. The results were remarkable. Those who were more supportive of suicide bombing, mostly Arabs, identified more with Khaled, yet 68% of them felt he made the right choice in not committing the act. Those who condemned suicide bombing, mostly Europeans and Americans, identified more with Said, and 61% felt he had no other choice than to go on with the mission. One of the reactions from a "white, unconsciously racist, dominant, western" man, was both to identify with the "terrorists" and feel uncomfortable for doing so. Another reaction, from one of the most influential men in the world, whose name we can't disclose, was, "I've never understood Palestinian suicide bombers or their acts. This film makes me identify, and at the end of the film to feel that what the protagonist did was right." A Palestinian man who was pro-suicide bombing was surprised to find that he felt pain at the sight of bombs being strapped onto the protagonists' torsos. Most likely for this reason, he also indicated that he had to reevaluate his position on suicide bombing. Still another remarkable reaction from a Jordanian man who called himself in favor of suicide bombing was that there was no need to continue it now that the film itself had visually done the job. I have to say, there were a variety of contradictory reactions. The Iranians were the first to buy the film, not the American distributors. The only conclusion we could draw was that the film serves as a mirror to the viewer. Of the 80 subjects, 41% identified the most with Said, 28% with Khaled, 12% with Said’s mother, 7% with Suha, 2% with the leader Abu Karem, 1% with Jamal, and 8% with nobody. Of the latter 8%, less than half were Israelis. These numbers mean nothing—I know the question can’t be answered with black or white responses, and these people can’t be an accurate representation of all human beings. But still, the most revealing number to me was the high percentage of viewers who said the film had caused them to reconsider their stance on Palestinian suicide bombing. This made me sure that the film did not serve simply to deepen and perpetuate prior prejudices.
In any case, I never have nor will ever make a film for the purpose of changing the opinions of an audience (not an Eastern, nor certainly a Western audience—mostly they will follow their political interests despite what they think about us.) Nor will I make films to perpetuate or destroy prejudice. Most of all, I won’t make films to prove our quarter, half or full humanity. What is our reference point, what are the criteria? To whom should we prove this? Who is more human than we? Who decides the scale of humanity? It is not worth it to convert any person who views another as less human than he. The question has to be: is the character a stereotype, or does he behave according to his own logic? Nonetheless, as we all are, I am wary of unintentionally aiding the political agenda of the enemy.
I make films in order to survive, in order to exist, in order to resist, and to make beauty from ugliness. To tell the oppressor, "no matter how powerful you are, human beings will always be able to create beauty from the destruction you wreak." The best way is to try to be honest, to use a specific reality to tell a universal tragedy in a pioneering way. Occasionally, as a consequence, this will result in opening the mindsets of some, gaining respect from others—in my case, the accolades I received in Cairo, Dubai, Beirut, Tehran, South Africa, Europe and Hollywood. It is important to note that those who bestowed the Golden Globe were a group of non-American film journalists working in the United States, while the Academy Award nomination came from a group of American Academy members (people working in the film sector) who mostly looked at the innovative quality of the film. Of course, the quality of “innovation” is subjective. And clearly, there have been scores of innovative Arabic films. But pure originality is not enough. In order to be nominated, the film must also appear at the right time and place (luck). And by “luck” I mean that the film needs a distributor who has enough connections to push it to be seen. Most foreign films never get the chance to be seen, as they have no distributor.
The American distributor of Paradise Now decided to pick it up not because he was fulfilling expectations. According to him, his profession dictates that he watch more than four films a day. He mostly watches them while talking, eating, making calls, etc. Foreign, subtitled films hold even less of his attention. Yet Paradise Now engaged him from beginning to end. He explained that as a producer/distributor, his company spends millions on special effects, action, score, and other devices to help spark attention. Paradise Now has none of this, yet even so the distributor was nailed to his seat throughout its 90-minute duration. The film shocked him not only with its artistic quality, but with its ability to make him see things he’d never seen before, to make him understand and identify with a character he’d never dared try to understand. He said he felt the film could make a difference in changing preconceptions. This was Paul Federbush of Warner Independent. When he bought it and reported back to his boss, he was expecting to be fired. When his boss in turn saw the film, he acknowledged both its power and the risk it represented and chose to assign all the responsibility to Paul.
I thanked Sally Field because....
We are all living under the dominant Western civilization. Never before in history has a civilization dominated and influenced the world as has what they call the current "Western civilization". For example, it has destroyed an entire parallel civilization here in the Americas—the Indian civilization. Their technology influences even my mother's prayer. Sixty-five years ago, the then-dominant part of this civilization tried to totally eliminate the Jews among them. When they didn't totally succeed, the other part of this civilization tried to combine their dual interests of keeping the Middle East under control for military and economic reasons and smothering their awakened conscience by designating Palestine as a homeland for the Jews. We lost our control over the land, over our lives, and became prey to those who were militarily stronger. The differences in military, political, economic, and technological strength between us and Israel is inhuman. The Israelis now have time and historical circumstances on their side, allowing them to be strong and well-organized as group. They use the ugly side of civilization (fighter planes, tanks, missiles, checkpoints, secret service, economic and political pressure) to oppress us, to make us forget our rights to the land, our rights to self-determination as a people, our equality as human beings, and if not, to destroy us. We the creative people of Palestine have no choice but to use the beautiful side of civilization (literature, art, science) in order to resist, help maintain our case and protect our differences. In the coming times we can't be well-organized as a group, but as individuals we have to be superior in our fields. If I want to make a film, it has to be the best film. This will guarantee (and I don't decide this, just history) that the film as a piece of art will survive and remain in history, which will help keep our cause alive.
.Fifty years from now, I can assure you that the fighter planes all the Israeli intelligentsia spent their energy, time and money on will have turned to dust, and our good books or paintings will remain, their value only greater. They should know that.
I once asked myself why the Jews, among all the other groups and religions stemming thousands of years ago, are one of the few that survived. How did their Hebrew language, which slept for two millennia, become alive again? I think it's because of the Book. Dominant nations of that time (Babylon, the Pharaohs, the Romans) invested in domination. They have all now vanished, as nations and as languages. After the Jews lost control of the land and did not succeed in becoming a big, dominant nation, they invested their energy and knowledge in the Book—the Bible. At that time, one of the most popular art forms across cultures was mythological stories. The writers of the Book gathered these stories and wrote their part-factual and part-fictional accounts of history. The artists didn't put their names on it and claimed it to be the word of God—a masterpiece. This inspired Jesus and his apostles, and Mohammad did the same. The Bible—a piece of art—created a nation from dust and a claim for all time. They (the “chosen” people) now claim their rights to the land (the “promised” land) because of a piece of art.
We, the Palestinian artists, cannot do the same for many reasons. It's a different time, and we don't want to repeat the tragedy. But what I hope we can do is create a superior art, not for exclusionary purposes, but to help find answers to the problems posed by modern society and a vision for the future of the human race. The dominant stagnant social, economic and political system is in crisis, destroying all cultural difference and enslaving human beings to the endless pattern of consumption. This complex system has become even more powerful than its human subjects. Its incompetent leaders have no serious solutions to the growing political, socioeconomic and environmental problems. Their behavior consists in simply shifting attention from the real problems to the ludicrous confrontation between rich and poor and calling it a “clash of civilizations.” If we have no answers, then we must question and search. We must pass on the voice of wisdom, give rise to a new vision, discover a new mode of communication, reproduce meaning.
There are no rules regarding how to make superior art—it depends on time, place, talent—but we have to keep the hope within us. Part of the Jewish people (most of the Israelis) exchanged the Book for the land and control over others. Instead of investing in humanity, science and art, they decided to invest in the science of oppression. We the Palestinians, then, have no other choice but to rewrite the Book.
In my field, cinema, one of the important general conditions necessary for films to remain in libraries and film students to watch them again and again is that they transform a specific experience into a universal and timeless one. They must always transcend their subject matter and move the viewer to a place and time they've never before experienced. They must contain a large proportion of beauty and achieve in their artistic form something no other film has achieved. I don't know how to accomplish this, but I know what I did with Paradise Now (which doesn't guarantees that the film is a work of art—history, critics and a majority of reactions will decide that.)
What I did with Paradise Now is take a formulaic film language—a genre, the thriller, a very artificial language—and remove the artificiality to tell a story as close to reality as possible. I used the formula, but created new rules in an attempt to translate the tragedy.
I have to say, translation is always a tragedy in itself. Why? Because you use the dominant formula, which was created to reduce people into a single audience of consumers. It simplifies all in terms of the good, the bad and the ugly in an effort to turn the viewer from a thinker to a passive receiver. Certainly, creating a film language that comes out of the experience is safer, but also tragic, because almost no one will understand it—not even the owners of the tragedy.
By changing the rules, you hope that the translation is less catastrophic. I did so through the following:
1. I made the genre less artificial and manipulative (no music, no special effects, etc.) and didn’t choose to solely highlight the high points of the drama. I tried to shoot in real time and in the actual locations as much as possible.
2. The experience is not that of the "average white man from Ohio," but that of a specific Palestinian in Nablus (Said).
The translation of a different experience allows many people outside of that place to feel familiar with it, and to reject Tel Aviv when they see it at the end.
3. All of the characters are multi-dimensional (except Suha's character). The "good" and the "bad" is in them, not outside of them, which makes them complex and very similar to the character of Hamlet. All the characters have conflict within them and behave differently than how they talk. All of them move. Mostly, in this genre, the characters are flat and one-dimensional.
4. The film tries to ask more questions than answer them.
5. The film carves a small story out of a gigantic experience.
Through this, I tried to use a popular art form to document part of my personal history. I attempted to repaint the story no longer from the mythological point of view but from that of current reality. To kill yourself with your enemy is a Biblical story. The story of Samson already tells us that people prefer to kill themselves together with their enemies rather than accept humiliation. I believe the story of Samson never happened, but was written as a fable in order to tell us something about human beings and humiliation. Unfortunately, the same story is now happening on the same land, with different people. It’s no longer a fable, but a reality. If I wanted to repaint it, I had to take it beyond its subject. Instead of concluding that people choose to kill themselves with others rather than accept humiliation, which has already been done, I began with this point and then tried to open the discussion about morality and its relevance. To be or not to be. The Last Supper also happened 2,000 years ago in Palestine, not in Italy. Leonardo Da Vinci painted as if the light came from God. I tried to repaint it in a new medium in a place not far from where it happened, but with the light coming from a neon lamp.
We the Palestinians are a human phenomenon facing a gigantic colonizer, and we refuse to give up.
What’s more, our colonizer doesn’t simply want to pillage our resources under the guise of “civilizing” us, it wants us off the land altogether. We are facing a project of ethnic cleansing. Our only weapons are persistence, knowledge, culture and art. The role of art in this case is to be so creative as to change our specific case into a universal one without losing authenticity or the differences of details. It must feel real without generalizing or stereotyping. Oppression necessitates a militarily strong, organized group, but art necessitates talented individuals whose conscience is not for sale. A superior book or a beautiful painting will persist throughout history as a metaphor for humanity in all times and all places. Let the Israelis put all their energy into the science of oppression, serving the interests of a civilization that not long ago made them into soap in order to protect the narrow idea of a Jewish state. Let the Palestinians instead put all of their energy into the science of the human....
Hany Abu-Assad"