'Investigating Paradise' ('Tahqiq fel djenna'): Film Review | Berlin 2017

Courtesy of Berlinale
Absorbing, first-hand reporting.

Algerian director Merzak Allouache looks at the twisted religious rewards used to recruit jihadists.

What actually goes on in the head of a suicide terrorist, and who put it there? In Investigating Paradise (Tahqiq fel djenna), veteran Algerian director Merzak Allouache explores the appalling consequences of ludicrous ideas, specifically the prospect that an Islamic martyr is going to be attended by 72 willing virgins, the houris, the minute he enters paradise. Shooting in stark black-and-white and using an original blend of fiction and documentary techniques, Allouache looks at this erotic promise from a woman journalist’s point of view, revealing the vast socio-religious divide in his country as he teases out the politics of what the film calls “the theology of death.” A long but absorbing watch, it is both chilling in its implications and heartening in presenting intelligent Algerians who see clearly through the propaganda.

From the slum-think in Bab El Oued City to the drug-induced stupor of Madame Courage, Allouache has passionately described the social landscape of Algeria in an impressive body of films. Investigating Paradise contains more than two hours of interviews around the country, ranging from intellectuals to boys on the street, from the sophisticated capital to the exotic, traditional South. The directness with which he affronts the recruitment of jihadists has a startling fearlessness, and makes it well worth a look by broadcasters and niches in search of topicality. It drags a bit down the line, however, and some trimming in the last hour would be helpful.

The interviews are framed by the familiar device of a journalist, Nedjma (Salima Abada), who is attempting to make a film about the wine and women promised to youth who sacrifice their lives for Islam, promises made by radical preachers in online videos that have gone viral in the Mideast. Nedjma and her assistant Mustafa (Younes Sabeur) select one particularly distasteful version of this pseudo-teaching and present it to a wide range of Algerians for comment.

Most are taken aback by the preacher’s virulence and his obvious agenda to incite violence. As one writer sadly says, “We didn’t succeed in reforming Islam. A preacher in three minutes spoils millions of our children.” But many men on the street just smile and dream on. The women on the street flatly refuse to talk to the camera.

One person opines that sermons like the one in the video could incite a lost boy to blow himself up. And there are thousands of online videos extolling martyrdom. In Algiers, the owner of a cyber cafe has been told to monitor his young male customers for any suspicious activity. But most of the boys are not religious and come to look at dating sites and study how to get residence papers to live abroad.

Nedjma pursues the theological role of women in paradise with amusing insistence. While mothers and wives can be accepted into heaven and will enjoy privileges like wearing luxurious clothes while they provide companionship to their husbands and sons, she puts an interviewee on the spot when she asks him where single women fit into this gender-skewed paradise. (She lives with her mother and is clearly unmarried after 30.)

The filmmakers visit a Salafist mosque linked to the fundamentalist Islam coming out of Saudi Arabia known as Wahhabism, but they fail to get the radical preachers there to talk to them on camera. The Saudis are said to sink millions of dollars into over a thousand TV channels broadcasting religious programs. As one commentator notes, “ISIS began with culture, not war.”

It is repeatedly noted in the film, however, that the scabrous details bandied about concerning the 72 houris, their exciting bodies and their ability to arouse men while endlessly renewing their own virginity are not mentioned in the Quran.

After listening to all this twaddle, it’s a relief to hear straight-talking writer and journalist Kamel Daoud dub it “porno-Islamism” and “the tragi-comic sickness” of a sexually frustrated society where a man imagines he has to die to live. And a Mediterranean man at that, who has always loved his earthly pleasures.

In the last part of the film, Nedjma travels to a pilgrimage spot in the southern desert with her cameraman. Nobody will talk to her, especially the veiled women. But when she finally gets an interview with a revered religious figure, he has a very positive message: “First we must experience paradise on Earth.” Wise, enlightened people find the beauty of living, he says.

Though the documentary elements far exceed the fictional frame, there is a well-chosen moment when the two blend into one. Very simply, Allouache recalls Algeria’s dark decade of terrorism in the 1990s when Islamic rebels clashed with the government after their electoral victory was annulled. Nedjma and her mother go to a parking lot where her brother was killed by terrorists. This brief glimpse into the journalist’s personal life is all the more touching for being so low-key, but also motivates her angry search for answers.

Production companies: Les. Asphofilms, Baya Films
Cast: Salima Abada, Younes Sabeur Cherif, Aida Kechoud
Director: Merzak Allouache
Screenwriters-producers: Bahia Allouache, Merzak Allouache
Director of photography: Hocine Hadj Ali
Editor: Bahia Allouache
Music: Yahia Bouchaala
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama Documentary)
Sales: Les Asphofilms


135 minutes

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