‘Long Road to Heaven’ – who’s up for the challenge?

Oleh Nuruddin Asyhadie

“What do you want? Why do you keep killing us? What good can possibly come of this?”

lrthHannah Catrelle, an American surfer, bombards Haji Ismail, a prominent Balinese Muslim, with such questions when they meet at a Bali hospital the night of the first Bali bombings, October 12, 2002.

Catrelle cannot accept that a paradise-like place has been afflicted by a tragedy similar to the one that took her boyfriend’s life in the 9/11 attacks. And, like many Westerners, she has trouble distinguishing all Muslims from terrorists.

“The people who do these terrible things have no understanding of Islam; of how great it is … They think that by doing this, they will get a shortcut to heaven. But there are no shortcuts to heaven. It is a long road,” Ismail answers her.

The exchange comes from a scene in the movie Long Road to Heaven, directed by well-known Indonesian director Enison Sinaro and produced by the American-company TeleProduction International together with Indonesia’s Kalyana Shira Films. It recently opened in Indonesia and will soon be submitted to international film festivals and markets.

The movie, written by Singaporeans Andy Logam Tan and Wong Wai Leng, questions militant jihad while trying to provide some insight as to how the concept of heaven has influenced humankind. The effort to reach paradise often results in violence and torment, contrary to the image of heaven itself.

With the 2002 Bali bombings as its background, Heaven weaves together four storylines, exploring the complexity of a “search for heaven” in a multi-layer plot. While each story takes place in a different time period, the film runs the four concurrently, interspersed with each other.

The first tale takes place a year before the 2002 bombings, at the point where the leaders of Jamaah Islamiyah (JI) and Mantiqi 1 – the two organizations responsible for the attacks – are plotting the operation. This strand focuses on the two organizations’ heads persuading Hambali, Al Qaeda’s highest ranking non-Arab member, to target Bali, given that a Caucasian male wearing a t-shirt inscribed with the words “I love Bali,” had once refused to share the elevator with him.

The second story takes place about a month before the bombings and follows Ali Imron and his conspirators as they execute their plan, focusing on the rivalry between them, as well their hidden or ulterior motives for carrying out the attack.

The third narrative takes place minutes after the bombings as volunteers and professionals work to rescue the wounded and identify the dead. Here, Catrelle, in her interaction with Ismail, confronts her prejudices against Islam and Muslims.

The fourth, and final, plot-strand, takes place a year after the bombings, when Australian journalist, Liz Thompson, visits Bali to research a story on the attack. Accompanied by Wayan Diya, her hired Balinese taxi driver, Thompson travels around interviewing the Balinese about their feelings on the bombers and the violence. But her attempts to find newsworthy perspectives fail. The constant reply is, “Life will get better.” From Diya, she learns that the Balinese believe life is about maintaining a balance in all things; they forgive evil and even see it as a punishment from the gods for their sins.

While aiming primarily to portray the tragedy, the movie cannot escape its ethical implications. On the one hand, it offers commiseration and concern in light of the terrible events. On the other, its artistic sweep and its entertainment-value seems somewhat insensitive to the grief of those bereaved.

“That is unavoidable. But we are not exploiting it. There are many lessons we can learn from the tragedy,” director Sinaro has said in response to such observations.

Sinaro is right. One of the film’s morals comes through the wise words spoken by Ismail to Catrelle: “All [the bombers] see are the little things. They can’t break free from the past. They can’t see beyond their own pain.”

While his words refer to the bombers, they also serve as an answer to the ethical questions raised by the film, demonstrating that the movie isn’t only a story of a “paradise lost” but also of a “paradise regained.” Hearing Ismail, Catrelle also realizes how her own prejudices, stemming from anger and grief over the death of her boyfriend in the 9/11 attacks, have lead her to feel blind hatred – the very emotion driving the Bali bombers, albeit to a different end.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the movie may be seen as a message to viewers that we need more than understanding to stop terrorism or violence. We need first to reconcile with ourselves, and step away from our own egos. Only then we can go to meet “the other” without any reservations.

These are not easy tasks, but, as Ismail points out in the film, the road to heaven is a long one. Who is up for the challenge?

This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

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