Return to Paradise
By: Khaled Abou El Fadl, Visiting Professor at the UCLA School of Law (October 1998)
[Editors note: The following commentary reveals some plot details. Readers who have not seen the film may want to bookmark this site and return to read this commentary after they have seen the film.]
I agree with Michael Asimow and Stan Ross that Return to Paradise is an excellent film. It is beautifully made and it does raise critical ethical issues concerning justice and the limits of professional responsibility. But even so, the film raises serious moral questions about how we, as a society, see and construct the foreign "other." In this regard, at many levels, the film is offensive not only to Malaysians, but also to Muslims in general. It is precisely because the film is so powerful, that its effect is particularly offensive.
Throughout the film, as the camera looks over the urban Malaysian landscape, one hears the Muslim call to prayer. A connection is immediately formed between the unfolding plot in Malaysia and the Muslim factor. The photography associated with the distant call to prayer emphasizes the alien and inaccessible nature of Muslim culture. Malaysian and Muslim culture are rendered foreign, distant and exotic.
Next, the film exploits the all-too-familiar stereotypical construct of "qadi justice" as impulsive, emotional and unrestrained by principle or precedent. After the repentant and humbled main character, Sheriff, shows up at the clemency hearing, the Malaysian Chief Justice declares that this principled and ethical young man has restored the Justices faith in humanity. At that point, the Chief Justice calls for a recess after which, pursuant to the plea agreement, he would commute Lewis death sentence. But during the recess, the Chief Justice happens to read an article which appears in an American newspaper. The movie makes it clear that the article is critical of Malaysian justice. Returning from the recess, the Chief Justice is unable to restrain his anger, and after a lengthy tirade against America, he reneges on the plea bargain agreement and sentences the extremely sympathetic character of Lewis to death.
Unfortunately, this is entirely consistent with the stereotypical image of "qadi justice" or the Muslim judge who acts largely on emotion, and who suffers sharp mood swings based on the particular emotional stimulants of the moment. Importantly, it also affirms the image of a judge who puts politics before principle and who, like the politics he represents, is volatile and unpredictable. Sheriff, who happens to be American and not a Muslim, restores our faith in humanity by doing the right thing. The Chief Justice, on the other hand, has a highly political and even tribal understanding of ethics and justice. Ultimately, Lewis will die not because of his own sins but because of the sins of his tribe ( i.e. the American people or their culture).
Right before Lewis is dragged away to be hung in an extremely painful and heart-wrenching scene, the film shows the Malaysian prison guards performing Muslim prayer. There are two points here. First, as is the case with the vast majority of Hollywood movies, the Muslim prayer performed on-screen has little resemblance to actual Muslim prayer. This is not a minor point. One would think that considering the number of movies that show Muslims praying, that someone would eventually get it right. Rather, Muslims are shown prostrating up and down repeatedly emphasizing the alien and exotic nature of Muslim culture.
Second, Malaysia is only about 50% to 55% Muslim. There is no reason for the film to assume that the prison guards who would carry out the inhumane execution would necessarily be Muslim. Furthermore, secular Muslim countries avoid hiring prison guards who are religious or who are practicing Muslims. For pragmatic reasons, governments in Muslim countries are always concerned that a religious prison guard would sympathize with imprisoned Islamists or Muslim fundamentalists. From conversations with Malaysians, my understanding is that the same holds true for Malaysia. In any case, by showing the guards in prayer immediately before the execution, a strong and emotional association is created in the mind of the viewer between the cruelty and injustice of the impending event and Muslim practices and religiousity. Furthermore, having created this emotional nexus between the symbols of Islamic culture and brutality, all the inhumane sufferings of Lewis become symptomatic of the nature of Islamic justice. As such, the film, largely by inference, reinforces the stereotype that Islamic justice is unpredictable, brutal and unforgiving.
In summary, I agree that as a work of popular culture this film raises intelligent and engaging questions about law and justice. But as we applaud such efforts, it is important that we do not applaud the tendency of some works of popular culture to reduce the foreign "other" into a prejudiced and ethnocentric stereotype.