Louder Than Bombs

Making it plain: Director Hany Abu-Assad on the set of 'Paradise Now'
Warner Independent Pictures

The story told in Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now ends where it begins for most people: with a suicide bombing on a bus in Israel. With the blast, the screen goes white: There is no afterward. When Abu-Assad appeared after a Walker Art Center screening of the film in October, some anti-violence members of the audience argued for footage of the bloody results. "We know the consequences already," the Palestinian director reminded them. "We don't know what happened before. Cinema is about making visible what is invisible."

With Paradise Now, Abu-Assad set out to make a movie about a Palestinian driven to kill via his own death, because, the director stressed, he was "curious" about this tragic phenomenon. "[Movies] can take you somewhere that in reality you can't or you don't want to go," he said. Because he didn't want to "teach," he made his film a debate that nobody wins, where Palestinian argues with Palestinian about tactics and heaven and accepting or refusing the endgame of the oppressor. Because he is a filmmaker, he made it a thriller, with artificial plot turns to ratchet up the suspense. And because he thought if you mixed fictional suspense with a suspenseful reality, "maybe you will have something interesting," he decided to film within the West Bank, in the city of Nablus.

"It was very difficult to move even," Abu-Assad stressed of the filming, which not incidentally provides a tour of the crumbling, dusty, crowded world behind the headlines. "It was very dangerous for us. At the end we survived, but I won't do it again." A rueful grin glances across his face. "And I think it was a very stupid idea."

Stupid in terms of his cast and crew's personal safety, perhaps. In terms of the film's impact, however, the location scout did no wrong. When, in the final minutes, the bomber moves through the gleaming skyscrapers and stores of Tel Aviv, the contrast between Israel's wealth and the battered and crushed environs of the Palestinians couldn't be clearer. "I will not go back to that refugee camp," vows the bomber, and the line resonates on and on, speaking of humiliations economic, cultural, and historical; of the daily reminder that one is worthless and the consequent desire to be significant (and the terrible mixture of those two emotional realities represented by suicide bombing).

Offering this much explanation--if not justification--for a vicious act will offend many people, of course. Such offense is articulated here by the character of Suha (Lubna Azabal), a human rights worker who is pointedly the daughter of a "martyr" for Palestine. Suha's passionate discussions with the two men who have signed up for martyrdom (only one of whom will carry through) do not break new ground; they are old arguments. But Azabal and especially Kais Nashef, as would-be bomber Said, bring so much emotional depth to their interactions (not to mention sexual chemistry, here an argument for living) that the viewer hears their words again fresh with renewed awareness of the stakes. Their intense characterizations bring a reminder, too, of the incredible frustration of having to live with the choices of those ostensibly on your "side."

Abu-Assad reserves his scorn for those floating above these fervent negotiations: the operators of the suicide bombing business, the boss men (big and small) of the Intifada. He shows them as CEOs preying on the Palestinians' outraged dignity, marketing martyrdom. One middleman cannot even pretend engagement as he describes what happens after self-immolation: "Two angels will pick you up," he says nonchalantly, glancing away from the man he has shaped into a tool. In one amazing scene, the camera videotaping the young man's vehement suicide statement keeps breaking down; repeated, awkwardly, the prepared words become meaningless.

At the Walker, someone asked how the film had been received in the streets where it was filmed. "The Palestinians are living in a very lot of pain," Abu-Assad responded. "They want a movie that is screaming, 'We are suffering! We are suffering!' Some of them want to see the suicide bomber as a superhero. Israelis want to see it as a vicious killer.

"I will not force people to change their minds." But he will, in giving his bomber a name, face, and family, claim humanity for him. "The Palestinians lost the land," the director stressed. "We have no other thing but to tell the story."

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