Paradise Now is about two young men. Any further description compels a discussion of language, politics and morals-and is likely to offend somebody. But that's just what the filmmaker wants: Hany Abu-Assad's characters, Saïd (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), are car mechanics until they strap bombs to their bodies. If I call them "suicide bombers," you will go on reading, but if I describe them as "soldiers" or "heroes" in the struggle for a Palestinian homeland, or just "bombers," maybe you won't go on reading. Maybe you'll accuse me of siding with terrorists and of being anti-Semitic. You'll call my editor and ask him what sort of magazine he's running. You're the reason Hany Abu-Assad-who happens to be a Palestinian-made this movie.
Paradise Now may change your opinion about the type of man or woman who sets out to kill by strapping a bomb to their body, or it may not. Either way, you're forced to think about them, the bombers-their towns, their families, their faces, their fears. Whatever Abu-Assad's motives were for making Paradise Now, his film isn't about politics. It's about two men. It is about how they are recruited to be bombers, how they decide to spend the last night before they die, and how in the face of death they conjure meaning for their existence-not in deciding to kill or not to kill, but in knowing, more keenly than the rest of us, who they are.
Much of what is depicted in Paradise Now was gleaned from survivors, from bombers who changed their minds, and those who were captured before they detonated their bombs. Some of it comes from videos made by the bombers before they embarked on their missions. These videos are broadcast throughout the Arab-speaking world, they're available for rental at video stores, and the names of those who appear in them are revered by some and remembered by many. Abu-Assad read the accounts and spoke to the families of the bombers. His research is evident in the screenplay, in the depth of his characterizations, and in the questions we're left to contemplate, for there are many more questions than there are answers.
Saïd and Khaled are not religious fanatics or rabid nationalists. In fact, bombers are rarely active members in the organizations that recruit them. While many mention the death of relatives at the hands of the Israeli army in their videos, not all are driven by revenge, nor are they motivated by a belief that they will ascend directly to heaven. Saïd (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) have heard rumors about Paradise, but in the end they're not sure they believe them. Like Saïd and Khaled, bombers are not for the most part despairing and unhappy; they're men with families who love them and who know nothing of their plans to die.
Abu-Assad shot much of Paradise Now in Nablus, where the Israelis conduct daily raids, and where various factions of the Palestinian resistance exchange gunfire with the Israeli army. At different times, the writer-director and his cast and crew, composed of Europeans, Palestinians and Israelis, were threatened by the Palestinians and by the Israelis. A location manager was kidnapped and held for two days. It took two years and many producers before Abu-Assad finished his film, but he was right to shoot in Nablus.
Crumbling, gritty and yet strangely beautiful, the hilly city seems to trap Saïd and Khaled, and to set them free-just like the bombs. In the windowless rooms that are the setting for their final training session, the two young men say their farewells; their pact is to die together. As they prepare to make their videos, and the grim inevitability of what they are about to do sets in, they naturally reminisce, but they're limited by the form their last words will take. They're at the mercy of the camera. Abu-Assad, who directed two wonderful comedies-Ford Transit, about Palestinian van drivers, and Rana's Wedding, the first Palestinian screwball comedy-decides this is the moment for a bit of gallows humor. It's risky, but then this is an incredibly courageous film.
Once the bombs are strapped to their bodies, and Saïd and Khaled set out on their last hejira, leaving the city and their homeland, they're lost, adrift in a world they had no hand in creating. The bomb cannot be removed; it's locked in place. In the unfamiliar surroundings, and with the weight of their suicide pact hanging over them, panic slowly subsumes every other desire, except the one to flee. There's the return to Nablus or the short journey to oblivion. Or Paradise. It was originally a Farsi word, Paradise. It means "enclosed park." To recruit the bombers, fundamentalists and freedom fighters had to invent the idea of martyrdom because Islam, like every other major religion, forbids suicide. They had to promise Paradise-now.