Visions of Paradise
Hany Abu-Assad takes only a moment to admire the leafy soul of the city from his aerie on Central Park South. No wide-eyed auslander to the Big Apple, the Nazarian filmmaker, tall and thin and dark, is genial, openhearted, Mediterranean, a pleasant mélange of exotic Arab and self-possessed Westerner. As he turns away from the vista, a subtle shift from quiet, thoughtful intensity to assiduousness and, then, Abu-Assad is ready to talk about Paradise Now, about suicide bombers, and about his own naiveté.
Abu-Assad confesses that at first he felt doubtful about Warner Independent Pictures' bid for distribution rights to a movie about two Palestinian suicide bombers. "I thought they would buy it and put it on a shelf," the writer-director admits, "but I think I know why they didn't. This movie is allowing you, whatever your position is, to stay in your position. I am not forcing you to change." Paradise Now, which has been on the festival circuit since early 2005, in February garnered the most lucrative prize at the Berlinale, the Blue Angel Award for best European film. "I believe," the filmmaker says shyly, "that Warner thought it was a good picture, too."
Abu-Assad's debut as a writer-director was a short, Nazareth 2000, an amusing study of his hometown at the beginning of the new millennium. In 1994, he produced Curfew a feature film by Rashid Masharawi, the Palestinian filmmaker he names as his mentor. In 1998, he made his feature directing debut with the Dutch movie The 14th Chick, about party guests awaiting the arrival of an engaged couple. Abu-Assad's two previous features as a writer-director were released in 2002. One, Rana's Wedding, is a Palestinian screwball comedy about a young woman determined to overturn her father's choices for a suitable son-in-law-otherwise, she won't be able to marry her fiancé. The second is a witty documentary, Ford Transit, about the driver of a Ford "cab," one of the ubiquitous white vans that ferry Palestinians through their Israeli-occupied country.
Abu-Assad's work, emotionally accessible and skillfully produced, is also an excellent initiation for Westerners into the culture of the Palestinians. "I don't mean to do that," he declares. "I mean, I don't make a film to make a bridge. I don't believe in that. I believe that as a filmmaker, I am making the bridge for the problem I want to face. First, it is my own bridge to this place and to these characters." The "bridge," in the case of Paradise Now, is one no other filmmaker has crossed. Exploring the feelings of two men who decide to carry out a bombing mission, it follows Said (Kais Neshif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) through what may be the last 48 hours of their lives. "I'm just telling an honest story," Abu-Assad says. "If you make a good film, a good bridge, then a lot of people can use it."
Principal photography for Paradise Now took place partly in Nablus, where missile attacks and gunfire are common. "Every day you have to deal with a strategy," Abu-Assad says of directing. "And for this film it was more. You had to protect yourself from the Israelis. At the same time, you had to protect yourself from the Palestinians who think you are doing something wrong." Abu-Assad's location manager was kidnapped by a Palestinian faction during the shoot and was not released until Prime Minister Yasser Arafat's office intervened. Six members of his ethnically diverse crew-which included Arabs, Israelis and Europeans-quit after a nearby missile attack. He replaced them and resumed production, only to have another near miss when a land mine exploded a few hundred feet from the location shoot. That's when the writer-director moved production to Nazareth.
Paranoia reigned during most of the shoot. "I was there for four months and I started to think that someone from my own crew was working against me," Abu-Assad admits. "Believe me, you can ask all the crew. We were all paranoid. We really thought that there was somebody inside our crew giving information to the outside world, and the outside world was trying to stop us." The filmmaker likens the tension of that shoot, and its ensuing emotions, to what Palestinians feel every day. "It's daily, the humiliation; it's not incidental. It makes you feel weak and impotent," he explains. "When you are standing at the checkpoint and you are facing humiliation and you do nothing, you are a coward. You don't dare to do anything because you will be killed. You are very afraid. When you are killing yourself, you are not afraid anymore. You are saying to yourself: 'I am not coward.' You are saying also to the others: 'I am going to do something about it because nobody is doing anything about it.'"
Abu-Assad, who is in his early 40s, left Nazareth after high school to join an uncle living and working in the Netherlands. He trained at a technical college and became an airplane engineer, but in the early 1990s, dissatisfied with his job, he quit and returned home. There, kismet intervened and he met Rashid Masharawi, who was making a documentary for the BBC. "Life is a big casino," Abu-Assad reflects. "Always I want to know more than I know, and this is what cinema is about. You want to know more than you already know. If I were to make a film to tell you what you already know, it is a boring movie." A resident of Amsterdam for two decades, Abu-Assad often receives funding from Dutch sources, although Paradise Now also got financing from Palestinian, German and French companies.
Before writing the script for Paradise Now, Abu-Assad spoke with the families and friends of bombers. He watched their videos, and he read the transcripts of interrogations with those who had failed in their mission. "I discovered how human they were and how stupid I was," he admits. "This is the experience I want to share. I was stupid to believe the propaganda." According to research conducted by human-rights groups, most bombers are not fundamentalists. "I was in shock," Abu-Assad says, "when I found out that bombers are not religious." Raised a Muslim, the filmmaker nevertheless decries the excesses of Islam and every other major religion. "Religion was created out of a desire to live in dignity when the situation is not allowing you to live in dignity," he ruminates. "But always religion is misused. All the time you have hidden agendas for politicians or leaders to change things, to occupy others, to oppress others, to have more influence. Religion is a very effective weapon for mobilizing the masses."
Asked about Suha (Lubna Azabal), the one character in Paradise Now who speaks for the rational part of us all which argues against the bombers, Abu-Assad becomes pensive. "Yes, that is what Suha represents, what Palestinians do not want to hear." The most critical comments about Paradise Now have come from Palestinian audiences who feel the film doesn't go far enough in its portrayal of the bombers. "You didn't ask me about politics, and I'm glad," Abu-Assad says. "I'm a filmmaker. Everyone who interviews me about this movie wants to know my politics. I want people to leave the theatre feeling shocked." In the end, the fate of Hany Abu-Assad's bombers in Paradise Now reflects the conflicts a reasonable artist confronts in his struggle to express the pathos of occupation. "The bombers," he declares, "are on the side of liberating their country."