Through his film Paradise Now, director Hany Abu-Assad opens the gateway into a world of the unthinkable: “To open debate and to make the stories of those who are invisible, visible.” This world is that of the Palestinian suicide bomber.
Abu-Assad calls himself a Palestinian although he holds an Israeli passport. “As long as Israel continues to be a Jewish State, I cannot be an Israeli as I am not a Jew.” For perspective on his new film, a short review of the history of Palestine is relevant, particularly since many issues raised in the film are rooted in ancient history and complicated by land divisions after World War I. This brief summary is meant merely to set the framework for the film, not as a history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has lasted for over fifty years.
In 1920, land mandated to Great Britain was officially named Palestine. But under the terms of the Balfour Declaration, the land was decreed the Jewish homeland which formed the state of Israel in 1948. As a result, over a million Palestinians were forced to resettle as refugees in the Gaza Strip on the west coast, on the West Bank of Jordan and in other countries. Palestine ceased to exist as a political entity. The displacement of the Palestinians led to widespread discontent. After over fifty years of broken agreements, Israeli military actions and Palestinian guerilla warfare, the Palestinian Authority ratified a plan to declare independence in 2000, but the date passed without action. A second Palestinian Intifadah (uprising) erupted following Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s controversial trip to sacred Muslim sites in Jerusalem Al-Quds. The Palestine Liberation Organization, recognized in 1974 as the official representative of the Palestinian people, renounced violence, but other factions including Hamas have continued their campaign of retaliation against Israel. Their actions include suicide bombing against Israeli targets.
Abu-Assad said the reason he made this political thriller was, “We live in this occupation. As human beings we want to have a say. This subject is dear to the heart.” In Paradise Now, two young Palestinian men, Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), friends since childhood, are by any standards ordinary men. Said sees his life as dull. They work as auto mechanics, smoke hookahs, drink tea and never discuss politics or religion. Yet when they receive news of their selection as suicide bombers, they treat their missions in Tel Aviv as an honor. The casualness of their acceptance of this honor is the most striking aspect of the movie.
When the two friends visit a video store, they are shocked to learn that confessions by collaborators before their execution by the Islamic militants are more expensive than “martyr” statements taped before their final sacrifice as suicide bombers. This really upsets Said, whose father died a collaborator and shamed his family. Said wants to change the social stigma his family has endured. The night before their mission they are instructed to stay with their families and act normal. They are forbidden to share their plans with anyone. There is a sense that the families know something is about to happen. As martyrs the suicide bombers believe their self sacrifice will open the gates to heaven.
The next morning Said and Khaled tape their martyr statements. Technical problems with the taping give a surreal, comical air to a tense situation. Then the bombs are strapped to their bodies with booby-traps so that they cannot be removed by themselves. They are taken to a meeting point but, Israelis show up and everything goes wrong. As they run, Said is separated from Khaled. Khaled makes it back to base but Said disappears and is thought to be a collaborator. Khaled believes Said is lost and rushes to find him. Said realizes the implications of his situation when he reaches the abandoned base house. Out of sorts, he walks around the town of Nablus with bombs still strapped to his body. He sees his family and neighbors and finally meets Suha (Lubna Azabal), a Palestinian woman whom Said knows from repairing her car. Suha returned to the territories after time in Europe, and she is vehemently opposed to violence, believing a Palestinian state must be achieved through peaceful means. Terrorism is self-defeating, she insists, because it gives Israelis an excuse for more violence against Palestinians.
From the comfort of our Western movie theaters, questions run through our minds: Who are these people? How can they go through with these attacks and give up their own lives in doing so? Are they all just crazy people that have been brainwashed into doing this? Are they terrorists? Abu-Assad is incredibly persuasive showing us how ordinary people are led to doing the unthinkable.
He does so in part by filming in Nablus on the West Bank which gave what he calls “a naturalistic feel” to the film. Every day they had to stop filming due to gunshots. Some crew left the film. There were other problems in Nablus as well. Some Palestinian gunmen thought that film was anti-Palestinian and ordered them to leave. "We continued filming because other fighters were with us,” Abu-Assad explains.“However, other groups and factions supported the film because they thought we were fighting for freedom and democracy.” After a nearby explosion killed three men, they left for Nazareth since the film crew was in real danger.
Abu-Assad said that people in Nablus, “…live their lives as though they were dead.” So with the character Said, he shows that for some Palestinians, the only way to reclaim their lost dignity from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is through battle by suicide bombers. Abu-Assad keeps his portraits of the militants balanced and nuanced. No one is presented as a villain or crazed individual. This may not be the way some would like to see Islamic extremists portrayed, but they are all the more frightening for their ordinariness. Abu-Assad researched the characters by reading the transcripts of suicide bombers as well as Israeli reports. He also interviewed families. What became clear to him was that there are no stereotypes. The actors who played the two suicide bombers said they did not need to do much research since they were from Nablus and they lived with these stories.
In the end, Said and Khaled have doubts about their missions. Said leaves behind a bus full of innocent old men, women and children and instead targets the military. Khaled struggles but finds he cannot complete his killings. Abu-Assad said his objective with this film was to open debate, not only on the Jewish side but also on the side of the Palestinians. He plans to show his film in Palestine, but it will be difficult. In the occupied territory of the West Bank, there are no movie theaters. Imagine no movie theaters! Use of such a film to foster discussion about the plight of the Palestinians is a promising idea; particularly since discussion and negotiation may be the only way to find resolution.