Incendiary Middle East

The human face of suicide bombers

PARADISE NOW (Palestine, Netherlands, Germany, France, 2005): Directed by Hany Abu-Assad. Written by Hany Abu-Assad and Bero Beyer. Producers Bero Beyer, Hengameh Panahi, Amir Harel, Gerhard Meixner, Roman Paul. Cinematography, Antonine Heberlé. Editor, Sander Vos. Production design, Olivier Meidinger. Sound, Uve Haussig. Costumes, Walid Maw’ed. Starring Kais Nashef and Ali Suliman and Lubna Azabel. With Amer Hlehel, Hiam Abbass, Ashraf Barhoum. Warner Independent Pictures, 2005. PG-13. 90 minutes.

An original and almost unbearably suspenseful international film about two young Palestinian men, Paradise Now follows these ordinary, working-class guys who’ve been friends since childhood through two scary days.

Writer, director Hany Abu-Assad and writer, producer Bero Beyer’s feature-length, fictional film shows what it means to be chosen suicide bombers. During the next 48 hours, the acts of these two men will affect many people, including their families, the wider community and enemy strangers. Their own inarticulate desires for a better life will also come into play.

Saïd (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) live in the West Bank town of Nablus, where they work as auto mechanics, drink tea, smoke from a hookah and wait for their lives to begin. Nablus is a beaten-down looking town, full of other idle men. On a parallel track, the film has followed a young Palestinian woman, Suha (Lubna Azabal), as she comes into Nablus through an Israeli checkpoint. When Suha brings her car to the garage to be fixed, interest sparks between her and Saïd.

But later the same day, Saïd runs into Jamal (Amer Hlahel), a middle-aged front-man for an unnamed organization who tells him he and Khaled have been chosen as martyrs to carry out a suicide mission together in Tel Aviv. Jamal says he will stay with Saïd until they leave Nablus. But Saïd slips away during the night to see Suha. They talk. She’s working for peace. He wants to tell her what he’s doing. At home the next morning, Saïd’s mother (Hiam Abbass) gives him sandwiches to take on what she fears is his last day.

Such a simple plot but many variables, and things go wrong in unexpected ways. Tension builds from the moment Saïd and Khaled agree to go into Israel. Cosmopolitan, upscale Tel Aviv stands in vivid contrast to Nablus’s dilapidated visage. Economic issues underlie every part of life in Nablus, while Tel Aviv thrives. The border itself is so fraught with danger I felt myself tense up as the characters approached it.

I could hardly tell Saïd and Khaled apart after they shaved their facial hair, got haircuts and donned dark suits. I believe their physical similarity was a deliberate device to make the pair of them look anonymous and forgettable. Later, their separate identities became clear.

The film is about human choices, which are never simple but are based on what has been experienced before, external expectations and inner conflict. As the film draws us closer and closer to Khaled, Saïd and Suha, we discover we are more like them than unalike, even if we are not of the same ethnicity, nationality, religion, age or gender.

It is a mark of brilliance that such a potentially incendiary film story appeals on so many levels. The film was shot on location in Nablus, and the multi-national cast and crew were in real danger from rival Palestinian factions as well as from the Israeli Army and its missiles. Rumors were rife, and personal safety an issue. Before shooting finished, some crew left Nablus and the picture. Despite further difficulties, shooting also took place in Nazareth and in Tel Aviv.

Director Hany Abu-Assad: “I understand that it will be upsetting to some that I have given a human face to the suicide bombers. I am also very critical of the suicide bombers, as well. … The film is simply meant to open a discussion, hopefully a meaningful discussion, about the real issues at hand. … The full weight and complexity of the situation is impossible to show on film. No one side can claim a moral stance because taking any life is not a moral action. The entire situation is outside of what we can call morality. If we didn’t believe that we were making something meaningful, that could be part of a larger dialogue, we wouldn’t have gambled our lives in Nablus.”

Opening Friday at the Bijou, this remarkable film is not to be missed. Very highest recommendations.

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