PARADISE NOW directed by Hany Abu-Assad, written by Abu-Assad and Bero Beyer, with Kais Nashef, Ali Suliman and Lubna Azabal. A Warner Independent Pictures release. Subtitled. 90 minutes. Opens Friday (November 18). For venues and times, see Movie Listings. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
We hear about Palestinian suicide bombings with disturbing frequency, and beneath every report, one question always nags. What kind of psychology or belief leads them to sacrifice their lives and kill others? Director Hany Abu-Assad tries to provide some answers in his powerful film Paradise Now. It tracks two young Palestinian men, friends since childhood, as they embark upon what could be the last 48 hours of their lives. They're both recruited from their dead-end jobs as auto mechanics to carry out a mission, bombs strapped to their bodies, in Tel Aviv.
Abu-Assad, who's made both documentaries and features, knew he wanted the work to be fiction but grounded in reality.
"Fiction helps you get inside the personalities," he says during an early-morning interview at the Toronto International Film Fest. "You watch a documentary, but you experience a fiction film. In this case, I thought the experiencing was more important than the watching."
His research included interviewing family members of successful bombers, and the lawyers of unsuccessful ones. He quickly learned that there is no typical profile.
"We're made to believe they're all brainwashed fanatics," he says, "but I came to the conclusion that there isn't one face, there are many. What they do have in common is that they can't stand daily humiliation and poverty, and they feel so weak and impotent that they want to change their lives. Faced with the possibility of saving others with their lives, they get to feel strong and brave."
The film is set in the West Bank city of Nablus, and most of the film was shot there until working conditions became too dangerous.
"I think the viewer can tell that the sets aren't made up," he says. "Even if you don't recognize the area, it feels like a real place. It was also effective for the actors. If you're playing a suicide bomber standing in the exact same place where real bombers were, it gets to you."
But he and his crew were overwhelmed by the difficulties of the hot-spot location. Not only did they have to manoeuvre around regular gunfire and the occasional missile attack, but they also often had to negotiate with the Israeli army and the various Palestinian factions, one of which kidnapped the film's location manager, demanding that they leave. Abu-Assad had to contact Yasser Arafat to bring about the worker's release.
The director gruffly dismisses my question when I ask if he was worried about not finishing the film after six European crew members abandoned the production.
"We could have left earlier, but it would have looked bad for the Palestinian crew," he says. "We were accused of being traitors, and if we left, accusations from the street would seem justified and their lives would be in danger."
Besides the hot-button issues - and Abu-Assad says daily discussions and arguments among the crew often found their way into the film - what makes Paradise Now so remarkable is its bold mixture of genres.
It sets out like a gritty drama, but there are elements of suspense, romance and, most surprisingly, farce, too. One of the strongest scenes finds recruit Khaled (Ali Suliman) holding his machine gun, presenting a big monologue for his "martyr's video," only to discover that the video camera isn't working so he has to record it again. It's completely absurd.
"When two genres touch each other, you always have something fresh," Abu-Assad says. "And if you're going to do that, it had better be at a turning point in the drama. For the video scene, it's not play any more. These men are signing their contracts. Their lives are forever changed."
Ironically, the scene of the men's final dinner recalls an iconic Christian image: Leonardo's depiction of Christ's last supper.
"Leonardo painted it in Italy, but the actual event happened near the setting of the film," he smiles. "In a way, the whole concept of the film is about repainting that image and story. In the original painting, Leonardo suggested that the light was coming from God. In my film, it's coming from a simple lamp on a nail. This isn't God's point of view, it's the human one..
"And if you think about it, the idea of killing yourself with your enemy runs throughout the Bible. There's a n important scene where Samson says, 'Let me die with my enemy.' Well, now it's not just a story. It's a reality."
PARADISE NOW (Hany Abu-Assad) Rating: NNNNN
Paradise Now confronts an explosive issue - Palestinian suicide bombers - and humanizes it without defusing its disturbing power.
Stuck in dead-end jobs in the West Bank city of Nablus, Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are recruited by an unnamed organization to travel to Tel Aviv with bombs strapped to their bodies. Their physical and emotional transformation from shaggy, hookah-smoking slackers to neat, black-suited potential killers is mesmerizing.
Just as remarkable is director Abu-Assad's tonal fluidity. The film starts off as gritty drama and successfully incorporates absurd comedy and thriller elements. There's a refreshing lack of didacticism, even in the symbols, none more subtle than an early scene in which a bent car fender is fought over until it falls off. One of the best films of the year.