By John Esther
March 19, 2006 - 11:38 PM PST
Paradise Now follows Saïd (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), two young Palestinian men living out their impoverished, imprisoned lives in the occupied West Bank city of Nablus. One day they are chosen to carry out a suicidal bombing in Tel Aviv, Israel. That same day Saïd meets Suha (Lubna Azabal), the daughter of a famous Palestinian resistance fighter who has been educated in Europe and is against violence. Saïd cannot tell Suha what he is going to do. The next day, as Saïd and Khaled are en route to blow up some Israeli soldiers (and others if necessary), they are intercepted. This sets off an array of emotional and strategic choices that threatens the efficacy of their mission.
Shooting in Nablus, Nazareth and Tel Aviv, Abu-Assad - a 43-year-old Palestinian who calls the Netherlands "his base" - has made a film that offers American audiences insights into the minds of Palestinian suicidal bombers and the reasoning behind their attacks on Israelis, whom they see as a foreign force occupying their land. I spoke to Abu-Assad about the film, terrorism and America's involvement in Western Asia.
Why did you want to make this film?
Films in general allow you to go somewhere or experience things that in reality you can't experience.
What kind of research did you do for the film?
I spoke to people from all sides. But the most valuable study was from people who failed their mission. It's like they pressed a button and something went wrong; [the bomb] didn't explode, they were caught, and they're in jail. What were their thoughts? What do they value?
What difficulties did you encounter while shooting in Nablus?
It was so difficult it's like I can't sleep anymore. I have physical problems. I think if I went back, and hadn't made the film, I wouldn't do it [now]. I risked my life and the lives of others... There is no law. You could be killed. The Israeli Army was surrounding the place as a jail. And inside the jail it's chaotic and very dangerous.
Which of the characters do you identify with the most?
With all of them [laughs]. Really, I love them all.
In Don DeLillo's Mao II, the author talks about how the terrorist has replaced the writer as the modern narrative-maker. Catastrophe and fear are the new tropes. As a writer how do you feel about this sentiment?
Your questions are the most interesting I ever get. What always worries me about these people who kill themselves and others is they don't leave any kind of statement except [violence]. They don't leave their memoirs. I want to know more. You did such a deed; I want to know more. You don't tell me! You don't leave your memoirs! Okay, I'm going to search and write a story about it.
Would it be fair to say that for many like Saïd and Khaled, martyrdom has become an ego trip?
Not an ego trip. What I tried to do in this film is show the complexity of the subjects. For Saïd, it's his impotency. He feels he can't do anything. He's not a man because he can't defend his family. He can't fight the occupation. He can't protect his family from the guilt of the father. This is one of the motivations that drive him. But for Khaled, it's more "rock star." But it's very dangerous to explain from one side or element.
Moving from the internal to the external, what can you tell us about the businessman attire they wear for the mission?
You look fine on the outside and people want to be next to you, yet on the inside they don't want to be next to you, because you have a bomb. There are many dimensions to the business of terror.
What would you say to people who might accuse you of making terrorists sympathetic?
I didn't do anything immorally or illegally. My stories are based on real stories. Why not then accuse The Sopranos or [The Godfather's] Michael Corleone of this?
Why is it that some forms of terrorism are more sympathetic or justifiable than others? Is it just the legitimacy of the terrorists?
It depends on how you look at it. From a non-violence point of view, it's always illegitimate. If you believe that some conflicts can't be solved without violence, it's always legitimate. Then there's this military point of view. The whole idea of killing civilians. Why is it, if you wear uniforms you are guilty immediately? If you are soldiers, why am I allowed to kill you? If you're a soldier, you become guilty, but if you are not a soldier, you are innocent? It is a trick that power uses in order to keep the power and the rules of the game in their hands. They want to use violence but they create rules in order to keep the play in their field. You know, "What do you mean I can't kill [civilians]? It's your rules. Why should I care about your rules?"
What do you think of the American government's support of Israel and other anti-Palestine governments?
It's all short-term. They are dealing with economic interests. In the long term, they are creating more and more problems. Look at how much money has been spent on security and there is no security. You are more insecure now than you were six years ago. As long as the Middle East is in chaos and not strong, the oil prices are low. If the Middle East becomes developed, the price of oil will go high. This is not in the interest of the economy of the United States. It's controlled chaos.
How can we connect Israel's occupation of Palestine with America's occupation of Iraq?
It's different because the occupation of Palestine is because the Israelis want the land and they don't want the people who are living there. The United States wants the oil but they don't want to make ethnic cleansing for the Iraqis, which is what Israel is doing.
What would you like to see happen, reasonably, between Israel and Palestine?
To share the place equally and without conditions. To recognize the Other is part of you. To recognize that Palestinians have equal rights.
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"It's controlled chaos."
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... is a freelance culture critic based in Los Angeles.
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