In Rana’s Wedding (2002), a determined Palestinian bride-to-be bests Israeli gatekeepers and Palestinian bureaucrats who nearly block her marriage. A West Bank taxi driver in the doc Ford Transit (2002) circumvents ubiquitous checkpoints and inflexible Israeli soldiers. Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad expands upon the prevailing Palestinian mood of frustration in the provocative Paradise Now, a humanizing exploration of the minds and motivation of two potential suicide bombers. He makes it clear that bright twentysomethings Saïd and Khaled act out of conviction, but both have dim economic prospects as well. Saïd also blames the murder of his collaborator father on the now four-decade-old occupation.
“My protagonists are my alter egos,” says Abu-Assad, 43. “I’m fascinated by their drive. I admire their ways of surviving. But they are driven by a kind of stubbornness I don’t have. I will not be a hero. I will never kill myself with others.” He emigrated from Nazareth at 19 to study aircraft engineering, then filmmaking, in Holland, where he still resides: “See, wherever it is convenient, I am going!”
Abu-Assad shot Paradise Now in Nablus until his location manager was kidnapped, and later released through Arafat’s intervention, by a small Palestinian faction that was hostile to the project. (The larger Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade supported the film.) The incident had to do with a rumor “that the movie was about a suicide bomber in love with a Jewish girl,” he says. “Her parents refuse him, so out of revenge he kills himself on a bus. Now, it would have been very good for Israeli intelligence to have the film stopped, but not by Israel, because they didn’t want to be blamed. But through their collaborators they could spread rumors. If it was not Israeli intelligence spreading it, it could just be that [the Palestinians] are all crazy after a five-year siege.” He shifted production to Nazareth.
Although he insists he is against the taking of innocent lives, Abu-Assad refuses to condemn terror itself but rather condemns “the cause of terror,” i.e., the occupation. “The Israelis believe that they are the victims, but they are not. They came, wanting to create a Jewish state in a place where there were no Jews. How are you going to do that without victimizing the native people? I don’t know how you can keep a Jewish state without oppressing the Palestinians.”
In Paradise Now‘s final scene, the camera zooms into a tight close-up of Saïd’s eyes on a crowded bus in Tel Aviv. “I didn’t want to show an explosion or the aftermath, which we’ve seen. We also know images of the violence of the occupation. The only thing we don’t know is this particular moment in a bomber’s life. The film is about lighting dark places—in ourselves as well.”