Is it possible to shoot a film about the human side of the terrorist mind and heart without asking audiences to sympathize with the perpetrators who will ultimately murder innocent civilians? Hany Abu-Assad, the Israeli-born Arab director of Paradise Now, leaves this and other politically-charged questions up to the audience in this riveting drama about the quest of two Palestinian suicide bombers who attempt to carry out terrorist attacks in Tel Aviv.
Abu-Assad illustrates the twisted logic and strategic planning that Palestinian terrorists put into each mission to kill Israelis, but at the same time depicts his characters as complete, emotional human beings. In one interview, he states, “The film is simply meant to open a discussion, hopefully, a meaningful discussion, about the real issues at hand. I hope that the film will succeed in stimulating thought. If you see the film, it's fairly obvious that it does not condone the taking of lives.” Abu-Assad is also predicting that he will upset some Israeli and Jewish groups for humanizing terrorism, but says that he too is critical of suicide bombers and the murders they commit. Politics aside, if you view Paradise Now as a work of art with a message, then it’s a beautifully shot, cleverly scripted, and emotionally acted film, fully deserving of its international acclaim.
The film centers around the lives of Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), who have been best friends since early childhood. In the beginning of the film, they are shown going through the motions of a typical mundane day in the West Bank city of Nablus: working dead-end jobs as mechanics, smoking hookah, and drinking tea. Their lives are unspectacular and lack purpose and meaning. While working on cars, Said meets Suha (Lubna Azabal), a startingly beautiful woman who captures his attention and breaks the monotony of his everyday life. Then, suddenly, everything in their lives change forever.
The director purposefully leaves out the fact that Said and Khaled also belong to an unnamed Palestinian terrorist cell in Nablus, which becomes fully apparent when they are confronted by the cell's leaders, and told that they both have been chosen to carry out terrorist bombings in Tel Aviv. They have been chosen as a team because it had been their dream as children to “die together as martyrs,” side by side. Said is approached by the middle-aged Jamal (Amer Hlehel), the go-between for the terrorist cell, and told that he and Khaled have been chosen to execute the group's first major attack in two years. Jamal tells him that he can spend his last night alive at home, with Jamal's accompaniment, as long as he and Khaled keep their mission secret from their families. Said sneaks out of his house to see Suha one last time to say goodbye. This encounter with Suha sheds some light on Said's doubts.
The following day, the day the bombings are supposed to take place, Said and Khaled are led to the Security Fence that separates the West Bank from Israel proper. They climb through a hole that was cut for them by cell members on the Israeli side of the fence. The Israeli Army intercepts them, and they are forced back through the Fence. The plan goes wrong when the two are separated and the doubt-ridden Said runs away to Nablus to hide from the cell, still wearing his bomb-belt on his torso. After much frantic searching for Said, Khaled finally finds him at his father's grave, and they agree to go through with the operation. As is revealed by Said to one of the cell's leaders, Said's father was executed when he was 10 years old because he was a “collaborator” with the Israelis. It is now up to Said to restore honor upon his family's name. The plot's twists and turns, and Said and Khaled's real doubts about murder, leave the audience wondering if they will ultimately carry out the deed.
Some of the film's most intense (and humorous) moments came in the filming of Said and Khaled's “martyr declarations” at the cell's headquarters, where they stated on camera while holding a gun why they were becoming suicide bombers (the gun held in the scene was a real gun borrowed from a Palestinian terrorist group). In preparation of these filmed declarations, both men were washed, shaven, and dressed in white robes. The bombs are placed in belts and strapped onto their bodies. Eager to carry out his assignment, Khaled gave a chilling and emotional speech about why he is avenging the Palestinian people of the daily injustices they face under a “brutal Israeli occupation.” After he completes his declaration, Jamal tells him he has to start again because the camera was malfunctioning and would not record. His second and third takes are far less emotional, and he finally gives up and simply tells his mother on camera where to buy cheaper water filters. Abu-Assad said of this scene: “The scene catches the heart of the film's idea by simultaneously breaking down the martyrdom-heroism as well as the monster-evil and making it human. And humans are often quite banal, but also funny and emotional. In real life there often is comedy in the most tragic moments.”
This scene also contained more symbolism than any other point of the film. Flanked by organizers and other cell members, Khaled and Said are given a final meal that resembles Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper. Obviously, this symbolic dinner was only foreshadowing for the death and destruction that would inevitably follow the duel bombings in Tel Aviv, and paints Said and Khaled as “martyrs.”
Aside from the contoversial plot and social-political questions that will certainly arise from the film, the actual shooting and production was in itself a harrowing experience. The film was shot entirely in Nablus, Nazareth, and Tel Aviv in 2004, and the film crew and the actors were often right in the middle of the violence of the intifada. According to Abu-Assad, everyday the IDF would enter Nablus in search of wanted Palestinian terrorists, which would inevitably be followed by rocket attacks and gunfire from all directions. To make matters worse, the only way to actually shoot a film in Nablus about suicide bombers was to have the approval of the rival armed Palestinian gangs in the area, and sometimes approval by one group was countered by the disapproval of another. There were rumors that the film was anti-suicide bombing, which even led to the kipnapping of one of the film's onsite location managers.
The violence got so bad that several members of the film crew quit the film and left Nablus to go back to Europe. According to Abu-Assad, “I decided to contact Prime Minister Yasser Arafat, although I'd never met him. I knew for a fact that Arafat had never visited a cinema, however, he did help us obtain the release of our location manager who was returned two hours later.” One time during film production, a land mine exploded 300 yards from the scene, causing Lubna Azabal to faint from fear. Abu-Assad admits that, “We took these ridiculous risks to make sure the film would be as close to reality as possible and to have an authentic look and feel.”
Paradise Now succeeded in having an “authentic look and feel,” from the scenes of the busy streets of Nablus and Tel Aviv, to the real room where “martyr declarations” had been filmed, to the working gun used by Palestinians against the Israeli Army that the character Khaled held during his speech. Whereas the film succeeded in achieving authenticity, it failed in its mission to be a “bold call for peace (from the film's tagline).” The director, who says he is against suicide bombings, presented no clear solutions on how to solve the conflict, and never missed an opportunity to bash Israelis and their government's policies. However, Paradise Now does open the door for meaningful discussion of the issues surrounding the conflict. It goes against the grain of a commonly held Western notion of suicide bombers — that they are soulless and programmed to kill without emotion or regret. Instead, Khaled and Said are flesh-and-blood human beings, caught in between religious extremism, nationalism, and the will to live. Regardless of your sympathies toward Israelis or Palestinians, this film is an absolute must-see.