In his riveting new film, "Paradise Now," Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad paints an ugly picture of Israeli occupation and the harsh consequences he believes flow from it, namely suicide bombers. The movie, which won the Blue Angel Award for best European film at this year's Berlin Film Festival, explores the friendship between Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), and their transformation from unremarkable auto mechanics into would-be bombers.
Underlying Abu-Assad's movie is a chilling but powerful message: Decades of illegal and brutal Israeli rule, he argues, have wiped out hope among young Palestinians and created a growing pool of dispossessed souls willing to sacrifice their lives to snuff out those of innocent Israeli men, women and children in the name of Palestinian liberation. Simply put, many suicide bombers believe that only by undertaking such an inhumane act can they reclaim their humanity.
"From their logic, and you have to put yourself in their minds, they've lost their dignity," Abu-Assad said in a recent phone interview. "The attitude is: If we can't be equal in life, then we can be equal in death. If we can't live equally, then we can die equally."
Abu-Assad, also the director of critically acclaimed "Rana's Wedding" (2002), personally decries suicide bombing because, in his view, it turns the victim into the oppressor. Still, "Paradise Now," which was partly filmed in Nablus in the West Bank, sets out to humanize would-be bombers and explain their motives.
As part of his research, the director said he interviewed family members and friends of suicide bombers, talked to a lawyer who represents failed bombers now in Israeli jails and read in-depth reports on the subject.
Yet, even in the hands of a sympathetic filmmaker, each would-be bomber becomes a kind of monster from the moment he straps on his belt of explosives and sets out in search of people to kill. Ironically, Abu-Assad's understanding and nuanced portrayals of sensitive Said and hotheaded but lovable Khaled underscore that point.
Moviegoers first encounter Said and Khaled as they are working in an auto repair shop. When a particularly annoying customer complains, Khaled loses his cool -- and his job -- by taking a sledgehammer to the car's bumper. As for Said, a romantic at heart, he can't disguise his boyish attraction to a gorgeous Palestinian human rights worker named Suha (played by Lubna Azabal) who brings her car in for repairs. She shamelessly flirts with the uneducated, rough-at-the-edges Said, a boy from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks.
Close friends Said and Khaled soon repair to a hillside to sip tea, smoke a hookah and decompress. Said later pays a visit to his beloved mother, whom he has watched over since his father's execution by Palestinian militants years earlier for allegedly collaborating with Israelis.
The film's mood quickly darkens when Jamal (performed by Amer Hlehel), a middle-aged representative of an unnamed Palestinian faction, approaches Said. He tells him that now is the time for him and Khaled to carry out in Israel a suicide attack they had volunteered for years earlier.
It is here that Said's and Khaled's humanity begins to drain away and the friends begin acting and sounding like shrill propagandists for such terrorist groups as Islamic Jihad and Hamas. In conversation and in their "martyr video," Said and Khaled become the embodiment of deaf, dumb and blind rage.
Khaled: "Under the occupation, we're already dead."
Said: "We must continue our struggle until the end of occupation. Our bodies are all we have left."
Khaled: "I have decided to carry out a martyr's operation. We have no other way to fight."
Nonsense. Khaled's joie de vivre and Said's intense love for his mother and budding romance with the sophisticated Suha make them very much alive, until now.
No other way to fight?
How about civil disobedience? How about electing Palestinian leaders more interested in making a stable peace with Israel? How about accepting Israel as a legitimate state and partner for peace?
Said and Khaled, in turning into would-be bombers, voluntarily make themselves one-dimensional, shedding the complexity and color that initially made them so engagingly human. As bomb makers outfit them with explosives, their journey to the other side is nearly complete. All that remains is a boom and the blood -- which the film implies comes soon enough.
But not before "Paradise Now" takes some interesting, unexpected and telling detours.
Suha, the Palestinian woman, appears most closely to represent the views of director Abu-Assad. Before the film concludes, she persuades a would-be suicide bomber to choose life. She asserts that attacks will do nothing to weaken Israeli resolve or to improve Palestinian fortunes. Better to live, she says, than to die in vain.
At the same time, "Paradise Now" squarely contends that Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories is the original sin that gives birth to the evil of the suicide bombings. Through his probing lens, Abu-Assad captures the gritty details and myriad humiliations of life under Israeli rule, including the abject poverty in Nablus' ramshackle storefronts and the miasma of rotting garbage on its streets. When Khaled sees an Israeli military checkpoint, he seethes, as, presumably, do many Palestinians: "Mother------s!" he shouts.
"The full responsibility [for the suicide bombers] is on the hand of the oppressor, the hand that controls the border," Abu-Assad said in an interview. "Yes, Palestinians make mistakes. They have an unhealthy society, but they've been living under occupation for 60 years."
It perhaps underscores the complexity and difficulty of the Middle East conflict when a gifted and nuanced filmmaker nonetheless oversimplifies this subject. To be sure, the occupation fuels rage that helps to create a combustible climate for would-be bombers like Said and Khaled. But corrupt Arab governments, violent Islamic fundamentalism and a steady stream of anti-Semitic propaganda in mosques and Palestinian media surely play a seminal role as well. Is it too much to suggest that Palestinians -- like Israelis, like all people -- have free will and must take personal responsibility for their choices?
Still, Abu-Assad argues persuasively that as long as Palestinians believe or are conditioned to believe that the bleakness and hardship in their lives stems from the occupation, then suicide bombers will continue to multiply like cancerous cells. But Abu-Assad offers a path of hope, even in a place where many find little that is hopeful.
"When there is an acceptance of basic Palestinian rights -- not even the implementation of them -- the climate will change," Abu-Assad said. "The Palestinians are willing to accept Israelis as equals."