Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now, his politically timely movie about Palestinian suicide bombers, has been winning awards and stirring controversy ever since it world premiered in the Berlin Film Festival. Since then, the incendiary drama has traveled the global festival circuit, provoking audiences at Telluride, Toronto, and NY Film Festivals.
The movie was literally torn from stories in the newspapers. "Suicide is such an extreme act," Hany said in an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, "that I began thinking, 'How could they justify it to their families and to themselves? As preparation, Hany studied the Israeli interrogation transcripts of failed suicide bombers and interviewed families, particularly mothers, of such men.
Paradise Now follows two childhood friends, Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), working dead-end jobs as auto mechanics, who are recruited for a strike on Tel Aviv. When they are intercepted at the Israeli border and separated, a young woman discovers their plan and causes them to reconsider their action.
Hany was delighted that the first co-producer on board, after Dutch Bero Beyer, was Lama Production's Amir Harel from Tel Aviv. In 2003, a crucial meeting took place in Berlin between Hany and his international producers: a Dutch, two Germans, an Israeli, and a Frenchman. Like the production team, the crew was also international: 50 Palestinians, 14 Germans, 4 French, 3 Dutch, and 10 Israelis, hired for the sequence in Tel-Aviv. Hany says Harel couldn't get finance from Israeli sources, such as the Film Fund, though he was effective in securing money to promote the film among Israeli audiences, when the film opens in October.
"They were afraid that the subject would create a gulf against the Fund and the opponents will find reasons to close it," Hany says. "When they announced in Berlin that the Fund would support the movie, there were protests from Israeli politicians."
Censorship is not an issue. "We are allowed to show it, the censorship board gave us its seal of approval."
The film will platform, opening in Tel-Aviv and then roll to other cities. Even more exciting is the opportunity to show the movie in the West Bank, in Ramala and Nablus. Tests of the film have yielded mostly positive reaction. Says Hany: "Viewers feel that my film is honest, and they like that the story is shown from a human, not political, point of view."
Hany shot the film in Nablus for 25 days, before moving to Nazareth (where he was born) for another 15 days, finishing in Tel-Aviv. Asked why Tel-Aviv is the film's target for the bombs, Hany replies quickly, "that's the center, that's where Israel was born as a new state."
It was impossible to have a contingency plan during the shoot, as Hany recalls: "We had a security department that advised me when and where to shoot. The cast and crew were briefed as much as possible, and they all had the feeling they were dealing with a film worth being brave for." Looking back, Hany feels that "it was insane" to shoot in Nablus, "because everyday there was some trouble. Both the Israelis and Palestinians were used to small TV news crews, but our movie had 70 people and 30 trucks, which made it impossible to run or hide."
Everybody wanted to read the script, and some, not understanding what Hany was doing, drew different conclusions. Moreover, intense rivalry between the Palestinian factions meant that approval from one faction resulted by disapproval from the other. The rumor that the film was anti-suicide bomber spread, and one faction kidnapped location manager, Hassan Titi, and demanded that they leave Nablus.
Hany recalls: "That day, there was an Israeli missile attack on a nearby car. This was the last straw and six European crewmembers left." However, Hany doesn't blame them, claiming that, "from their perspective, they did the right thing. Life is more important than a film."
Some thought Hany was making a film against the Palestinians, while others supported him because they thought he was fighting for freedom. Indeed, "one group thought that the film was not presenting the suicide bombers in a positive light and asked us to stop at gun point." Not one day went by without the company having to stop shooting, but unfazed, Hany waited until the firing stopped to resume filming.
Hany's dilemmas were to find six crewmembers on a short notice without telling them why the others left, and to release his manager. He decided to contact Yasser Arafat, although he'd never met him. Says Hany: "I knew that Arafat had never visited a cinema, but he did help us obtain the release of our manager in two hours!"
In the meantime, the local and international journalists were about to turn Hassan's kidnapping into world news. Hany asked them to hold, because he was afraid of repercussions; at one point pamphlets described Hany as part of an American-Spanish conspiracy. "We were outlawed," Hany says, "with every step in the right direction, we were pushed back two steps. Every plan to resume shooting got torpedoed."
Hany says Paradise Now is not an angry documentary; it's a fictional tale. "The film will upset some because I have given a human face to the suicide bombers, but I am also very critical of them. If you see the film, it's obvious that it does not condone the taking of lives."
He holds that, "If we didn't believe we were making something meaningful, that could be part of a larger dialogue, we wouldn't have gambled our lives."