Co-written by director Hany Abu Assad and Dutch producer Bero Beyer, Paradise Now has won the Amnesty International Award and the AGICOA’s Blue Angel Award for best European film at the Berlinale 2005.
It is Palestine’s official entry for Best Foreign language film at the 2006 Academy Awards.
And US critics have given it a warm reception.
Writing in Box Office Magazine, reviewer Paul Clinton says: “One viewing will leave you with a clearer understanding about why these desperate men commit these desperate acts.”
The film is a powerfully moving personal story which attempts to describe what may be the last 48 hours in the conflicted lives of two Palestinian mechanics, Khaled (Ali Sulaiman) and Said (Qais Nashef) who are recruited to carry out a bomb attack in Tel Aviv.
The film opens with the day-to-day humdrum events in Nablus, a West Bank city under Israeli occupation.
Khaled and Said are seen working in their workshops, sharing jokes over tea, and smoking the hookah.
After spending their last night with their families to whom they are forbidden to bid farewell, they set off with the bombs strapped to their bodies in a journey they know they will not return from.
But the plan goes awry when they cross from occupied Palestinian land into Israel.
Amid the drama and chaos that follows the failed mission, Said and Khaled, who were childhood friends, find themselves separated and each man is left to face his own conscience.
Some US film critics, including Roger Ebert, thought the film “humanised” the bombers.
But Abu Assad disagrees: “I did not set out to humanise. It’s obvious that they are humans. For me what is interesting is what you do with the story. It’s not my job to tell what you already know but to make you think.”
The film was not sympathetic to either side of the conflict. Rather, it is an intense personal view of how normal young men make the decision to do something so unimaginable.
“I am a storyteller not a politician,” explains Abu Assad in a phone interview with Aljazeera.net.
The film depicts the recruitment
“I made a film for people to think about, to question and not to judge.”
Laila Al-Qatami from the Arab American Discrimination Committee thinks the film has people thinking and talking about the issues brought to the fore in the film.
“What concerned us the most is how the average American viewer would interpret it because the movie does not give a lot of background to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and it’s a controversial subject,” she said.
But the film, shot mainly in Nablus in the West Bank before the Israeli withdrawal from the city in September, was almost never finished.
Producers and cast faced an Israeli military siege, curfews, bombings and shootings, and threats from Palestinian armed factions who thought the film was an anti-Arab conspiracy.
“They kidnapped my location manager and former President Yasser Arafat had to intervene to help us free him,” Abu Assad said.
He also recalls how the Israeli military demanded that the film’s producers sign a document relieving Israeli soldiers of any responsibility if one of the film crew is killed by them. He signed.
Researching the film
Abu Assad, a Palestinian born in Israel and who has been living in the Netherlands for the past 20 years, said he interviewed family members and friends of suicide bombers (called martyrdom bombers), and even spoke to lawyers who represented failed bombers now incarcerated in Israeli jails.
He discovered that the motivations for such acts differed from person to person.
“When you research, you find different personal motivations and the Israeli occupation is the cause of this,” Abu Assad said.
In Paradise Now, Said’s motivation is personal.
His father was executed by Palestinians for being an Israeli collaborator. But he blames Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands for his father’s death and for the loss of his innocence.
Suha (R) tells Khaled there are
He also expresses perhaps what many Palestinians cannot understand:
“Israel is not only the oppressor, but has also managed to convince the world that it’s the victim, too. So why go on living?”
In the film, the other main character, Khaled, bemoans the lack of moral and human equivalency under the occupation and the struggle to live with injustice on a daily basis.
“If we can’t live as equals at least let’s die as equals. In this life, we’re all dead,” he shouts at a female character, human rights worker, Suha (Lubna Azabal), who has a love interest with Said.
Daughter of a noted “martyr”, Suha is used in the film to portray a moral conscience and manages to convince the dithering Khaled before the film concludes that there are other peaceful means to let the world know of their injustice.
She adds that not only do such bombings kill innocent people but they destroy any hope the Palestinian people living under the occupation might have had.
According to Box Office Mojo, an internet site which updates the box office take of films, Paradise Now was released in 65 theatres throughout the Unites States and in its first 20 days made nearly $400,000.
The film, which is 90-minutes long cost $2 million to make and has been distributed by Warner Independent Pictures.
Paradise Now is Abu Assad’s second feature film.
In 2002, he directed Rana’s Wedding which examined the dreams of a 17-year-old Palestinian girl seeking to marry the man of her choosing and not one forced on her by her family.
That film was released in only one theatre and made just over $10,000.
* Photographs courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures