Paradise Now, opening in limited release on November 11, is the fictional but true-to-life story of two young Palestinians who ask to be sent together on a suicide-bombing mission in Israel. Saïd and Khaled have been friends forever, and to them, it seems only natural that they would arrange to die together. Languishing in dead-end jobs, they are trapped in limbo, where the future promises only more of the same soul-killing monotony and humiliation.
Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, 43, says the film's title is meant to be ironic. Whether the friends truly believe that they will reach paradise is questionable. Their motives are obscure, even to themselves.
Abu-Assad, who has lived in Amsterdam for about 20 years, is a powerful presence, passionate about his subject. He fills the room with his energy and intelligence. In this interview with Christianity Today Movies, he revealed a warm, self-deprecating sense of humor and a disarming generosity of spirit. He holds strong opinions, but he favors discourse and dialogue over pontification and propaganda.
Paradise Now is being released in 45 countries, including Palestine and Israel. For a list of cities showing the film, go to the official website and click "Local Release Dates" at the bottom.
In the U.S., we get a one-dimensional view in our news about Palestine. Suicide bombers are often portrayed as if they were all the same, but your film shows two very different young men.
Hany Abu-Assad: The worst thing you can do in cinema is stereotyping. Why should I watch it? I know it already. It does not allow you to be surprised.
Christians in America are often perceived as solidly pro-Israel. When Palestinians think of American Christians, do they think of them that way, or even that they're anti-Palestinian?
Abu-Assad: Well, first of all, we don't have just one Palestinian. The most rational explanation is that there is an interest between the politics of America and Israel. There's all kinds of interest—military interest, economic interest, strategic interest. When you don't have interests with the Palestinians, then they don't matter. It's really not very hard to understand the Palestinian cause: We were here. Suddenly the Jewish state had to be created. You want to create a Jewish state where there is already somebody else than Jews living—without oppressing them. It's impossible. But when you don't have interests with Palestinians, you don't want to understand.
You moved to Holland as a young man to stay with your uncle.
Abu-Assad: Not to stay with him. He was studying there and he found me a place to study airplane engineering.
Did you work long as an engineer?
Abu-Assad: (Laughs) Two years!
Did you find Holland very accepting to immigrants?
Abu-Assad: Yes. In my experience as an Arab boy living in the state of Israel, there is discrimination everywhere. Even taking a bus there is discrimination. Suddenly you come to Europe and there is not this discrimination. I was so happy with my freedom, that I could take a bus without any problems. I felt how different life could be. At least the Dutch state considered all its citizens as equal individuals.
In America, there's a general belief that suicide bombers are motivated by the promise of going to paradise, where virgins are waiting for them. But in this film, it seemed that religion was almost incidental to Saïd and Khaled.
Abu-Assad: The film is more realistic than what the media would try to make us believe. I believe that religion in general, whether it's Christianity or Judaism or Muslim, tries to do three major things. First of all, to make you a better man. You don't want to do to others the things that you don't want them to do to you. Don't steal because you don't want them to steal from you. Don't lie, because you don't want them to lie to you.
Second, there is a lot of suffering in this life, and religion allows you to accept this suffering. And third, religion allows you to believe there is salvation after this suffering. In all religions people need this to survive. Job had everything, and then God let him suffer. Even if you have suffering, you believe in God. It allows you to like this suffering and become a better man, and also to believe that hereafter there is salvation.
But Saïd, the young suicide bomber, doesn't seem to believe in salvation and the hereafter.
Abu-Assad: It's actually the consequence of a hopeless situation, where you don't believe in the Koran, that God will bring you justice and give you your dignity back. You need justification when you kill yourself because you can't stand life anymore. You point your suffering to the society that is oppressing you. In order to justify it, you do it in the name of God. But your motivation is not to go to God and not to go to salvation. You just want to end the suffering because you can't stand it. You want to believe that by ending your life and the lives of others, you do it in the name of Islam. You don't want to believe that you're just killing yourself.
You are quite familiar with the Scriptures. Are you a practicing Muslim?
Abu-Assad: No. I do not practice Islam, but I have read the Old and New Testaments and the Koran. They have the same stories. In the Bible, for instance, when they took Samson's dignity, he couldn't live. The Palestinians say, "They have taken our dignity." This can be more important than life.
Samson took others down with himself. Are you saying that the bombers feel a spiritual connection to Samson's plight?
Abu-Assad: Yes. People came and laughed at him for being defeated. They took advantage of him; they took his eyes and made him a slave. In the Bible, suicide is forbidden, but at a certain point, like with Samson, the Bible is telling you, "It's understandable." It becomes too much, especially the loss of dignity. This is how the martyrs see themselves.
In your film, it seems that Jamal, who recruits and handles the boys, is a sort of oppressor. We see Jamal praying, but he doesn't volunteer to blow himself up.
Abu-Assad: But that doesn't necessarily make him an oppressor. He takes a risk. I knew people during the filming—the organizers—who were killed by helicopters and assassinations. These people would say that you need soldiers, but you also need generals, and Jamal believes he is a general. He's interesting because he's not sure about life and death. The boys ask him what will happen when they die and he says, "Two angels will pick you up." If you look at his face, you can see that he is not sure that he believes it, even though he wants to.
Kared, the military leader, seems to think that he is right. He seems coldly assured.
Abu-Assad: He's controlling, but in his eyes you see a lot of fear. He's afraid. He's a human being. He's real, and I met these types of people when I was filming. They could have weapons, but in their eyes you can see that they are human beings. I know these people, and when they are in danger they have control, but in their eyes they have a different reaction, which makes them interesting human beings.
Were you afraid of these people when you were with them?
In their culture are they shunned or are they accepted? Does everyone know who they are?
Abu-Assad: They are more underground, but they are respected. Of course in the eyes of the people, they are freedom fighters. They fight for liberation and most of the people don't know other options. They are sixty years under injustice.
You're speaking of the foundation of Israel in 1948?
Abu-Assad: Yes. The whole idea of saying this is the land promised to you by God is insane. Why did he let us live there? We are also his creation. This idea that he gave you his land, it's blasphemy when you do that because you become the representative of God on earth.
It's like God is saying, "Ah, but with you I have a different contract. To you, I promise this land." The Bible calls it the Promised Land, but that doesn't mean that it's promised only to you. I don't believe that we Palestinians are the creation of the devil. And there are Palestinian Christians who have been deported and can't come back.
Aren't about 20 percent of Palestinians Christian?
Abu-Assad: Yes, and they have suffered under the same occupation.
You watched American westerns as a boy, and were taken by the mythical heroes. But you have said that in Palestine the martyrs are real flesh-and-blood people, living now, who are giving up their lives.
Abu-Assad: And this is the idea of a hero everywhere you go, in all the religions. Your interest is less important than the interest of the collective, or than the interest of God. God wants you to fight the devil in you, to become a better man. A hero puts his life below the interests of this challenge.
But can't heroes be heroic in the wrong cause?
Abu-Assad: Yes, for sure, and suicide bombing is in the same rhetoric but in the wrong direction. You put your life as less important than the liberation, but then you kill yourself and others.
You refer to Da Vinci's Last Supper painting in the film, but in a different context. Are you suggesting that the suicide bombers are going to their crucifixion?
Abu-Assad: From their own point of view, yes, because crucifixion is also about redemption, and taking the guilt of others. Saïd wants to take the guilt of his father, who was a collaborator, so it's very dramatic. Also, Da Vinci's painting is lit from above, from God. Mine is lit from a gas lamp.
Tell me more about your early years.
Abu-Assad: I was born in Nazareth. It's kind of funny to be a Muslim born in a Christian city, to be Palestinian in Israel, to come from a wealthy family in a poor society, to be an Arab in the west. Most of my friends were Christians. We just had different holidays: I had Ramadan, they had Christmas. But then you know each other because you are in the same school.
Do you think a film like this is better at showing the situation of the Palestinians than a documentary, because you can show the emotions?
Abu-Assad: Not better than. Different. Fiction allows you to understand the emotions, but it's not better. You need everything: documentary, fiction, poetry, painting, the media, politics. You need all the information to get a wider view. The higher you go, the more you don't know. Life is too big and too complex for anyone to say, "Now I know."
But in martyrdom, isn't there the hope that you will reach that point of enlightenment?
Abu-Assad: You want to, but by your death.
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