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Brandon Judell

Making Nice with Suicide Bombers: An interview with Hanu Abu-Assad

By Brandon Judell

Paradise Now

Three weeks after I've seen Hanu Abu-Assad’s “Paradise Now,” I still can’t shake its memory. How often can you say that about any film release, the bulk of which are so easily disposable.

Of course, “Paradise Now” has the subject matter: Palestinian suicide bombers. And then there’s the manner in which the subject is handled: with wit, tragedy, romance, suspense, political ambiguity, and even a dash of broad comedy.

(There’s also the added dilemma, at least for me, of being Jewish. I was sympathizing with the “heroes” who under the right circumstances would blow me up. Freud would know what to say here.)

That Abu-Assad’s latest offering is so masterful is no surprise to fans of his documentary “Ford Transit” and his narrative feature “Rana’s Wedding.” Both features explored facets of Palestinian society that we, as consumers of Good Morning America gloss, are seldom exposed to.

To find out more, the following chat took place at the Regency Hotel, where the director and his two lead actors, Kais Nashif and Ali Suliman, were modestly bathing in the acclaim their feature just received at the New York Film Festival.

NYTW: How did you prepare for this film?

HA: We read. We studied. There was a lot of research, but mainly being there [in Palestine]. I think it’s a unique atmosphere. It’s a strange, surreal place.

NYTW: The Israeli director Avi Mograbi was just here in the Big Apple. His films also rail against the policies of Israel. He said, after a screening of his “Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi,” that he didn’t expect any of one movie to change an audience’s mind unless the audience was composed of idiots. He insisted a film can’t do that. Yet when I saw your previous work, “Rana’s Wedding” and “Ford Transit,” I felt I was indeed transformed. And I have no doubt that “Paradise Now” will definitely modify the thinking of many folks, too.

Putting aside Mograbi’s judgment that I might be an idiot, what do you think the purpose of a movie is?

HA: Not to change. If you’re already open minded enough, you can adopt a new vision . . . or see the world from a different point of view. Movies in general are where you want to experience things that you don’t experience in reality, Movies are where you can go to a place that you can’t go otherwise. Or where you can go somewhere inside yourself that you can’t usually go, and a film allows you to experience this in your comfortable chair in the cinema.

So a film can show you how complex life can be. How complex the subject can be. If the film allows you to see this complexity, you could rejudge your own opinion. But it’s not my goal to change it.

My goal first is to fulfill my own curiosity. I want to know what this [my chosen subject] is about.

NYTW: In the film you depict the two suicide bombers as everyday Joes, not fanatics. Have you considered how audiences worldwide will react to this depiction?

HA: I was first of all surprised during my research that I found a lot of stories. Such human stories that I couldn’t believe. I couldn’t believe that these stories were happening.

For example, I was hearing tales from a lawyer, who was defending people who failed in their missions and now were in jail. One was about a boy and a girl sitting in a car, and they both had a belt [of bombs on them]. When the boy discovered that the girl was to do also a suicide mission with him, he said, “No, stop! I don’t want to do it with a girl.”

And she was angry with him: “Why? You are conservative man.”

He said, “No. No. No. I will kill for protection. A man can kill for protection. But when a woman starts to kill, this is the end of life. You have to create life.”

This is a real story; it happened in a car. The driver was there. They all had a discussion between them about the modern idea of liberation between man and woman.

She went, “We have the same responsibilities now. This is an old vision of life that a man has different responsibilities. We have the same responsibilities in defending our society, and I have the same right to do that.”

And the boy went, “No! It's not about rights; it’s about life.” [Hany laughs.] And they were like fighting, and then the driver was saying, “Can you shut up?”

This is the sort of story I was getting from this lawyer. I was so surprised by this kind of humanity. I was so surprised how ignorant I was. How stupid I was to think that [the suicide bombers] are not human beings. Or that they are different from me and you. Actually, what I discovered was that everybody can become a suicide bomber if he would get into the same situation.

NYTW: The suicide bombings have been going on for a long time. Do you actually think these people are achieving anything other than ruthless slaughter?

HA: This is a military strategy. I think it will not solve the situation. First of all, you kill yourself with the other victims who are on the bus with you. The poor people, you know.

[Suicide bombing] ends up having the poor people from the Palestinian society killing themselves with the poor people of the other society. You are not killing the people responsible for the policies of [Israel]. Secondly, you will just let the other side misuse your actions in order to spread fear in their own society in order to continue the unjust behavior among [the Palestinians].

And the last thing, I would be against it even if I was be in favor of military action. I’m against it because you are losing the best soldiers on your side. Why? Because somebody who is willing to die for the cause, this is your best soldier. This the best what you have. For this reason, I think I'm against it. I will never be in favor of these kinds of actions. But again I'm speaking now from my own military experience. (Laughing, to show he is joking about his military experience.)

NYTW: This film is a masterpiece. In my eyes at least. I don’t know. Maybe if I see it again I might like it less. Do you see it as a great film? It seems to have the brazenness of a Jean Luc Godard film, the wit of a Mike Leigh film, and so forth. Are you being treated like a world master now? Is funding being thrown at you?

HA: First of all I don’t see it as a masterpiece. I think there are relative mistakes. But I will not talk about them now. You will have to discover them on your own. (He laughs.) No, it’s true. I think it’s a good movie. The most important thing where I think it succeeds is that it’s like a thriller. The thriller is an artificial genre because there is no suspense in real life in the West. But in real life in Palestine, there is suspense even if you go and want to buy some water.

Copyright © Brandon Judell 2005

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