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Saturday, May 14, 2005


Paradise Now Premieres in Frankfurt

On May 13 there was standing room only at the Frankfurt Film Museum’s showing of Hany Abu Assad’s Paradise Now, winner of the 2005 Berlinale Blau Engel Prize for Best European Film and also the Amnesty and Audience Prizes. There is quite a thoughtful review in English of the film by Variety’s senior overseas critic, Derek Elley. After the Frankfurt premiere, Abu Assad answered questions, exhibiting inordinate grace when confronted with some questions that had nothing to do with the film and which were asked with the sole purpose of scoring political points.

Abu Assad has assembled a talented group of actors including Kais Nashef as Said and Ali Suliman as his friend, Khaled. Said and Khaled are recruited to carry out a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. The film recounts twenty-seven hours in their lives.

Other cast members include Lubna Azabel as Suha, a young woman returned from exile for whom Said has affection, Ashraf Barham as Abu Karem, the leader of the suicide operation, Haim Abbas as Said’s mother, and Amer Hlehel as Jamal, the recruiter.

Abu Assad says that he filmed for forty days, mainly in Nablus, while it was under siege, and when rockets started falling, cast and crew moved to Nazareth, the birthplace of the director. We are presented with mainly the seamy side of Nablus. Abu Assad said that Nablus people told him that the building in which Said and Khaled are trained was actually used for training recruits for suicide missions. Said, the son of a collaborator, who was killed when Said was ten, and Khaled are both auto mechanics that work in a small garage. In the beginning of the film, Said and Khaled are shown smoking a nargilah and drinking tea, high above Nablus. We also see Suha and Khaled exchange first pleasantries when Suha brings her car to the garage. Said tells her that she should be driving an Alfa Romeo.

Suha, who was born in France, and raised in Morocco, has returned from exile. The daughter of a revered martyr, she embodies the voices in Palestinian society who don’t see suicide bombing as a viable option. In one of the most dramatic scenes of the film, she and Khaled are pursuing Said, who has gone missing after an aborted suicide mission. A heated exchange ensues between the two regarding the merits of suicide bombing.

In his remarks Abu Assad said that most women in Palestinian society are opposed to suicide bombing. When asked by an audience member why the one opposed to suicide bombing came from the outside, Abu Assad said that Suha as an exile was a member of Palestinian society, and that her voice represented voices within Palestinian society opposed to suicide bombing. In fielding questions, Abu Assad refused to allow stereotypical views of Palestinians to stand. “Suha is based upon a real personality with whom I discussed suicide bombing the entire time. Suha represents the voice of people against suicide bombing in our society.”

According to Abu Assad, he has critics from both the left and the right who accuse him of making a propaganda film. He answers that most Palestinians view his film as an honest movie. He takes a “human approach to a phenomenon that some want to see as either an evil deed or as a holy deed.” Confronted by one audience member that he is justifying suicide bombing Abu Assad replied, “There is no need to justify anything, because it is there.” He makes an analogy between himself and a doctor who looks through a microscope and reports the findings. "Suicide bombing is a consequence of injustice and occupation," Assad has maintained in interviews. In response to a statement that the film justifies killing Jews because they are Jews, he said that over one hundred intellectual Israelis viewed his film and not one came to the conclusion that the film was made to justify killing Jews because they’re Jews. “Some people are so desperate that they become a bomb,” he says.

Abu Assad doesn’t have many scenes depicting the physical aspects of occupation although there is one compelling scene when Khaled is hotly pursuing Said and sees a checkpoint ahead. “Pigs,” he snarls as he comes to a screeching halt and must find an alternate route. From this image the audience is startled into awareness of the complete physical control that the occupiers maintain over the occupied. Abu Assad believes to show “directly the consequences of the occupation is cheap because we all know [about] that.” Abu Assad is overestimating his future U.S. audience (Warner Independent Films will distribute in the US), if he believes this; however he acknowledges that his interest is the “invisible” occupation, especially the psychological experiences that spring from physical occupation or the “nightmares” that occupation engenders.

When the initial plans go awry, Said goes missing and Khaled and Suha pursue him. Khaled and Said set out again for Tel Aviv, but upon arrival Khaled has second thoughts. He calls the Israeli collaborators (evidently there is one documented instance of an Israeli who was in debt who assisted in a suicide bombing), to come back and get them, but Said tricks him and does not get in the car. Said goes on to blow up a bus (this is represented by the screen going white) that contains mainly Israeli soldiers; earlier he did not get on a bus because he was deterred by seeing a child on the bus.

Abu Assad effectively humanizes the two friends who are recruited for the mission and even the recruiter and the leader of the mission are not demonized. In the scene in which they make their farewell videos Khaled remembers to remind his mother to take care of a household matter. We also see him playing with a younger sibling the night before the intended mission. On what he thinks is his last night, Said visits Suha in the middle of the night. He doesn’t let on about his intended mission; he drinks tea and asks for four teaspoons of sugar; Suha remarks that Nablus people have their sugar with tea.

When Abu Assad was asked why he showed only the Palestinian side and not the Israeli side, he replied that it was the “duty” of the Israelis to show the other side. Until Paradise Now there has not been a film that has shown what happens prior to the aftermath of a suicide bomb. His intent was neither “to glorify” nor to “demonize” those who undertake suicide missions.

When asked if his film was “anti-Semitic” he didn’t brush off the question, rather said that this was a “serious” question, a “very, very serious” question. He said “to use this term to anything against Israel will harm anti-Semitism. I think Jews have to be treated equal as any other nation and deserve to be criticized; [we can not] treat them as an exception. Anti-Semitism is “generalizing that all Jews are bad.” He advised those in the audience who charged him with anti-Semitism to be careful. “If you use it for anything, you will harm its meaning.” He mentioned earlier that every society has its “good, bad, and ugly.” When asked about “anti-homosexuality” and “child abuse” in Palestinian society he humorously replied, “My next film will be about it.” On a more serious note, like most Palestinian public speakers, he had to emphasize what should be obvious, “Our society doesn’t deserve less freedom because we have anti-homosexuals, as you also have in Germany.” No one would ever make a conclusion that “Germans are abnormal.”

As for Paradise, Abu Assad doesn’t know if there is a God, let alone Paradise. He acknowledges that in Arabic countries in which life is unbearable, heaven plays a big part. “I would like to have my Paradise. I don’t think there is a Paradise as others think, but I cannot really say. If there is God, [and He wants to know] what I did wrong and right, I assure you that I’m on the right side. I believe that we are all human and humans should enjoy the same civil rights all over the world. In my conscience I never harmed anyone; for this reason, I deserve Paradise.”

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