On the Scene Week of Dec. 8, 2005

The 70 virgins aren't the only ones having a go at it for the first time in "Paradise Now," the controversial and craftily compelling new film about suicide bombers by Hany Abu-Assad.

The Palestinian director/co-writer has made what is conceivably the first feature featuring a suicide bomber's point of view; it is a film as explosive in debate circles as it is on screen.

Propagating propaganda? It's not surprising that Abu-Assad says no; he is, after all, the filmmaker. What is more startling is he may very well be right, no matter if your seat in the theater is to the left, in the center or or to the right of the screen.

On screens now, "Paradise Now" is about the paradise of lost opportunities for peace in the Mideast. As it details two young terrorists' attempts to right themselves with the wrong side of the law, it also is a suspense shocker that will have the hummus melting in your hands.

But there are no black-and-white barkas worn to war here; only uniform ignorance in which murder is myopically seen as a panacea for pain.

Death begetting death is a cure not on the director's prescription pad for peace, however.

Is the film a hybrid of hope and hopelessness? "It is both an apology and an explanation," asserts Abu-Assad, whose own position has shifted as much as the sands of the sweeping scenery. ("Paradise Now" was shot in Nablus, Nazareth and Tel Aviv with an international crew, including Israelis.)

In a way, Abu-Assad was on a crazy kamikaze mission of his own; he found enemies on both sides of the projector, with Israelis and Palestinians projecting their own fears and doing their own finger-pointing at the director for taking sides.

As Abu-Assad himself concedes, "I am not condoning for one moment the intentional taking of life": "The full weight and complexity of the situation is impossible to show on film. No one side can claim a moral stance because taking any life is not a moral action. The entire situation is outside of what we can call morality."

But as an insider, he hopes to be the mole who burrows to the bottom of a very difficult topic. "I am happy if it will lead to an open discussion."

But has it led to open war against the director? There is no doubt where he stands on the shaky ground that is the violently volcanic Mideast. "After making this film, I know I am against suicide bombings. Not just from my point of view as a pacifist," but from the perspective of logics and logistics.

"Even if I were in favor of violence, I still wouldn't condone suicide bombers. What are [they] doing? You are killing yourself – killing your best soldiers, decimating the army."

And the battle lines are drawn so crookedly. "Who are you killing by doing this? Civilians from the other side? Poor people in buses? It's almost as if you are killing people" in somewhat similar circumstances, regular civilians trying to make their way in life.

And don't forget the political time bomb you are handing the politicians, he adds. "You are giving politicians on the other side an excuse to continue the oppression."

Pressed for what he hoped to accomplish with such an incendiary film, Abu-Assad says, "I tried to make a film as neutral as possible; there is no clear political point of view."

But in such a vacuum, doesn't that position suck the morality right out of the issues encountered by Israelis facing every moment as life or death?

"I have made a thriller; it is a piece of art."

Art is this to thee and that to me, opined Keats. But then, the poet never had to make rhyme and reason out of the Mideast.

When Abu-Assad approached his own Israeli friends in the film community, their response can best be described as blank verse. Recalls Abu-Assad, "I asked for money from the Israel Film Funding Commission, but they refused. They said it was a good script, but they had fears of the right wing."

One Israeli had no such trepidation, taking the project under his own wing. "He helped us in logistics, not money," says the director of Amir Harel of Lama Productions. Israeli braveheart? "He's a good friend. Yes, he was scared to do it. He's a brave man, and I love him for it."

Harel is no stranger to controversial cinema, daring to tackle topical issues in such acclaimed Israeli films as "Yossie and Jagger" and "Walk on Water."

But this was more a walk on the wild side for Abu-Assad, assiduously pursued by some Palestinians who targeted his intent armed not with arguments but with … arms: "One group thought the film was not presenting the suicide bombers in a good light and came to us with guns and asked us to stop."

That call for "action!" wasn't in the script. What did stop Abu-Assad was the real-life fighting alongside the reel work he directed, as he cites the daily turmoil of Israeli tanks and rocket attacks in Nablus giving an eerie definition to the term "film shoot."

Indeed, the Israelis left a paper trail … one with Abu-Assad's name on it. Did he sign his life away to do this film?

In a way, he says, yes: "The Israeli army had me sign a paper [exonerating them from responsibility] if I were killed, saying that it was my own responsibility. It was not the optimum situation, but you sign it."

Signs of danger were everywhere: "Every day, a missile attack; every day, an explosion."

And one day … a kidnapping. One Palestinian group, upset with the director's perceived direction, kidnapped his location manager. It took an intervention by none other than the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to have him released.

Arafat … film buff? No, according to Abu-Assad, who "knew for a fact" that the PLO plenipotentiary had never seen a film, but nevertheless acceded to helping.

All of this had a profound effect on the director. "How can you be in between a traumatic experience?" asks Abu-Assad of his motion-picture predicament depicting do-and-die missions. "I still can't sleep much because of this intense experience I had."

But certainly, all the acclaim and accolades – including a slew of honors at the 2005 Berlin Film Festival – assuage Abu-Assad's assessment of his experience.

"I wish I hadn't done it," he says, surprisingly. "Yes, it's a good film, but after finishing it," he realized it is hard to return to regular society. "I have had nasty reactions from both sides, but the most hurting is from the Palestinians."

Their charge about his emotionally-charged feature?

"That I made a film showing the ugly face of the Palestinians. That the film is insulting to the heroes of the cause."

Is he himself a hero with this fete of sand? Certainly, the director, whose other work includes the much-praised "Rana's Wedding" (2002), is on a honeymoon with the international film industry. "I have lots of opportunities these days, not just for films with political or Palestinian issues," says Abu-Assad.

Good news, bad news: "When you become successful," says the very successful director, "new friends will come. But so will new enemies."

Some of those enemies' verbal attacks are misguided missiles. "I don't understand why attacks are so personal. You can attack a film as a film, but not me as a person."

Did Abu-Assad feel defensive when the film opened in Israel? No need. "Paradise Now" found a welcome reception among audiences. "It is shown three times a day in Tel Aviv," says the director proudly.

And what does he have to show for all this? A "new partnership with Nazli Durlu, a Turkish woman with whom I am writing" new movies, who shares his picture passions for "films of personal conflict."

"We like films like 'Sideways' and 'Lost in Translation.' "

And if there's one way to translate the incredibly suspenseful ending of "Paradise Now," Abu-Assad is not about to give it away now.

"The ending was clear for me," he says.

As for the audience? "It's all about how you want to read it." u



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