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The second fiction feature Hany Abu-Assad has made in his homeland, Paradise Now, is the 44-year-old filmmaker’s breakthrough. This thematically and emotionally complex account of two Palestinian suicide bombers was a success on the international-film-festival circuit and has drawn favorable reviews, from Berlin to New York to Jerusalem. If he had a second chance, however, the writer-director wouldn’t make the movie, or at least not the way he did.
“It was stupid to do it. If I could go back, I would not do it,” says Abu-Assad of shooting in the West Bank towns of Nazareth, his birthplace, and Nablus. In addition to dodging bombs and Israeli rockets, Abu-Assad and his crew were threatened at gunpoint and saw their location manager kidnapped.
The director is concerned about not simply physical safety but also the effect of such turmoil on his work. “You have to rescue your film from your frustration,” he says. “At the end, the film has to be beautiful. The motor is your frustration, but your outcome is beauty, empathy, and storytelling. You have to protect your picture from your anger.
“You shoot a film where you are not allowed to. It’s a challenge that I paid a high price for,” says the black-clad, unshaven director, sitting in the plush safety of the Georgetown Ritz-Carlton. “I have a film, but it’s stuck in my head—the five months of pressure that I lived in. I’m not sleeping well, and my frustration has become bigger. I’m not losing my frustration.”
To illuminate the effects of the shoot, Abu-Assad offers the verdict of one of the film’s principal actors, who remarked that before he made Paradise Now, the West Bank was to him “an item on the television, and if you don’t like it, you change the channel. But after being in Nablus, you can’t change the channel anymore.”
At 19, Abu-Assad moved to Amsterdam, where he still lives, to study airplane design, but he was bored by the caution inherent in engineering. He wanted something riskier, but only aesthetically. “You never know if you take the right decision,” he says of movie making. Ironically, he thought that “the worst that can happen is to make a bad film. Nobody’s going to die from it.”
No one did die while making Paradise Now, but a fatal mishap was certainly a possibility. The film’s subject matter was controversial, of course, but the production also attracted attention because it was on a larger scale than the previous movies Abu-Assad had shot on the West Bank, including Rana’s Wedding and two documentaries, Ford Transit and Nazareth 2000.
Working with a smaller crew for Paradise Now would have been simpler, the director concedes, “but I was convinced that wasn’t the way the film had to be done. Shooting in 35 mm and Cinemascope allows the audience to experience the emotional aspect of the story, more than just following the narrative. Scope and 35 mm are closer to what you see with your eye than video images. Thirty-five has more depth than video, and with widescreen, as much as possible, you are there. Not watching something about others.”
That wasn’t always Abu-Assad’s opinion. He and producer Bero Beyer began co-writing the script in 1999, when the director was strongly influenced by Lars von Trier’s Dogma 95 strictures, which demanded the use of handheld video. He changed his mind while making a documentary about the cabs that ferry Palestinians between Israeli checkpoints.
“Twenty years from now, the whole home-video experience will be different,” the director notes. “Then you will look back at these images as ugly and having nothing to do with reality. Why is it reality? Because the camera is shaking? In reality, even when you’re running, your vision is not shaking. I discovered this during Ford Transit.
“This is nonsense, the whole idea of Dogma. It’s just a genius who played with [conventions]. Lars von Trier is a genius, but Dogma is just a joke for him. Now he’s using a completely different style,” he exclaims, laughing.
Paradise Now does obey one Dogma edict, forgoing any music whose source isn’t visible on screen. “Music is very artificial,” Abu-Assad says. “If you want to make real suspense, you can’t use artificial language, or artificial means or effect. There is music when they play a tape; then you hear music. But not during a scene to make suspense, like doon doon doon, like Hitchcock.
“I think if I had used music, I’d have killed the whole film.”
Among Paradise Now’s many subtexts is cinema itself, an interest of the film’s cosmopolitan-outsider character, played by Belgian-born Lubna Azabal. She asks one of the potential bombers if he has a favorite genre of movie, and he responds, “Is there a boring genre” like his life? She proposes Japanese minimalism, although Iranian neorealism is an equally apt suggestion—and one that Abu-Assad mentions when analyzing his movie.
“I think the film is actually three genres,” he says. “The minimalist movie, like the Iranian genre, if you know it. And a thriller and a Western. But the anti-mythological Western. Because the Western, as a genre, is very mythological. It’s based on a kind of Romantic hero. And my heroes are tragic heroes and realistic heroes. The mise-en-scène in some places is very Western. But it’s not anymore in the past and not anymore a fantasized hero.”
Abu-Assad lists many contemporary American directors, among them Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Jim Jarmusch, and David Lynch, as favorites and cites a Western as a formative experience. “I started to go to the cinema in Nazareth when I was 4,” he says. “We didn’t have television at home; I hadn’t seen television. So it was such an incredible impact on me. These horses came toward the camera. Oh my God, they’re coming to me! After the screening of the film, I went behind the cinema, where there was a football field where we played. I wanted to see where the horses were. Because I thought they came from there. I didn’t believe my uncle, who said it was a projection.”
The filmmaker tempers his childhood affection for Hollywood movies, however, with a strong interest in documentary. “I am obsessed by this border between fiction and nonfiction,” he says. “I don’t know why, but I think it’s a magic moment. If I make a documentary, always I will push it to a level where it will reach the fiction side. And if I’m doing fiction, I will push it always to the documentary side. It’s not just about using my experience as a documentary maker.”
For Paradise Now, Abu-Assad insisted that the two actors playing auto mechanics and potential bombers, Kais Nashif and Ali Suliman, work for two months in a Nablus garage before filming began. He also included footage of a man who had lost both his hands assembling bombs but who continued to construct explosive devices. And he filmed his actors videotaping their farewell “martyr statements” at a location where genuine bombers had done the same thing.
“For the actor, being there in the real place was so confusing. Two months before, someone was there reading his statement, and he’s now in—in God’s hands, I don’t know where he is.” Abu-Assad shrugs and issues an apologetic chuckle. “But to be there, you don’t know anymore where you are standing, in fiction or nonfiction.”
The nonfiction continued even after filming wrapped for the day, because the bulk of the cast members were local and most of the visiting actors stayed in the Nablus refugee camp. “They didn’t live in a hotel. When you wrap, you are in a real Palestinian refugee camp.”
Abu-Assad’s previous films are characterized by wry humor, and Paradise Now, despite its subject matter, continues that tradition. “Humor for me is a way of surviving, a creative way of losing your frustration. If you notice, when I am speaking about something painful, I am always laughing. You notice that? Otherwise it would be very heavy for me. To realize every word I say from the tragic point of view. This is more realistic.
“Most people use humor in order to survive. And if you shift from tragedy to comedy, you can make a film with layers. Always there are different layers in the film. You give the audience the feeling that there is another level in life. It’s not just this. It takes you to a journey of discovery.”
In fact, the director’s next film will emphasize humor and “bring a different energy” that may allow him to finally change the channel from his experiences in Nablus. “There was always comedy in the films, but there was also tension,” he says. “But now the comedy will be the leading theme.
“At this moment, I am worried all the time. I want to lose my worry. It’s not nice to worry. I want to enjoy life.”—Mark Jenkins
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.