IN THE NEXT 36 HOURS, TWO CHILDHOOD FRIENDS MAY DO THE UNTHINKABLE.
The controversy surrounding the 2006 Oscar nomination for this film in the Foreign Language category is typical of the most famous, and tiresome, conflict in the world. Paradise Now was originally submitted to the Academy Awards as a film from Palestine – which is how Palestinians prefer to think of their land. That designation faced opposition from Israeli politicians, but the Academy’s decision to change the country of origin to the Palestinian Authority (which was technically correct) angered director Hany Abu-Assad who considered it a slap in the face. In the end, it was presented as a film from “the Palestinian Territories”. Any movie about the conflict is certainly treading on eggshells.
The story focuses on two childhood friends, Said and Khaled (Kais Nashef, Ali Suliman), who are now in their twenties. These Nablus residents are unable to find and hold on to good jobs and become easy targets for extremists that are looking for suitable candidates for suicide missions. One of them is Abu Salim (Mohammad Bustami), a charismatic but utterly selfish man, who doesn’t find it too difficult to talk these young men into sacrificing themselves for their people. Said and Khaled believe in the cause, like any other Palestinian, and going from a nobody to a martyred hero seems like a reasonable choice, especially considering the awards that await in heaven.
Their job is to cross the border between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, wearing suits that make them look like Jews, find a military check point and then detonate the explosive belts that are strapped to their bodies. However, the mission is complicated by practical details, unforeseen events, and the would-be bombers’ own consciences.
Addressing a complex situation
Abu-Assad and Bero Beyer worked on the script for several years and what they’ve accomplished is a straight-forward, simple drama (with thriller elements) that addresses the complex situation in this part of the world in intelligent, humanistic ways. Religion is merely an excuse for the bloodshed, which is evident in a scene where one of the protagonists asks Abu Salim if it is true that their souls will be collected by angels and he answers him curtly, seemingly annoyed at having this irrelevant, fairy-tale question thrown at him. Another scene, where Said and Khaled are taping a final message to their families and the world, is both touching and comical; the whole mission is such a shoddily planned, sad event. As they ponder what they’re about to do, the protagonists become real human beings, not simply fanatics or pawns.
Said in particular is challenged by Suha (Lubna Azabal), the daughter of a martyr, who surprises him by reacting very harshly against suicide bombings; his own family is also a clue to why he would contemplate something like this.
The portrayal of ordinary Palestinians who are not involved in bombings or anything like that is another valuable part of the film; these territories are filled with people who may resent the Israelis, but are nevertheless focused on making ends meet. Those scenes are shot in actual Palestinian locations by a director who grew up there. In the end, he almost regretted making the film because of the dangers posed to the crew by both the Israeli military and Palestinian extremists. Another symbol of what ails the region.
Paradise Now 2005-The Palestinian Authority-The Netherlands-Germany-France. 90 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Bero Beyer, Amir Harel, Gerhard Meixner, Hengameh Panahi, Roman Paul. Directed by Hany Abu-Assad. Screenplay: Hany Abu-Assad, Bero Beyer. Cast: Kais Nashef (Said), Ali Suliman (Khaled), Lubna Azabal (Suha Azzam), Amer Hlehel, Hiam Abbass, Ashraf Barhoum.
Golden Globe: Best Foreign Language Film. European Film Awards: Best Screenwriter.
Last word: “We faced a lot of problems, including not being able to repeat shots as many times as we would’ve wanted. But that became the art of the film — and you always have to make compromises when you’re filming, wherever you are. Ours were only a bit more extreme. But I wanted to be close to reality, and Nablus is part of the film. You see, it was very important that we didn’t just go there, film, and leave: It needed much more understanding and time. For example, the actors lived in Nablus before we started to shoot — Kais and Ali even had to work for several weeks in that garage to get into their world, to feel it. We had to shoot some of the last parts in Nazareth — there were a lot of attacks in the night, arrests, and fights with the resistance people.” (Abu-Assad, Bidoun)