I wonder how the Nazareth-born Palestinian filmmaker of Paradise Now, Hany Abu-Assad, feels about the Warner Independent cutlines in their advertising for his movie? "From the most unexpected place, comes a bold new call for peace," and "Sometimes the most courageous act is what you don't do."
Why, I ask, is it "unexpected" that a Palestinian would want peace in the Middle East? Actually, Paradise Now refuses to push any overt political line in its scary tale of two Palestinians entering Israel with bombs in their belts. It never asserts that "what you don't do" (not be a terrorist?) is the most courageous act of an angry young Palestinian. It's true that there's an implied pacifism to the movie, but Abu-Assad wants audiences to make up their own minds how Palestinian rights might be achieved.
He's kept music from his soundtrack because "Music is pushing you to what you think and feel, but the film is about opening up your thinking." He realizes the difficulty, as ideology about Islamic terrorists breaks into resolute camps: "Either suicide bombers are evil, or suicide bombers are holy, angels."
I talked to Abu-Assad, a friendly, accessible director, after his Toronto International Film Festival screening in September. "In the beginning," he told me, "I thought I'd shoot in a classic style, yet in a 'documentary' place, the West Bank town of Nablus. But we were endangering our lives, under seige. It was very difficult, very physical, no civil rights, so we moved to Nazareth, a safer place."
Did he have trouble casting Palestinian actors? "A few actors refused, who weren't in agreement with the vision of the film." The others are professional actors in the local theatre. "Now there are about 100 people who live by producing their own work, tough, professional actors who'll do anything in order to survive in this field. Every two years, we can produce but one film, so I hope they'll have work outside the Palestinian territory. For Paradise Now, we could pay. They couldn't believe I had money for them."
I praised especially the actors who play the leaders of the terrorist underground. Frightening! "They are so good!" Abu-Assad agreed. "In reality, they are such nice people. They went with me to the world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, and we'll be at the premiere in Ramallah, on the West Bank."
How did Paradise Now manage to shoot in Israel? "We had an Israeli co-producer, so all scenes in Tel Aviv were shot in the real place. It was logical to be there. We were very quiet and polite and behaved, so we could claim this place as our studio. That's a real Israeli bus we use, and the driver wanted to know if our actor really was a suicide bomber."
The Palestinian bombers are promised, of course, a glorious Islamic afterlife. What does Abu-Assad think? "I don't know what happens," he answered frankly. "It doesn't matter. When your life on earth is hell, it's unacceptable, then you start to believe in heaven and paradise. There's a need to have this belief when there's no justice.
"Still, I'm always optimistic, not just because the Israeli settlers are leaving Gaza but because there's no choice for human beings than to go forward. You have to come to the point that we accept each other as humans. We are all equal, no matter the color of our skin, or our religion."
(Boston Phoenix, November, 2005)