Interview with Hany Abu-Assad

Shooting "Paradise Now" amid Israeli Rockets

The film "Paradise Now" by Hany Abu-Assad, which was shown in competition at this year's Berlin Film Festival, is the first feature film to take on the theme of suicide bombers. Igal Avidan interviewed the Palestinian filmmaker

Hany Abu-Assad (photo: Berlinale 2005)
The West Bank was like the Wild West, says Hany Abu-Assad about the situation on the set of "Paradise Now". The film has been accused of uncritically depicting Palestinian suicide bombings

​​Two young Palestinian men, Khaled und Said, who have been friends since childhood, have been chosen for a mission as suicide bombers in Tel Aviv. They are permitted to spend what is probably the last night of their lives with their families in Nablus.

Naturally, they don't tell anyone of their plans and therefore don't really take their final leave of their relatives. The next morning, they are brought to the Israeli border. They carry the bombs concealed on their bodies.

But the operation does not go off as planned: the two friends lose sight of each other. Separated and forced to act independently, the "living bombs" must face their fate alone and hold onto the courage of their convictions.

What made you decide to make a film about suicide bombers, especially at a time in early 2000 when no suicide attacks were taking place?

Hany Abu-Assad: Like every filmmaker, I am always looking for a story. Back then, I viewed the phenomenon as a story. This distance was supposed to prevent me from being swayed by the topicality of the situation and the fears and emotions associated with it, which might have resulted in a predictable film.

And then the second Intifada broke out in October 2000 and the Palestinian suicide attacks resumed. How did you react to this development?

Abu-Assad: This turn of events was especially bad for the people there. I viewed this reality, however, as a drama in which the characters develop. I recounted this drama in the language of film. This distance was necessary to be able to comprehend the phenomenon of killing and dying at the same moment in which it was happening.

Why did you insist on shooting the film in Nablus, despite the daily violence there and the siege on the city?

Abu-Assad: Because I wanted to shoot the film as a fictional story, but at the same time stay close to reality. That meant shooting the story on location where it is based – while the events recounted were happening. Our first option was Gaza, but we quickly gave up because the city is now a big prison where entering and exiting are nearly impossible. At that time Israel was firing rockets at Gaza on a daily basis, but hadn't fired any at the West Bank for six months. Since the Israeli army was invading Nablus daily, we didn't think we had to worry about any especially dangerous rockets striking there. You don't see a rocket approaching. But you do see the Israeli tanks, and we would have had enough time to take cover.

But your assessment of the situation proved wrong!

Abu-Assad: Yes, because suddenly on the 20th day of shooting an Israeli rocket struck close by. My first reaction was cynical. I felt like the captain of a sinking ship. I'm too far away from port to turn back, so I have to keep going. Six German technicians left the set. I can't blame them. Life is more important than film. So we all left and shot instead in Nazareth.

Where did the film crew live? After all, 70 people were involved in shooting the film.

Abu-Assad: We had a really nice hotel. I found it incredible how the Palestinians in Nablus were holding up under Israeli pressure. The children continued to go to school every day – only staying home on days when curfews or strikes were in effect. The stores were open, there were still weddings, people told jokes and laughed. At the same time, you could see signs of social decline. There was no police force, and militant groups robbed a bank. The West Bank was like the Wild West.

And your film became the bone of contention between two armed gangs.

Abu-Assad: One faction wanted to stop the film from being shot. They considered it anti-Palestinian because it doesn't show the violence of the Israelis and the occupation. The other group agreed, but pleaded nonetheless for freedom of speech and backed us up, with weapons of course, which were fortunately never used.

Had they read the screenplay, or how did they know so much about the film?

Abu-Assad: All of the people in Nablus knew the screenplay from hearsay, and everyone had an opinion on it. It became the major topic of conversation. I even had to talk about my screenplay when I went to buy groceries. At the same time, we had to negotiate with the soldiers for every little thing, for example, to let an actor enter or leave the city.

Almost all of the actors are Palestinians who live in Israel or – like you - in Europe. The leading role is played by Lubna Azabal, who was born in Belgium. What was the relationship like between those involved in the film and the Palestinians in Nablus, who, unlike the crew, were not able to leave?

Abu-Assad: They treated us very well, and we were welcomed everywhere we went. The appreciated the fact that we wanted to get firsthand experience of the dangers they faced in their everyday lives. Once I went to buy a pair of shoes, and when the saleswoman found out who I was, she wanted to give me the shoes as a gift.

You have been living in the Netherlands since 1981, with a few interruptions. But you are also actively following the situation in the Middle East. What do you think a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians could look like?

Abu-Assad: The only solution is the principle of equality between Palestinians and Israelis, as nations and as individuals. On this basis it would be possible to negotiate the details fairly quickly. Up until now, official representatives of Israel have not yet recognized a State of Palestine on an equal footing with Israel – since that necessarily means a division of the territory and its resources. They reject that idea as a surrender of the Jewish state and instead offer the Palestinians only human rights.

As long as the suicide attacks continue, Israel will not concede to any compromises, and the Palestinians will not get their own state. Do you agree with this view?

Abu-Assad: The suicide attacks are a consequence of oppression, which first has to stop. The Israelis forget that the occupation continued during the Oslo peace process.

Do you condemn the suicide attacks?

Abu-Assad: Why? I am against killing people, and I want that to stop. But I do not condemn the suicide attackers. For me, it is a very human reaction to an extreme situation.

Your film ends with a suicide bombing on an Israeli bus. Why did you choose not to show the blood and mangled bodies of the innocent Israelis?

Abu-Assad: The ending I chose is much more powerful, because we already know from the media what the images after the attack look like, but not the images before the attack.

The Israel Film Fund plans to underwrite the distribution of your film in Israel. Are you pleased about that?

Abu-Assad: I would be delighted to show Israelis the film, because for them the Palestinians are either invisible or terrorists. I am going to try to organize some screenings in the West Bank, in order to get a discussion going.

Interview: Igal Avidan

© 2005

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaidar

At the Berlinale Hany Abu-Assad received for his film "Paradise Now" the Blue Angel for best European film, a cash prize of 25,000 EUR sponsored by AGICOA.

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