Violence looms in Paradise Now, director Hany Abu-Assad's gripping film about a pair of Palestinian suicide bombers preparing for their first and last mission. From the opening shot of a young woman crossing an Israeli checkpoint to the final, fateful bus ride, the potential for bloodshed hangs heavy in the air.
Yet, in one of the film's most brilliant acts of restraint, no actual carnage is shown in the movie. "We already know violent images," says Abu-Assad. "Why should I show that? Violence in fiction is fake. Let your imagination work. Fiction can't copy this kind of reality."
Paradise Now (a film-festival favorite opening Friday at Shaker Square Cinemas) follows two young, likable friends -- Saïd and Khaled -- during their final 48 hours. A Palestinian organization taps the boyhood pals for a suicide mission in Tel Aviv. They spend one last, mundane night with their families, never sharing their plans. But the next day, after confessional videos are made and bombs are strapped to their chests, something goes wrong, and the pair becomes separated. Suddenly, Saïd and Khaled are reconsidering the morality -- and mortality -- of their assignment.
"There's not a lot of information about men like this," says Abu-Assad, who adds that he himself does not know any suicide bombers. To research the movie, he talked to acquaintances of terrorists, such as lawyers who have defended bombers who didn't complete their tasks.
Making the film was difficult -- it was shot on location. "I risked my life and the lives of others to do the movie," says Abu-Assad. Although no one was injured, the cast and crew did receive threats. And they hauled their cameras to places where exploding bombs and flying bullets are everyday occurrences. "We became the targets of everyone," he says.
Despite the ominous mood that permeates the film, there are traces of humor in Paradise Now. For example, after Khaled makes his videotaped confession -- complete with cocked gun and hip-hop-worthy scowl -- he's told that the camera wasn't working properly; he must do it again. And again. And again. "I wanted to put some comedy in there," says Abu-Assad. "But the tone is obviously more tragedy than comedy."
Yet the Palestinian director insists that Paradise Now isn't a political film. "This movie is a human story," he says. "I'm against suicide bombing, but I understand it. You have the powerful forcing the weak to accept their decision. As long as you have this, you will have conflict. But you have to give a story like this a human face. I want this movie to open dialogue. Politicians always try to make complex things very simple. Things aren't always black and white."
Still, a film that asks post-9-11 audiences to sympathize with suicide bombers is a tough sell -- something the director readily admits. "People will have a prejudgment on it," he shrugs. "It's a difficult subject." Next up for Abu-Assad: a comedy. "I want to make people laugh," he says. "It's time for that."
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