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Film Explorers Suicide Bombers' Motives


A new film from the Middle East is creating a stir. "Paradise Now" tells the story of two young Palestinian men who decide to become suicide bombers in the West Bank city of Nablus. It was written and directed by a Palestinian and co-produced by an Israeli. Despite its controversial subject matter, the film has been widely praised by those who've seen it at film festivals. It's now showing in theaters in Los Angles and New York. Howie Movshovitz of Colorado Public Radio reports.


Hany Abu-Assad grew up on the West Bank and studied to be an aeronautical engineer. But early in his career, Abu-Assad realized he'd like to take risks, and aeronautical engineering was not the place to do it. So Hany Abu-Assad decided to make movies. In just seven years, he's made four. His best known in this country is "Ranna's Wedding," which came out in 2002. All but one have dealt with life on the West Bank. His latest is his riskiest so far.

Mr. HANY ABU-ASSAD (Filmmaker): What we try to do always in films--to see, let's say, the beauty of things. And it doesn't necessarily have to be, like, classical beauty, you know? Beauty's not just beautiful. Beauty is when there is conflict, when there's depth, when there is humanistic approach, when there is more than just what you see. Art is about beauty. It's about making from ugliness beauty. Otherwise, why should we make art? We want to look to reality with an eye that could make this reality more than just non-fictional things, to make it immortal--that will not die.

MOVSHOVITZ: Abu-Assad does not want to make suicide bombing beautiful, but he wants to understand this ugly reality. To try to do that, he portrays two characters who struggle and argue over the decision to take their own lives and the lives of others.

(Soundbite of "Paradise Now")

Unidentified Character #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Character #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MOVSHOVITZ: The characters don't behave as viewers might expect. Film critic B. Ruby Rich teaches at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She says the film reverses the expectations many Americans have of stories about the Middle East conflict.

Ms. B. RUBY RICH (Film Critic; Instructor, University of California at Santa Cruz): The genius of Hany Abu-Assad's film is that he makes these people comprehensible to us. It's not a film about excusing them. It's a film about understanding what on Earth they think they're doing and getting us to understand what it is they think they're doing. And, in a way, realizing that they're not crazy is perhaps a more upsetting state of mind than thinking they are.

MOVSHOVITZ: "Paradise Now" was shot entirely on the West Bank and in Israel. Some members of the crew quit in fear after gunfire and explosions went off nearby. One crew member was kidnapped and later returned. Abu-Assad did not make their job any easier by choosing to use bulky, labor-intensive 35mm film instead of compact digital video.

Mr. ABU-ASSAD: I took the real life as it is, but shoot it in a classical form, which in my idea make both the form stronger and the content stronger.

MOVSHOVITZ: And, he says, it will make his movie last.

Mr. ABU-ASSAD: Actually, what you see on video, there is no depth. It's far from what you and your eyes see. And, actually, in the 35mm, it's closer to the--your eye, what you are seeing, the reality, than in video. In hundred years from now the technique will be different and we'll look back to this form as an ugly form, and not as a realistic form.

MOVSHOVITZ: For film critic B. Ruby Rich, the choice of 35mm over video was both unrealistic and necessary.

Ms. RICH: It's such an unexpected thing to do in the digital age, and such an insane thing to return to that idea in a very dangerous situation, shooting almost guerrilla-style with missiles and bombs exploding all around and fighting and shooting. And yet, I think it's a decision that really paid off because our whole understanding, our whole vision of the Palestinian situation is a vision that plays in grainy, ugly images on the nightly news, shot with digital cameras on the run, on the fly, with the sound of sirens and bombs and screaming. And you do not find any of that in this film. When you do, it's on TV somewhere, you know, in a cafe or a bar. You--he does not show us that. He shows us a beautiful, smooth, 35mm work of art.

MOVSHOVITZ: To use the phrase `work of art' to describe the story of suicide bombers will unsettle many people. The story unsettled filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad. He has described his subjects as criminals, and he knows it will be hard for viewers to accept them as individuals.

Mr. ABU-ASSAD: I had the same shock when I was making my research. I discovered that mostly they are very ordinary people who couldn't stand anymore to live under pressure and occupation and humiliation, and then they came to a conclusion that it's devastating, but still they are human beings who are being so much oppressed that they can't have good focus or make healthy decisions. And, actually, when you think about it, it's obvious that they are human beings, I mean, but still I was in shock when I discovered it.

MOVSHOVITZ: And this is the essential point of "Paradise Now," that to understand any terrifying human struggle, people must endure the shock of confronting something they don't expect.

Mr. ABU-ASSAD: Well, always I'm saying the same thing. The best films open questions to your vision. Like, you have a vision and then you start to question more and more about it, about anything in life, about yourself, about your environment, about your enemy. Anything that opens questions, it is a good form of art. And this is my only hope. The people have the right to see it and to judge it as they think that they have to judge it.

MOVSHOVITZ: People will get a chance to see "Paradise Now" and decide for themselves. The movie has a major distributor and will be released in theaters across the country over the coming weeks.

For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz.



WERTHEIMER: Scott Simon is back next week. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages.