The distance between Nablus and Nazareth – like the difference between past and present, history and myth – is orated through the personal for Hany Abu-Assad, and nowhere more pointedly than in his new feature Paradise Now. Consider, for example, the contrast between two different stories about film spectatorship: one off screen, one on.
“I saw my first film at the age of four. My uncle took me. I had never seen television before that, so it was my first experience of a moving image. It was a western, and I felt the horses were so real, as they came towards the camera, that I hid under the chair. After the movie, I went behind the screen to see where the horses were. Then every Sunday we would see two movies on one ticket as children. Everyone would be there, all the boys of the city, fighting for a place in line to get the best seat. The excitement inside, when Charles Bronson would get revenge, was just like what the girls would experience when they saw the Beatles. In Nazareth in 1965, as a young man, I discovered a passion for the language of cinema and saw westerns, Egyptian dramas, Indian musicals, Turkish melodramas, and later, lots of kung fu movies and Bruce Lee.”
That’s the first story about the movies and the self. It belongs to Hany Abu-Assad, filmmaker. The second story belongs to Saïd, one of the protagonists of Paradise Now, a character in the screenplay written by Abu-Assad and his producer Bero Beyer. Saïd works in a dead-end job together with his best friend Khaled, labouring in an automobile salvage yard that’s part dump, part repair shop. In the midst of a stretch of endless time spent tinkering with cars, fighting with customers and swapping tales about their dismal lives, he meets a girl. She’s Suha, an exotic outsider, the daughter of a martyr, an energetic young woman recently returned from exile abroad to live again in Nablus. One night, flirting, they talk about their lives. “Do you like movies?” she asks. Saïd can only answer the question obliquely: “We burned down the cinema.” Total disbelief on Suha’s part. She is like us: from outside, uncomprehending, ignorant of the dynamics of the Intifada in Nablus. A march ended at the movie theatre, so it burned. Saïd shrugs.
Logic of violence
The young Hany Abu-Assad grew up in prosperous circumstances in Nazareth, where his family had long been involved in the transport business. From camels and donkeys to cars and trucks, that was the trade. He wasn’t part of the rabble fighting it out in the orchestra section of the movie theatre every weekend; instead he sat in the balcony, with the other boys who could afford the more expensive ticket. When he came of age he followed a relative to Amsterdam and studied to be an engineer. Film got in the way through the medium of a girlfriend: “I wanted to impress her, so I told her I was a filmmaker.” Then he had to make a film. He lost the girl, he found the career. That’s how life goes.
Abu-Assad is still in Amsterdam – and he’s still going back home, not just to Nazareth and Israel, but to the Palestinian territories where his characters and stories live. All his films (Rana’s Wedding, 2002; Ford Transit, 2003) have been made there and all are set on the border – between fact and fiction, between comedy and tragedy, between Israel and Palestine, between the ghosts of the past and the burden of uneasy futures.
Two decades ago Edward Said wrote that the combination of exile, diaspora and pent-up containment had created for Palestinians a condition in which “our truest reality is expressed in the way we cross over from one place to another”. Today the checkpoint has become the most consistent emblem of contemporary Palestinian filmmaking. In Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention it was a surreal trysting-point for lovers. In Rashid Masharawi’s Ticket to Jerusalem it was an obstacle to everything from film screenings to ambulance runs. In Abu-Assad’s cinematic world, ironically, it has evolved into a wall, a fence, an insane barrier shield. Yet it is also permeable and ineffective. In his narrative the material border is nothing compared to the boundaries and obstacles of the mind, of memory and of family history.
The storyline for Paradise Now is relatively simple and straightforward. Two pals, Saïd and Khaled, seem to be the Palestinian version of slackers. In a parallel world they could have appeared in an early Richard Linklater or Kevin Smith film; in an earlier time they’d have made for convincing figures in a Samuel Beckett play. Instead, they are Palestinians in Nablus.
So in the midst of working and being fired, in the midst of flirting and job hunting and smoking the hookah and eating dinner with the family, in the midst of the bitter pessimism of daily life, a man shows up. This isn’t The Matrix or The Game, but there’s a mission all right. Their prayer has been answered: they’ve been chosen to carry out the next suicide bombing. The target is Tel Aviv, a place they’ve never been. From that point the film becomes a madcap series of impossible answers to impossible questions: will they do it? Will they be stopped? Will Saïd’s love for Suha intervene? Will Khaled change his mind? Will the mission go forward? Will anyone be killed? If the battle is one between the romance and the thriller, it’s also a struggle in the mind of the viewer over which formula we suspect the film of following and which character has the greatest claim to our process of identification.
Abu-Assad teases us with our own expectations even as he teases out the meaning of the short score-card of choices with which his characters are presented. If they sometimes seem like stand-ins for a complex system of political positions (a sort of ‘Palestine for Dummies’ primer), they have the virtue of leading an audience into the previously inaccessible subjectivity of the suicide bomber. Explaining again and again to journalists and audiences in the US that he is against violence and does not condone suicide bombings, Abu-Assad is nonetheless smart enough to realise that his interlocutors have absolutely no conception of the social location that, hemmed in by humiliations and Israeli army incursions, produces such agents.
His own experience is a bit more direct, given that he insisted on shooting Paradise Now in 35mm in Nablus in the midst of a virtual war zone. And he insisted on avoiding all the kind of street-fighting-man footage that commonly turns up on the television news. In other words, he refused to shoot the shooting, refused to use camcorders, refused to represent the outside surface of reality that in our time so insistently conceals the inner truths that shape such images.
Instead, he led a caravan of 30 trucks and 70 people and equipment into the craziness of Nablus. “It was kind of insane to shoot there,” he now acknowledges. Gunfire erupted constantly. They lived in fear of Israeli missile attacks. His local location-manager was kidnapped, and eventually released. Members of his European crew quit. Some Palestinians thought the film was against them, others thought it was championing freedom and democracy; one day armed militants showed up demanding to see the script. Finally, Paradise Now relocated – to Nazareth. And Abu-Assad continued the filming of his fiction film about the nonfiction absurdities and tragedies of Palestinian life in Nablus.
Crucially, Abu-Assad uses the one-two punch of humour and narrative force to lead viewers deep into the hopelessness that gives birth to suicide-bombing missions and, to his great credit, makes their unacceptable acts finally comprehensible. His film bares the logic of violence in the context of untenable oppression. The suicide bombing is revealed to have less to do with religious fervour than with family history and daily indignity. And here, at last, the appeal of fundamentalism and jihad becomes understandable: it makes something happen. In a life devoid of agency and possibility, it creates a narrative that has urgency and import, one that can go off with a bang.
Paradise Now, of course, is fiction. Abu-Assad talks about the elements he had to invent for cinematic drama: the suicide-bomb vest that can’t be removed without blowing up the person wearing it, for instance, or the idea that each would-be bomber is accompanied home for the last night by a minder (which, he points out, would never happen since it would result in the identification of the masterminds). On the other hand, some of the film’s most arresting scenes are entirely factual. Of these, the most frequently and deservedly noticed is the phenomenon of the martyr video: the video version of a last will-and-testament recorded on the eve of bombings.
Abu-Assad deploys the martyr-video gambit twice in Paradise Now: once as a production site, once as a sight at point of purchase. Both times, the audience response hinges as much on notions of the televisual or cinematic as it does on the particular plot points of Paradise Now. Loosely based on actual tapes, the scenes enact an acute fusion of horror and farce, bringing to mind the situational nature of ‘magic realism’ in Latin American literature and film, which was perceived by outsiders as a literary or cinematically inventive style spun out as an alternative to real life while simultaneously acknowledged by Latin Americans as an ingenious version of realism cannily tailored to the specific conditions of their daily lives.
On the eve of their mission, Saïd and Khaled are handed their props and texts and positioned with a gun in front of the camera, only to run into Abu-Assad’s idea of a joke: after a draining speech to family, friends and kin, Khaled is interrupted by the cameraman reporting that the sound didn’t record. Another take, please. It’s the insider joke of a filmmaker, but it’s also a brilliant way to illustrate that even martyrdom is a performance. In another equally provocative scene Saïd and Suha go to a shop and she notices the video playing on a tiny TV screen: it’s much the same, a stand-up performance of martyr testimony but this time recorded by one who has already died. Suha brings all the outrage of the sophisticated European to the situation, confronting the shopkeeper, asking whether he really sells these. Oh yes, he tells her, and those by collaborators fetch higher prices.
Again, the scene might be interpreted as an insider joke by a Palestinian. Surely that’s not true? Ah, but it is: yes, Abu-Assad confirms, up until the second Intifada just such tapes could be found in shops for sale. His script, far from the work of pure invention that one might suppose, is actually drawn from testimony by captured or failed suicide bombers, by news reports, even by the rare cases of those who change their mind. Abu-Assad has the courage to explore all sides without finding the need either to join or condemn any. Thanks to his nerve, we finally can see what Palestinian psyches look like. In addition to Saïd and Khaled’s fatalism, and Suha’s anti-violence desperation, there’s the cynical self-preservation of the ringleaders, the strength of the mothers, the business-as-usual attitudes of the shopkeepers and employers, and the unknowable future of the youngsters.
Abu-Assad might be accused of personalising Palestinian politics. It’s an accusation he ought to wear proudly, given how thoroughly depersonalised the figure of the Palestinian so often is. For Abu-Assad, the personalisation takes on an Oedipal form: Saïd is haunted by the shadow of his father, who is revealed to have been killed for collaborating. This is why he’s so defensive and feels so thoroughly under attack – he can’t get out from under that inheritance, cannot imagine actually being with Suha, the daughter of a martyr. In the film Suha seems to represent the contours of the modern Palestinian movement. Abu-Assad agrees, describing her as one of those “who’ve been abroad, studied, had the chance to see the world from a different point of view.” But can that point of view survive re-entry? Saïd’s and Suha’s lineages are reminders that the sins of the fathers are still being visited on the land, and we needn’t look back as far as Abraham to find the evidence.
For Abu-Assad, who describes himself as a “privileged Palestinian” for reasons of birth, class and location, his films must reflect the reality of Palestinian life in the occupied territories today. And that means there’s a shortage, not only of food or jobs, but of happy endings too. His family is back in Nazareth, but also in Jenin and Gaza and Jordan. His worldview is shaped by the Middle East, to be sure, but as a Palestinian living in Amsterdam (“it’s no more tolerant than any place else… the recent killings expose that”) he has a much broader perspective that refuses to let the rest of the world off the hook, least of all the US or UK.
Consider his view of today’s political universe: “The dominating politics is confrontational politics between the two parties, like the current power and politics of the US. There is a crisis in the system of capitalism: there are no answers to how human beings can find oil or bring alternative energy, and people in the West are using energy like mad dogs… There is no solution for the differences between rich and poor: the differences are bigger and bigger, and as long as there are no answers for the current system – and there aren’t, they don’t know what to do – it’s better to invent an enemy in order to keep authority, to keep power, and hope that some miracle will happen.”
In the world created by Paradise Now, of course, that miracle is a suicide-bomb mission. And the deus ex machina is martyrdom. To each his own? Well, as one of the militants says about the tactic, in a statement that reads like a direct quote from the film’s glorious predecessor The Battle of Algiers: “If we had airplanes, we wouldn’t need martyrs.”
At the Toronto International Film Festival last fall Abu-Assad was cornered by a news correspondent who wanted to talk Middle Eastern politics. And on a visit to San Francisco this winter he was just as avidly pursued by cinephiles who wanted to talk film. He’s equally comfortable in both worlds, peppering his conversation with observations on film dreams as well as political nightmares. He insists he is not bound, for life, to making films in the Middle East, not in the refugee camps nor the occupied territories nor even the Palestinian villages in Israel, for he sees similar crises of displacement and injustice everywhere he travels.
By now it’s late afternoon in San Francisco and it’s time for Abu-Assad to move on. “The West has all the power,” he adds to our closing conversation. “The others have .0000004 per cent of power. Looking at facts, just numbers, you see how powerful the West is and how tiny the other is. Yes, they can kill,” as his film shows. But he’s after a bigger concept, a bigger tent: “Justice is there to protect the rights of the weak, to stimulate the weak to become a better believer in the system, because they don’t; the weak don’t believe in the system.”
Were we to meet again, I’d like to ask Abu-Assad about the systems of the Academy Award nominations and of US distribution, where the new Warner Independent has released Paradise Now and fought for its Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category. That’s the same category from which Divine Intervention was initially rejected on the grounds that the Academy refused to recognise Palestine as a country of origin. This nomination, then, is not merely an honour but a seismic shift in official US acknowledgement of the Palestinian fate. It’s Abu-Assad’s personal deus ex machina.
Over coffee at the end of the interview he confesses to me that his next film will be set in the US. It’s about the failure of the American dream. “Most people don’t believe in it anymore. They have become just consumers, so happiness lies in fulfilling material needs.” He plans to spend the next year living in Los Angeles. He has an idea about a Palestinian taxi driver. Yes, it’s easy to imagine. LA may not be Nablus, but its streets are scattered with its own brand of dashed hopes and hopeless dreams. What will the film be, I wonder, thinking in terms of documentary or fiction. “It will,” says Abu-Assad, “be a tragicomedy.”
Access the Sight & Sound digital archive to read all B. Ruby Rich’s writing for the magazine, including:
Art house killers
On violence in art house cinema, December 1992, pages 5-6
Goings and comings
On Go Fish, July 1994, pages 14-16
San Francisco notes: world and time enough
On the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, August 1994, page 5
Slugging it out for survival
On Allison Anders, April 1995, pages 14-17
Meet Jeanne Buñuel
An interview with Luis Buñuel’s wife, August 1995, pages 20-23
Dumb lugs and femme fatales
On neo-noir, November 1995, pages 6-10
Day of the woman
On Kill Bill Vol. 2, June 2004, pages 24-27
A Cannes report on Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 451, July 2004, pages 14-17
Out of the rubble
On Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, October 2006, pages 14-18