Hany Abu-Assad’s latest film Paradise Now made its debut in February at The Berlinale, the annual festival of international film in Berlin. A French-German-Dutch coproduction, the controversial picture recounts twenty-seven hours in the lives of Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), two childhood friends turned would-be suicide bombers, as they prepare to carry out a mission in Tel Aviv. Abu-Assad certainly gave the critics something to write about both in terms of film and politics; and at the awards ceremony, the Palestinian filmmaker went home with three prizes, including the Blue Angel for Best European Film.
After the film’s premiere in Berlin, the Israeli Film Fund offered support for distributing the film in Israel, despite having previously rejected the film on “political grounds” — an indication, said producer Amir Harel, of a new spirit of post-Arafat “tolerance.” Abu-Assad spoke to Alia Rayyan about the film, the controversy it has sparked and the role cinema can play in inspiring dialogue about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Alia Rayyan: The subject matter of the film has led many journalists and critics to write about the film purely in terms of its politics. What do you think about this?
Hany Abu-Assad: You have to separate two things: the making and the showing. When you’re making the film, it’s pure communication between you and the medium. So you don’t think about politics, you think about the scene, and how to make the story in a way that will stay and not be influenced by current politics. After you have finished the movie, the scene changes. The film has to be judged now and later. And everyone has the right to judge it, to read it, in any way they want. It’s not my problem anymore — it’s their problem. And after having done the movie, I enjoy talking about politics — I’m not avoiding any discussions.
AR: So do you still think that art can take on the role of the opposition?
HAA: No, not really, this is much too heavy [a role]. We’ve all been searching for an alternative for 6,000 years, no? Trying to find a social political system that brings justice. Perhaps this is art’s crisis today — that we know that art can’t do anything, that the political system, the issues, are bigger than you, bigger than life itself. For artists there are two ways to react: Either you think, I can’t do anything about it so I just do my work in terms of aesthetics, or you can think, If it doesn’t matter what I’m doing, then I’ll do something political, and maybe something will change, maybe I will be part of the change.
AR: Do you think Paradise Now can have impact on the understanding of the situation in Palestine/Israel?
HAA: I think about the film more as an historical document. The whole world is in crisis: After the French Revolution, they came up with the idea of liberal democracy, combined with capitalism, and promised freedom, equality, and fraternity. But, look around — we are so far from this. There’s still this elite that governs us consumers. The communist alternative failed and there seems to be no alternative except religion — especially for those that think they are losing out. Religion in general — and I make no distinction between Islam, Christianity, or Judaism — is the alternative when the current system is falling. First, they accept their bad living conditions as their destiny and God’s will, and secondly, they turn their defeat or failure on earth into a victory in heaven and transfer all their energy to the hereafter.
AR: This is one of the primary messages of the film.
HAA: Yes, one of them. But the film also looks at the Palestinian cause — this is what shapes my work as a filmmaker. It’s very easy to be a European filmmaker. My first feature film, Fourteenth Chick, was a European film, distributed by United International Pictures. Big distribution, a lot of noise, big stars. I could have grown to like this establishment, but it didn’t interest me. In my perspective, the Palestinian cause is a kind of symbol for the greater crisis we are living in this world. You have the strong and weak in conflict, with religion as an alternative.
AR: Let’s go back to the making of the film — you shot in Nablus, despite having to face curfews and military attacks?
HAA: Sure. We faced a lot of problems, including not being able to repeat shots as many times as we would’ve wanted. But that became the art of the film — and you always have to make compromises when you’re filming, wherever you are. Ours were only a bit more extreme. But I wanted to be close to reality, and Nablus is part of the film. You see, it was very important that we didn’t just go there, film, and leave: It needed much more understanding and time. For example, the actors lived in Nablus before we started to shoot — Kais and Ali even had to work for several weeks in that garage to get into their world, to feel it. We had to shoot some of the last parts in Nazareth — there were a lot of attacks in the night, arrests, and fights with the resistance people.
AR: What was it like for the international crew?
HAA: It was difficult. There were two kinds of reactions among the foreigners: Some decided to go back, so they thought their lives were more important than the cause, which is totally fine, and others decided to stay, so apparently they thought that this film is bigger than their lives.
AR: So you had to get new crew in, in the middle of the shooting?
HAA: Yes. After thirty days on the shoot, six people went back and new ones came out.
AR: What was the biggest problem you faced when filming?
HAA: To balance it — it was, and is, too emotional for everyone. Anyhow, I tried to find a balance between reality and fiction, between propaganda and condemnation, between occupation and resistance — the line in between is actually very, very thin.
AR: And also between the two sides of yourself perhaps — as someone who lives both inside and outside the territory?
HAA: This is not really my discussion — there’s always people wanting to break us up into groups. But I think that we’re all facing the same situation if you are Palestinian — it doesn’t matter who you are. Either you accept your “inferior position,” or you have to fight. That’s one point. Concerning my work or my position in society — I don’t live in a refugee camp, although I’m on their side but I’m in a much more superior situation. However, whenever I fight for them, it’s me who ends up stronger, more famous, and richer — and nothing has been changed for them. It’s hypocritical. My fight changes nothing for them.