In an abandoned soap factory in the old city of Nablus, a few people were gathered around a bearded man with a rifle, a camera recording his every move.
The young man tucked in his shirt before beginning to read his will from a written statement. A verse from the Quran followed before the man looked up at the camera:
“In response to the injustice, the occupation and its escalating crimes and in continuation of the resistance, I have decided to carry out a martyrdom operation. There is no other choice.”
The scene is part of a film, “Paradise Now,” currently being shot in Nablus. “Paradise Now” is the story of 24 hours in the lives of two Palestinian youths who have decided to carry out a suicide bombing on an Israeli bus in Tel Aviv. The story was written by Palestinian-Dutch filmmaker Hani Abu Asaad and German-Dutch scriptwriter and producer Bero Beyer.
To Nabulsis watching, unused to filmmaking, some scenes brought them close to tears, especially where the bomber is helped to strap an explosives belt around his waist.
“I have never been to a cinema,” says one young man who saw the two above-mentioned scenes being taped. “The blood stopped in my veins. I couldn’t differentiate between what I know to be real and between acting out the reality in which we live.”
Hani Abu Asaad has a growing list of films to his credit and a growing reputation as a result. He wrote and directed the critically acclaimed feature film, “Rana’s Wedding” and the documentary, “Ford Transit,” which was shown at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival.
His documentaries include a mix of fictional elements and have placed Abu Asaad among the pioneers of what is known as the neo-realist school of filmmaking. Now 42, he was born in Nazareth, but spent over 15 years in the Netherlands. He says Paradise Now’s goal is to “hit two birds with one stone.”
“I want to make a film that talks about something painful –” people blowing themselves up in defense of their cause. I also want to show the world and the Israelis that even if Israel builds the wall throughout the occupied Palestinian territories as high and far as the Great Wall of China, it will not be able to prevent us from producing first-class movies.”
His choice of suicide bombers as subject stems as much from the reality he sees as from personal soul searching.
“As a Palestinian, I feel that we have reached a very painful point in which there are few choices, especially for youths,” says the director. “They now find themselves sacrificing themselves and taking their victims with them. This is a painful reality. I think it is important that I know and others know how and why a person reaches the conviction to blow up himself and take others with them.”
Abu Asaad does not fail to incorporate a historical/mythical dimension as well. “In Jewish mythology, the mighty Samson was the first to take suicide action against his enemies [Samson, according to legend, tore down a temple over himself and his enemies]. In this sense, the Palestinians are a new Samson. They live the legend every day. This is the tragedy of suicide bombers regardless of how Israel or the United States see them.”
The making of the film has caused huge local interest, as well as provided much needed diversion in a city where cinemas have been closed since the Israeli occupation in 1967.
It has also, according to Taher Kusa, one of Abu Asaad’s assistants, given a small boost to the local economy.
“Seventy-percent of the scenes were shot in Nablus where the film’s storyline takes place. The film has created permanent, part-time and temporary jobs for over 600 people.” There are also a number of Palestinian artists from elsewhere in the West Bank as well as Gaza and inside Israel who are participating in the film’s making. The Israeli army has fingered Nablus as a spawning ground for Palestinian suicide bombers. According to local media sources, some 25 young men and one woman from the Nablus area have carried out suicide bombings inside Israel, near Jewish settlements or at Israeli military checkpoints.
It is statistics like these and the almost daily Israeli army raids on the city and its refugee camps that lends such credibility to the film, according to one of its actors, Amer Hleihel, 24.
Nevertheless, Abu Asaad does not think Nablus is the ideal place for the subject matter. “In the old city there are many ancient and archeological sites and one feels the sadness and poverty that has engulfed the people. We see the destruction and the pride. We see the beauty and the waste –” there is the occupation and a lawless society. All of these contradictions exist in Nablus, not just suicide bombers.”
The film, which is being produced by Augustus Productions, a joint Dutch, French and German film company, with a $1.5 million budget, shows bitter true-to-life conversations between people about the methods of struggle that should be adopted in the course of attaining their rights. The focus is on the motives and efficacy of suicide operations.
The heroine of the movie is Suha, played by the French-Moroccan actress Lubna Asabel, whose father was killed by the Israeli army but who does not support suicide bombings. She tirelessly tries to convince Saeed –” one of the suicide bombers with whom a silent love affair has developed –” not to carry out the mission. To Saeed senior, the person who recruits suicide bombers, Suha says, “I would rather that I had no other choice than to be forced to kill innocent people.”
The camera follows the most minute details of the two young men’s lives, their personal and familial relations, their thoughts and emotions, before heading off to carry out their operations.
Dramatic tension begins to rise when the head of an armed group informs the two that they have been chosen to carry out “a major operation” in Tel Aviv and peaks when Saeed boards the Israeli bus.
The ending, however, remains unresolved. The camera zooms in on Saeed’s eyes through which the audience sees a reflection of what is going on around him. Then a sharp transformation turns the scene into white and the viewer neither sees nor hears anything. There are no credits shown. Most notably, despite the subject matter, there is no bloodletting shown in the entire film.