Abu-Assad Interview

Paulington chats with the Nazareth born Auteur about suicide bombers and film theory...

The Suicide Bomber is a complex and controversial subject on many levels. Most Friday night audiences aren't ready for a film like Paradise Now, which revolves around two Palestinian men the night before they embark on a bombing mission. At the screening, the Warner Independent Representative expressed what a unique and surprising move it was that the film actually got picked up for distribution, considering its topical reverence. Some people just aren't ready for the Suicide Bomber to be granted a bit of humanity in the context of a film's plot. Director Hany Abu-Assad knew this going in, and did everything within his power to construct a bipartisan film that looks at these political horrors from an even middle ground. The results are both harrowing and deeply compelling. It goes without saying that Paradise Now will receive an Oscar Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film next year.

I recently got a chance to talk with Hany about his film this past weekend. Here is that interview in full…

Was this a hard subject to take on as a director?

Hany: No, because in the beginning, I didn't think it would be controversial. Because, it is a phenomenon that exists. It's a reality. Its not like I invented this. You are curious. You want to know more about it. You want to experience it in a feature drama. It's not tackling at all. It's intriguing. It intrigues you to know more about it. It was very attractive, actually, too make it.

When the Warner Rep was just in here, was she talking about the Academy not understanding your film?

Hany: No, another film. She was speaking of another film that she loved, and the Academy didn't understand it. But it is something outside of the system. But, no, she was not talking about my film.

At the screening, the Warner Rep told us she was surprised that this film would even get picked up for distribution. Does it surprise you that Warner Brothers picked this up?

Hany: Yes. You would think. This goes back to that last question. A lot of people think that this is a controversial movie. And it could be something that nobody wants to touch. I was surprised by, not just the fact that Warner Independent picked it up, but also in Europe, and fifty other countries…They bought it. These are good companies. It's the same, like me. They are curious and they want to know more. They judge it also as a film. In general you judge a movie as a film. You don't go and judge it as a subject. How many films do you know are made about good subjects, and you get bad results? And how many interesting subjects turn into very, very good movies? You know? Indeed, the subject may trigger you to go to the cinema. But at the end, you judge it as a film. With this movie, I got to go somewhere I hadn't been before. Did I light something that was in the dark? Were the characters great or not? These are some of the questions you have to ask yourself. And during watching, you are allowed to ask yourself, "What would I do there? How would I look to this place?" This is more important than the subject. That's the whole reason why it's so understandable; why they picked it. But it was also surprising in the beginning.

The film opens with Said (one of the main characters). Why was it so important to have that as your opening scene?

Hany: I find it very important. It wasn't in the script as an opening scene. But during the editing, I discovered…Not just me, but the editor also, that you first have to define the place. You give a definition to the place. If you don't do that, you can't go with the correctors. You come from outside as an audience. Even me, not everybody is living there. As you come from outside and you enter this place, you immediately know where you are entering. For this reason, we start with the opening scene to define the place. To know, "Okay, I'm entering a place that is under siege. That is under war." Otherwise you cannot understand the correctors.

You're not from the West Bank?

Hany: No. I was born in Nazareth, in the north of Palestine.

In researching for this script, did you discover any new perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict that's currently happening on the West Bank?

Hany: No, not really. I mean, the conflict is big. Its not just one conflict. I was searching just for this phenomenon of killing yourself for others. Because, this is the subject. The subject is not the whole conflict. You can't make the film about the whole conflict, because otherwise you'd be a kind of political preaching filmmaker that tries to make complex things simple. Because politically you have to make complex things very simple for the public. But movies do the opposite. Movies let you see how complex a situation really is. The movies allow you to view it from an easy place. The cinema. You are sitting like God, eating popcorn, very safe. It allows you to go into a very complex place and experience a very complex situation. A kind of adventure. The discovering. This is like the opposite of politics. I didn't discover things about politics in researching the conflict. But the details of the suicide actions were in the research. You know more about those little details. What did he do before he entered the bus? What was the day like? I want to know. The most horrible thing about these stories is that there is an action that everybody looks too, but you don't know anything about it from before. You know nothing. Really. There's no story behind these people. But there for sure is a story behind these people. And you are discovering the story. That is why we make movies. There are stories that haven't been told before. But the conflict in Palestine and Israeli is so big.

The scene that really sticks out is where they are making the martyr videotapes. It is humorous, but it's also very sad. Where did you get the idea for that scene? What was the inspiration for it?

Hany: You always get a sense that this is a reality. As a filmmaker, you take reality and you tell a story from it. One of the things is, every suicide bomber, before he does it, he says to the camera, "I'm going to do it." But then, when you want to tell the story, you try to analyze where you are in the development of the story and the character. This is a turning point. Why is it a turning point in the drama? Because when someone announces he is going to do it, and they photograph it, it is like proof of contract. You can say to me, "I want to buy your car." But as long as you didn't sign, there is no proof. But if you say into the camera, "I'm going to commit suicide actions!" There is proof. It is a turning point. Because the characters change. There is no way back now. Also, in Drama, when you have the turning point, you can shift the drama. Otherwise it would be boring drama. That's why films become very interesting. Because all the time you can shift within minutes. There is this turning point. For example, it goes into comedy. It can shift style even. You change the style, but the audience doesn't notice. You experience that there is a change, but you don't experience it as a style break. This is very bad in film. Suddenly you change style, and there is no reason to change without being disturbed. With this film, I felt that I could shift a little into comedy because it is a dramatic turning point. You can shift, also, from the minimal style. The boring genre. I make a joke about it in the movie. Because you have what you call the minimalist genre. You know this genre? Right? You know this genre? They call themselves the minimal movie. And it's a boring genre. In the beginning I used this genre, but then I turned the movie into a thriller. From this turning point, I shifted from a static boring genre into a thriller. You're not noticing that, because as an audience, you're just going with it. You at first don't notice that it's a turning point. I did an event. This is something you learn when you want to make movies. You are a film critic or not?

Yes.

Hany: You study cinema?

I did.

Hany: Okay, great. Then you understand this. I'm not telling something you don't understand.

How important do you view Said's kiss with Suha? That seemed like the most important turning point for me. He gets the kiss, and only afterwards he decides to go and blow up the bus.

Hany: Yes. That is a very important turning point. I guess there are many important turning points in the film. I'll tell you why. Dramatically, I will tell you why. If you analyze the drama, Said's father, in order to give a better life to his family, he collaborated with the enemy and he was executed by the resistance. The son, in order to protect his family from this guilt, he kills himself for the enemy. This is the tragedy of Said. This guilt becomes bigger by the kiss. Why? Her father is a hero. Yes. And his father is a collaborator. This guilt, if he were to be with her, as a man and woman, would be bigger. Because he'd be more of a martyr, since his father is a collaborator. This kiss brings a darkness, not a lightness. The first look, you think this kiss is going to rescue him. Love can rescue you. But this love can become a very destroying force. Which you don't expect. This same girl, Suha, is the reason Said's friend Khaled is saved. This is the complexity of things. You expect that she is going to rescue Said, but instead she rescues Khaled. The reason she rescues him is because Khaled recognizes that he cares about his friend. He actually cares about him. And he doesn't want him to die. He discovers suddenly that he has this bomb around him, and they are going to die, and what they are doing. The love acts as a different dialogue. And she convinces Khaled of that. Because when you are in love, you are more open to others. You know that. When you are in love with someone, you are more aware of others. And he became more aware of the situation. The logic, the speech. So he shifted his actions. But this is the same reason Said was killed. It was a tragedy.

Is there really a market for the Martyr videos in Palestine?

Hany: Well, a market in the sense that its in the underground. You know? Here, all the time, you have an underground market for snuff movies. Wherever you go, in society, you have these kinds of snuff movies that people want to see. You know about snuff movies?

Yeah, I know what a snuff movie is. So, these are kind of like collector's items?

Hany: Sure, but not everyone buys them. Most of the society doesn't rent or want to see it. What we need for the drama is this type of turning point.

Have you had a response from any particular group for humanizing the suicide bomber? Has anyone had a problem with this film?

Hany: Lets say anti-suicide bombers. I've been accused from both parties. And the funny thing about that is they have the same arguments. The one Palestinian group doesn't want to humanize them. They want to give them a holy face. Something supernatural. They find it an insult to humanize them. And this is not pleasing the West, but I don't have that kind of authorization. It's not true. These people are not holy. These people have a vision for sacrificing. They have no hesitation. They know exactly what they are doing. The same group from the other side is blaming me for giving a human face. That I'm legitimizing the bombings. But what is funny is that they're both using the same terminology. They don't want to humanize them, because on one hand they are evil, and on the other hand they are angels. The thing that they are mistaking is that these people are human beings. Even inside you, there is the conflict between good and bad. Not outside of you. That is true with everybody. You always have a kind of conflict inside of you. Sometimes you have that eye telling you something is within your benefit. That it is good. But then you have another conscience that is telling you that you are stealing, or that whatever you are doing is wrong. The conflict is inside of you. It's not true that, say, I am absolutely good and that you are absolutely bad. Or something like that. It's a myth. That's my belief. Maybe I'm wrong. Why should I know the one hundred percent truth? I don't. But I think human beings are interesting. They all have this conflict. Why is Hamlet such an interesting character? He's a fictionalized character. There never was a Hamlet. But Shakespeare invented Hamlet to be interesting. Because the conflict was inside him. To be or not to be, you know? To avenge the father, accept the situation. What is driving him? Hate or revenge? If characters are complex they are interesting. That's what I try to do. And the groups that are accusing me? I think they have a one-dimensional view about the world. I think civilization is about dialogue. Its not about who is right. We allow ourselves to be so civilized because we have a dialogue.

What do you believe the United States role in the Isreali-Palistinian Conflict has been?

Hany: I don't believe that one human being is representing the whole West. I believe you are all different. And that you all have different visions. In general, lets say, you have to separate the government of the United States and the people of the United States. The governments of the United States have an interest with Israel. And they will protect it whether the state is wrong or right. And this is not justice. If you want to be a justice authority, you have to treat all the parties equal. The United States as a government doesn't do that. The interest of Israel is more important than the human rights of the Palestinians.

Has there been a difference in the way European audiences have reacted to this movie?

Hany: No. And I'll tell you way. Politics is different than movies. Politics are controlled by leaders. Leaders of every country have different interests. And they try to explain to their people why they should take one side or the other side. But in the movie, as I told you, its doing the opposite. It allows you to have a Universal Experience. You don't watch it as politics; you watch it as a movie. And you judge it as a movie. You don't have different reactions all over. You generally have the same reactions. Do you understand what I mean? It's so universal a language. It's not a political language serving a political agenda. The language of cinema is a world language. With the Hollywood movie, it brings about the same reaction wherever it goes. Same with a Japanese movie. Or a movie from the Middle East. If there is a scary moment, you get scared. Well, some people don't get scared. I am not scared by the horror movies. I have a different reaction. But I come from the same society. You know what I mean? A reaction is not made by a society. It is an individual experience.

Did you ever look to any Japanese movies to get their take on the World War II Kamikaze Pilots when doing research for this movie?

Hany: I didn't look at Japanese movies, but I did do a lot of Japanese research. I read the letters that these pilots left behind. There is a study about them. I'm forgetting a lot of names, but a professor tried to analyze the letters. These people had written their parents. The study produced some amazing results. More or less, these people didn't want to die. They did it because it was there duty. But they didn't want to die. They loved life. They didn't hate life.

Okay, I guess we're out of time.

Hany: Thank you.

Yes. Thank you.

-The End-

Dont't forget to also check out: Paradise Now