The painful road to `Paradise'

New film portrays suicide bombers as neither evil nor heroic

November 13, 2005|By MICHAEL HILL | MICHAEL HILL,SUN REPORTER

Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad has a simple reason for making a film about suicide bombers. "I think it is a story that has not been told," he says.

Indeed.

In American media, it is rare that a suicide bomber has a name or a face. Those who do are the few who attack in the West, flying planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or setting off bombs on the London subway. Those who kill and die in other parts of the world usually remain anonymous.

The handful who do get identified are rarely depicted as anything other than one-dimensional figures. Any speculation on their motives begins and ends with fanaticism.

Much of the Arab world sees the other side of this coin. The names and faces of bombers who attack Israel and other Western targets are often displayed for all to see. These martyrs for the cause are lionized, hailed as heroes. But they remain one-dimensional.

Making a movie that will be seen by both of those audiences, Abu-Assad tries instead to portray them as three-dimensional human beings. Paradise Now, which opens in Baltimore next month, focuses on a few days in the lives of two young men, both auto mechanics in the West Bank town of Nablus, as they prepare to embark on a suicide bombing mission in Tel Aviv.

For Abu-Assad, who directed the film and co-wrote its script, the suicide bombers and their milieu provide compelling characters and settings for what he calls a "realistic thriller."

"I used reality in order to tell a story," he says.

But for viewers accustomed to seeing only the stereotypical portrayal of these characters, Paradise Now provides an opportunity to engage in a different way with those who commit this shocking act, which through its frightening repetition is changing our world.

That is because, unlike most who portray suicide bombers in the popular media, Abu-Assad was not trying to please those on one side or the other of the coin.

"I don't like heroes. They are mostly just one-dimensional, very flat and unrealistic and overly romantic," he says, speaking over the phone from Tel Aviv, where the film opened last week. "In any human being, we have the good, the bad and the ugly inside us. If you don't have characters with these kinds of complexities, then it is not interesting."

Abu-Assad also is not afraid of being accused of making the would-be bombers sympathetic characters. "In order to understand anything, you have to sympathize with it," he says. "You have to sympathize with people if you are going to understand them."

For many who might be the audience for Paradise Now in the United States, to try to understand suicide bombers -- whether their missions are aimed at Israeli cities, the World Trade Center, Indonesian resorts, U.S. troops in Iraq, or, now, hotels in Jordan -- is a heretical stance, as it implies that they are something other than purely evil.

Waleed Hazbun, a political science professor who studies the Middle East at the Johns Hopkins University, says that there has been a spate of recent research and books on these bombers.

"One of the findings is that they are not just crazed individuals," he says. "Some have a certain personal isolation; many are recruited by and feel a commitment to a certain cause.

"They are really tools within a political-military organization," Hazbun says. "They are part of a system that has targeted a particular political goal and adjusts its tactics very strategically. To think that they are just crazed, marginalized youth, that they are not thinking in terms of rational tactics and do not have a larger strategy, is wrong."

Suicide is, of course, problematic. It is universally condemned by major religions, including Islam, but it is nonetheless lionized in certain circumstances. A soldier on your side who faces certain death but nonetheless carries out his "suicide mission" is almost always a hero. In Israel, the Jews who committed suicide at Masada rather than surrender to Roman soldiers are legendary heroes.

Yet those in the enemy camp who resort to suicide are almost universally condemned as crazed fanatics, often described, perhaps ironically, as cowardly. This applies whether they are the Nazi SS members who killed themselves rather that surrender to the Russians, the Japanese kamikaze pilots who flew into U.S. warships in the Pacific, the Lebanese who drove a truck filled with explosives into a Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, or the many anonymous men who now blow themselves up in Iraq, taking U.S. soldiers, and many more Iraqis, with them.

Part of the condemnation focuses on the target of these missions, as it is often civilians who die -- Israelis on a bus, workers in the World Trade Center towers, Iraqis standing in a queue for jobs, guests at a Jordanian hotel -- but the condemnation comes whether the target is civilian or military. The argument is that this is not the proper way for the enemy to fight.

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