The Psyche of Suicide Bombers
"Paradise Now" -- a film by Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, and shot on location in the West Bank and Israel -- aims to do what many viewers will certainly see as unimaginable: delve into the motivations and psyches of suicide bombers, attempting to humanize these young men and women who make the decision to kill and be killed.
In setting out to make a film that would explore the motivations of suicide bombers, Abu-Assad made a surprising discovery, he said during a recent round-table discussion with reporters: that anybody, in his eyes, could become a suicide bomber when placed in the same situation as the Palestinians.
"I was first of all surprised during the research that I found a lot of stories that are human stories. That I couldn't believe," he said in his rough English. "How stupid I was to think that they are not human beings, or they are different than me and you."
Following the lives of Khaled and Said, two young Palestinian mechanics who have been friends since childhood, "Paradise Now" focuses on what is to be their final days alive as they prepare for their long-anticipated suicide mission in Tel Aviv. The film also explores the role of Suha, a young woman educated in the West -- and Said's love interest -- in causing the friends to reconsider their plans.
The common belief is that suicide bombers are motivated purely by religious zeal, but Abu-Assad said he realized how different the suicide bombers are from one another and how complex their range of motivations is. His research included studying interrogation transcripts of failed suicide bombers and official Israeli reports, as well as talking to suicide bombers' friends and families. In doing so, Abu-Assad, a native Palestinian now living in the Netherlands, said he found that there is no typical suicide bomber; each has his or her own motivation, religious or not.
For Khaled and Said, signing on to a suicide mission is an automatic decision, something they'd each thought about for years. But they each have a different motivation. Khaled believes that attacking Israel would be a step toward liberating Palestine and releasing Palestinians like himself from crippling oppression. "If we can't live as equals, at least we can die as equals. In this life we're all dead," Khaled screams in a desperate debate with Suha.
Said's motivation is more personal: his father was executed by Palestinians for being an Israeli "collaborator." Israel does not just make his daily life miserable, as it does for Khaled; it killed his father, and with it his life. With the burden of his father's transgression on his shoulders, retaliation is the only answer, in his eyes. But if signing up for a suicide mission was easy for them, going through with it is another matter, and they spend the bulk of the movie debating whether to do it, each reversing his decision at least once. At one point, Said is about to board a bus when he sees a little Israeli girl and reconsiders. The audience remains in suspense until the very end of the film, unsure whether either of them will take that final step.
For Abu-Assad personally, retaliation in the form of suicide bombing does not solve the problem. The little Israeli girl on that bus never loses her status as a human. And, he said, civilian bus riders, who often are themselves poor, should not be the target of suicide missions, since they have no power to change Israeli policy. "You [the would-be bombers] are the poor people from the Palestinian society killing yourself for the poor people in the other society. You are not killing the people who are responsible for the policies," Abu-Assad said.
Shot in Nablus, Nazareth, and Tel Aviv in Arabic with English subtitles, the film's crew and cast members lived as vulnerably as the characters of the film. "In general the place was under siege, like people can't go in and out without permission of the Israeli army," Abu-Assad said. "And this made the place a bit unhealthy. People became paranoid. I became paranoid after some time."
Filming amidst rivaling factions -- one representing Palestinian Copts and the other calling itself the Freedom Fighters -- the cast and crew wondered how these two groups would react to the film. The Freedom Fighters, which Abu-Assad said, "want to fight for democracy and peace," provided the cast and crew with protection and minor suggestions on how to accurately portray them. But the fear escalated when the Palestinian Copts kidnapped a crewmember, whom they later released. Some crew members abandoned the shoot.
The Freedom Fighters were present during the filming of Khaled's and Said's martyr videos. Abu-Assad was worried they would interfere, fearing the videos were "not in their taste." However, their only interference was a suggestion on how actor Ali Sulaiman (Khaled) should hold his gun, which the Freedom Fighters actually loaned to the cast for that scene. Rather than rattling his nerves, the event revealed two signs, he said: "The first sign was that the content of the film is very close to reality. And secondly, I can be sure that every detail was done in an authentic way."
In these scenes of filming the martyr videos, Khaled struggles to recite his message as the camera repeatedly fails and the other men involved in the attack casually snack on some pita sandwiches. The lightness of the surrounding men's demeanor and behavior is incongruous to the intensity of the moment. Abu-Assad explained that downplaying the situation is "what they do in real (life)." By turning the moment into the simple act of signing a contract, "they make it as it's usual, it's not a big deal. They make from it, ok, this is a soldier who wants to commit an action he believes in," said Abu-Assad.
Abu-Assad's primary goal is creating a story, since a people's survival depends on the preservation of its story, he said. "The Jews survived because they kept their story. Two thousand years they kept their story," he said. In that story, Jews were the underdogs, but now their role in the narrative has flipped, he said. "They came back to tell their story, but from the oppression point of view. And with this they are losing their story."
Abu-Assad believes that Palestinians now have the opportunity and ability to harness the power of their own stories. The roles are reversed, "the underdog who refused to be a slave has become us now. We lost the land, we lost the military struggle, we lost everything," Abu-Assad said. And with nothing left, the Palestinians are forced to assert themselves through stories "We are not giving up. In contradiction, we are becoming more aware of ourselves and aware of our story.... We become part of history, of this story of humanity," said Abu-Assad.
In capturing the story of the Palestinians, Abu-Assad refers to Da Vinci's painting The Last Supper. With film as his medium, the scene is literally recreated in "Paradise Now" with the two suicide bombers and 11 others involved in the mission lined up at the table for the bombers' final feast. It was Abu-Assad's way of connecting suicide bombing to its roots in religious tradition. "To kill yourself with your enemy is a mythical story in the Bible," he said.
But while suicide bombing may trace its roots to religion, Abu-Assad said, today there is more to it than just the religious perspective. "I am retelling the story, but not anymore from the God point of view," he said. "I am repainting the painting, but from the now point of view."
That point of view is nothing if not upsetting. The film sets it up so that viewers spend much of its 90 minutes hoping that the young men find a way not to take that final step to supposed Paradise. But there's little redemption here, little sense that the violence of this bloody conflict is likely to abate anytime soon. To many, the mere act of humanizing suicide bombers is immoral, a form of justification. Abu-Assad, though, manages to pull it off by showing a point of view rarely aired in the West and depicting the situation as what it is: a tragedy.