Suicide machine

Film - A powerful tale of West Bank bombers offers bleak insights, writes Victoria Segal

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Cafés and kitchens, garages and alleys: for a film with such an incendiary reputation, Paradise Now is rooted in the domestic life of the West Bank city of Nablus, as much about mundane arguments over car repairs and the salad vegetables being chopped for dinner as it is about deadly conflict and far-reaching politics. Yet this film by Hany Abu-Assad, who is based in the Netherlands, is also a missive from a place where the mundane has been surreally perverted by violence, where a man with hooks for hands works in a bomb factory, where a grisly trade in "martyr" videos flourishes, and where young men are prepared to strap themselves into explosive corsets to kill and be killed.

Unsurprisingly, there was controversy when Paradise Now was nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film at this year's Oscars. The story of two suicide bombers living out the last 48 hours of their lives before they attack Tel Aviv, it triggered concerns that it would seek to justify acts of violence and humanise the perpetrators. The director, meanwhile, insists that his work "is simply meant to open a discussion, hopefully a meaningful discussion" and stresses that "if you see the film, it's fairly obvious that it does not condone the taking of lives".

That might be over-optimistic: Para- dise Now is unlikely to shift or soften anybody's politics. Regardless of that, however, it has the great advantage of letting an audience feel it is seeing things it would otherwise never see. Here, you feel, are some of the scenes behind the news footage of rubble and checkpoints, from the meals eaten at home to the uncomfortable sweat that pools beneath a bomber's belt in the heat.

From the beginning, this is an unpasteurised view of Nablus life, as we watch two young Palestinians, the hot-headed Khaled (Ali Suliman) and his best friend, dreamy, sullen Said (Kais Nashef), work at their tedious jobs as mechanics, smoke pipes and drink tea on the hillside above their city. They worry about finding work, discuss potential romances, and initially seem like amiable, if disillusioned drifters. Yet they have a deadly intent: they might look like they're in a student band but they are actually suicide bombers-in-waiting, and when they arrive home that night they find Jamal (Amer Hlehel), a smooth fixer with the organisation that recruited them, waiting to tell them that tomorrow is the day they will die - together, as requested.

Abu-Assad shows the men as they spend their last night with their families, eat dinner, sleep restlessly. Said sneaks off in the night to meet Suha (Lubna Azabal), a young woman whose European upbringing has made her an advocate for peaceful protest and human-rights campaigns, despite being the daughter of a noted activist. An untimely political discussion quells any potential romance. The next day you see Khaled and Said as they are prepared by their handlers, a ritual that includes prayer, food, clothing, the making of their "martyr" videos and finally, the strapping on of the irremovable belt. Such details are compelling enough, but once their mission is under way, the film turns up the tension to thriller-like levels as Said, separated from his friend, finds himself unable - and unwilling - to strike on his own. It's only Khaled's intervention that stops their own side from seeing Said as a traitor. The handlers give Khaled until nightfall to locate the lost bomber. As both men are still loaded with explosives, every scene shakes with tension.

If Abu-Assad intends to generate sympathy for his two central characters, he largely fails - although it is hard not to pity their desperate naivety. The shooting of their "martyr" videos borders on the grimmest farce as they pose with machine-guns while jaded operatives pass round sandwiches. Khaled makes an impassioned last testament that the camera fails to record and, like some horrible Hollywood drama, he has to run through another take. Asked what will happen after the attacks, Jamal tells them that two angels will come and pick them up. "This school, it's good you're taking care of the kids," Said's mother (Hiam Abbass) tells Jamal earlier. "We do our best," he in-tones. "A good education is very important." If anyone is sympathetic here, it is the moderate Suha, who insists a suicide bombing is "not sacrifice, that's revenge".

There are brief spurts of blurry sentiment - when Said looks into the eyes of an Israeli child at a bus stop you are clearly supposed to feel the workings of his conscience. Given that the death of innocents has rarely been a deterrent on either side in this conflict, it seems like a little moment of wishful thinking.

Yet mostly, Abu-Assad sticks to a hard-boiled intensity that gives Paradise Now a real sense of time and place, from the streets of Nablus to the shiny, strangely still beaches and billboards of Tel Aviv, their stasis ruptured only by violence. "If we had aeroplanes, we wouldn't need martyrs," says Khaled. Whatever the weapon, the effect remains depressingly similar.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2006 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN