In setting out to make a film that would explore the motivations of suicide bombers, Abu-Assad made a surprising discovery, he said during recent a 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.