The horses galloped forward in a cloud of dust, their manes flying in the wind. Hany Abu-Assad, a boy of 4, crawled under his seat in terror. After the cowboy movie ended, he dragged his parents behind the theater, looking for the thundering herd. All he found was an empty lot.
This week Abu-Assad, now 43 and a prominent Arab Israeli movie director, came to Washington to promote "Paradise Now," which opens here Friday and which may frighten audiences in another way. He describes it as a "hyper-realistic thriller" about the 48 hours two Palestinian would-be bombers spend before a planned attack.
Abu-Assad said the film's purpose was not to alienate Western viewers, but to help them understand the environment and motivations that could transform ordinary people -- in this case, two young men with grimy, dead-end jobs in the West Bank -- into suicide bombers.
"I am against suicide bombings. Yet it is an everyday occurrence, an extreme act. How could someone do that? How could they justify this to their families, to themselves?" he said during an interview last Friday. In "Paradise Now," he explores the possible answers.
Born in Nazareth in 1961, Abu-Assad said he fell in love with film as a youth. At 19, he went to Amsterdam to study engineering, and returned home in 1989 to find a Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"There was such ferment in the streets, such a tremendous need to express frustrations," he recalled. He worked on a Palestinian film called "Curfew," then went back to Amsterdam to learn more about filmmaking.
Over the past decade, he has gained recognition for such films as "Ford Transit" and "Rana's Wedding." This year, he won two major prizes in Europe for "Paradise Now," produced with his Israeli partner Amir Harel. Warner Independent Pictures bought the North American rights, and it was shown at the New York Film Festival last month.
Abu-Assad said he conducted extensive research for the film, reading studies by Palestinian psychologists and transcripts of Israeli police interrogations of potential suicide bombers who got cold feet.
He also talked with a variety of Palestinians, and even re-read the biblical story of Samson. Betrayed by Delilah, his hair shorn and eyes blinded, Samson destroyed a temple filled with people, saying, "O God, that I may be avenged upon the Philistines for one of my two eyes. . . . Let me die with the Philistines."
From these diverse sources emerged "Paradise Now," the story of Khaled and Said, two friends recruited for a bombing strike in Tel Aviv. At first, they are perched on a hill overlooking Nablus, thinking thoughts grander than their gritty, anonymous lives in the warren of alleys below. Gradually they become infatuated with the idea of violent martyrdom.
"It is a complicated thing to want to kill yourself with your foes," Abu-Assad said. "You do that first to master your own fear and rule yourself. To push the button becomes a form of personal revenge against humiliation. In one blow you kill the coward within you, your impotence and the external threat."
Ultimately, one of the friends backs out of the plot. Khaled is shaken when an Israeli patrol opens fire unexpectedly and shamed by the indignation of a young woman named Suha. Said gets as far as an Israeli bus stop with explosives strapped under his suit, but decides not to get on the bus when he spots a pretty little girl inside. Later, he is shown on another bus full of Israeli soldiers, but the film then ends ambiguously, with a blank white screen.
"Paradise Now" is more a study of inner psychological struggles than a polemic on politics or religion. It is also a sophisticated argument for peace.
"I understand the need for resistance, but I don't understand these operations, even from a military point of view," Abu-Assad said.
The film will open later this month at theaters in Israel. Abu-Assad said he was surprised it passed censorship requirements there. But Katriel Schory, the director general of Israel's Film Fund, told the British newspaper the Guardian that "the script tells us of the big dilemmas of the situation that these two young friends find themselves in, and the environment they live in. For many Israelis, I think it is not a bad idea to understand the circumstances, the psyche and everything involved in these terrible steps," he said.
When "Paradise Now" was shown in New York, Abu-Assad said some audience members asked him whether he wanted to humanize terrorists.
"This is entertainment," he recalled telling them. "You don't condone the mafia, yet you watch 'The Sopranos' and 'The Godfather.' How is this different?"
The film has comic moments, such as when a clumsy cameraman tries to record the final statements of a suicide bomber but his camera keeps jamming. There are also hints of religious symbolism, such as a last supper at a long table in the bomb plotters' cavernous stone hideout.
But more than anything, Abu-Assad told a packed screening at the National Geographic building, he wanted the story to be a "metaphor for emotions we can all share. . . . This is the story of humanity," he said. "I wanted to defy this logic of force and produce something that history will not forget. All I can be is a witness."