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Sympathy for the devil?

A wave of provocative new films offer insight into the minds of suicide bombers

NEW YORK -- Are American audiences ready to see films that get under the skin of suicide bombers and then ask us, with some trepidation, to identify with them?

Given the deadly assaults on Sept. 11, the recent bombings in London, Madrid, and Bali, and the ongoing suicide-terror campaigns in Israel and Iraq -- which have killed thousands of innocent people doing nothing more warlike than going about their daily lives -- the idea that people may not be ready or willing to see the enemy depicted as complex, flesh-and-blood, three-dimensional human beings is perfectly understandable. Since the Twin Towers attacks, many remain skittish even about the use of 9/11-like scenarios in Hollywood films, as Steven Spielberg learned after the summer release of ''War of the Worlds."

But art, as we know from the high-quality paranoid thrillers of the '50s and '60s -- which channeled anxieties about nuclear annihilation and the Communist menace into febrile cinematic reverie -- is often born of cultural strife. As a visual form of storytelling, film has the power to go beyond warspeak, fear mongering, and political rhetoric. Terror is not abstract, nor does it emanate from some nebulous ''evil": It has a face, a name, a personal history, and, ostensibly, a rationale, however disfigured by political or religious extremism.

Like it or not, the first wave of movies dealing directly with the psychology of suicide bombers has finally arrived with the US release of two new films. Hany Abu-Assad's ''Paradise Now," opening Nov. 4, and Joseph Castelo's ''The War Within," which opened Oct. 14, both challenge viewers to enter the mind of people who have elected to use their bodies as weapons of mass murder. Soon to come is the documentary ''The Smell of Paradise," a 10-year project by two Polish filmmakers who interviewed the key spiritual figures of radical Islam. Together, these films bring insight into the cult of suicide terror to one of the last places we'd expect it -- the cineplex.

Hinting at the dead-end sorrow and buried frustrations that lead two quiet, amiable men on the path to terror in the occupied territories, ''Paradise Now" tracks 24 hours in the lives of two young car mechanics from the West Bank, Said and Khaled, who are called up to carry out a suicide attack in Tel Aviv. ''The War Within" hits closer to home, following Hassan, a Pakistani engineer who converts to militant Islam in a Karachi jail cell and later links up with a jihadist cell in New Jersey plotting suicide attacks throughout New York City.

Both films, in dramatizing their antiheroes' inner lives and addressing real-world circumstances, condemn the atrocities committed yet hazard a few tentative, thought-provoking answers to the question ''why?"

''Paradise Now," which received assistance from Israeli producer Amir Harel and was workshopped at the Sundance Lab, won several major prizes at this year's Berlin Film Festival, including a special Amnesty International Award. Palestine is submitting the movie to the Academy committee as its official entry for best foreign film. Not surprisingly, ''Paradise" has also spurred indignant denunciations from those who question the film's sensitivity to Israeli victims of suicide terror -- though no explosions or media-mimicking aftermath shots are ever seen -- and the director's own political agenda.

''As a filmmaker, I am not a footman for the new conservatism, and neither for the Islamic fundamentalists," says director Abu-Assad during an interview at the New York Film Festival. His previous features, ''Rana's Wedding" and the docu-fictional hybrid ''Ford Transit," both addressed the absurdities of life on the West Bank.

Besides, he says, underscoring an implicit theme of ''Paradise Now," Palestinian suicide attacks are born not of religious fervor but of hopelessness and the daily humiliation of living under the occupation. ''What you are saying is, 'I am not a coward, I am very brave,' and 'I am not impotent, I am very strong.' These kinds of actions have been used when there was no hope for a solution, no political hope."

Abu-Assad, born in Nazareth and now living in Holland, says he was intrigued by stories he'd heard about various bombers, details that weren't widely reported in the media -- ''it's amazing how shocking reality is, more so than film" -- and began scripting Said's character with his co-writer and producer, Bero Beyer, based on his research. But he curtly dismisses the suggestion that ''Paradise Now," in connecting the would-be bombers' profound sense of despair to living under the shadow of Israeli force, inadvertently makes him an apologist for terror tactics. ''Was Francis Ford Coppola, when he made 'The Godfather,' an apologist for crime? Nonsense."

Castelo, the New York-based director and co-writer of ''The War Within," felt that the time was right, especially after the success of Michael Moore's ''Fahrenheit 9/11," to bring a story dealing with the inner turmoil of an Islamic extremist to the big screen.

''You haven't seen any of these suicide bombers represented as human, in any way," he reflects at a coffee shop in the West Village. ''People talk about winning this war on terror. And if it's a war of ideology, how would anyone win without understanding the humanity of their enemy? I felt like that perspective was nonexistent."

The studios Castelo and co-writer Ayad Akhtar (who plays Hassan) first approached with the idea -- Miramax and Fine Line -- told them the film ''would never get made in America." But they persisted, partly because they believed in the importance of the project, which landed at HDNET Films, a division of 2929 Entertainment that produces digital films shot on a budget of less than $2 million.

''There's so much going on in the world that you don't see reflected in your movie experience," says Castelo, ''and I feel like there's room for that in American multiplexes. Why not have a percentage of that that's actually challenging and maybe at times even uncomfortable or disconcerting?"

Abu-Assad, explaining the impetus behind his project, echoes that sentiment.

''Film is about lighting things that are in the dark," he says. ''What was for me exciting about this movie [was that] I wanted to see things that I never saw. What do [bombers] do? I heard stories about one, she was eating in a restaurant, and she even paid -- and after she paid, she blew herself up. This side of the phenomenon is more interesting than what I already know."

But there is more at stake, too, for these filmmakers than just illuminating the invisible lives and murky motives of terrorists; there is also an emphasis on the unique qualities of film to open minds and spark debates, as well as to question the prevailing assumptions people have about Arabs, the Muslim world, and their troubled relationship to the United States.

''The War Within," for instance, stages the paramount nightmare of average people in post-9/11 America: Radicalized by his experience at the hands of US intelligence agents and his Pakistani jailers, Hassan sneaks over the Canadian border and seeks shelter at the house of an unwitting, hospitable old friend, while secretly manufacturing explosives in the basement. Castelo says he was not out to exploit, but to transform, public fears: ''People are afraid, and they are behaving out of fear, but I think their fear has to be informed. That's something we're trying to do with the film."

In the case of ''Paradise Now," Abu-Assad was out to put a ''human face" on terror, as he said at a Berlin Film Festival press conference, but also to map ''reality," a word he often invokes. As a result, his film is full of harrowing, carefully observed details -- it's especially chilling to see Said and Khaled cleansed, shaved, suited up to impersonate guests at an Israeli wedding, and then strapped with a belt of explosives that can't be removed while Jamal, a faction leader, blithely explains how to inflict the most deaths.

Abu-Assad, whose crew repeatedly came under fire while filming in Nablus -- at one point, a Palestinian faction that had heard the film was critical of suicide bombers kidnapped the location manager, who was eventually released -- says he was merely capturing the truth. ''They are very cynical," he says of Jamal's real-world counterparts. ''They don't really care about the life of the soldiers or the innocent people they are going to kill with the bombing. They care just about winning."

While approaching the mind-set of terror from different vantage points, Castelo and Abu-Assad both point to the final act in each of their films as a human tragedy. Or, as Abu-Assad puts it, ''It's a checkpoint between death and life, between killing and being killed, between being oppressed and becoming the oppressor."

Now that the door has opened for filmmakers to explore this topic, it may be that others will find even more fruitful ways to grapple with a potentially deadly, dead-end pessimism that has become endemic to daily life for millions, in all parts of the world. Whether or not we're prepared to follow them has little to do with the subject matter, and everything to do with how well they tell their stories.

Damon Smith can be reached at demonurge@earthlink.net.

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