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Film about suicide bombers stirs up controversy in Israel

TEL AVIV, Israel — A movie about Palestinian suicide bombers had Tel Aviv viewers on the edge of their seats — and some even found themselves empathizing with the two West Bank mechanics trying to attack their city.

The award-winning "Paradise Now," which tries to explore the motives of bombers and has been screened in other countries, is now in limited release in Israel, a country struck by 122 bombings that killed hundreds of people in the past five years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

Viewer turnout has been modest at three showings a day at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, the city's main art house, and no commercial distributor has been found. Abroad, the movie has made $2 million in sales.

The film has stirred some controversy in Israel, with one TV morning show matching up the two lead actors, Israeli Arabs Kais Nashef and Ali Suliman, with a bereaved father who lost his teenage son in a bus bombing two years ago and said bombers must not be portrayed in a sympathetic light.

Some of those at a recent Tel Aviv showing praised director Hany Abu Assad — an Arab born in Israel who lives in Holland — for avoiding melodrama and for creating complex characters.

"You don't identify with one side more than another," said Esther Wiener, 50. "I understood the other (Palestinian) side. I saw human beings who are caught up in this quagmire. There is no right side and no wrong side."

The film tells the story of two friends, Said (Nashef) and Khaled (Suliman), who are dispatched to carry out a double suicide-bombing and accept it as their fate. They shave their beards to blend into Israeli crowds more easily, pray and prepare farewell videos.

Most of the movie was shot in the West Bank city of Nablus, a militant stronghold from where many of the bombers were dispatched. The conflict served as a constant backdrop — houses demolished in Israeli army operations, the sound of airstrikes against Palestinian militants and large crowds waiting at army roadblocks.

Nashef said that at one point, Palestinian gunmen who feared militants would be portrayed in an unsympathetic fashion abducted the cameraman. Longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat won the release of the cameraman, but the crew eventually left Nablus because the atmosphere was turning hostile, Nashef said.

Israeli audiences responded to the movie with a range of emotions.

In the Tel Aviv showing, there were some snickers when a gun-toting Khaled interrupted the filming of his farewell video to tell his mother where to buy the cheapest filtered water.

During a one-time showing at a Haifa art house several weeks ago, some viewers were on the edges of their seats during a scene showing the two protagonists about to be caught by Israeli soldiers as they try to sneak through a security fence.

"There was a lot of tension in the theater during this scene," said Nashef. "I felt that the entire theater was with us, that they didn't want us to get caught. Then I felt that we had conveyed our message . . . and it was a very strange feeling."

The two express doubts and hesitation throughout their journey, and Khaled eventually returns to Nablus. Said in the end is shown sitting on a bus surrounded by Israeli soldiers, leaving open the possibility that he found his target.

Alon Garbuz, director of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, said the movie is important for Israeli audiences.

"This doesn't legitimize the bombers," Barbuz said. "But you can understand them."