Two years ago, Hany Abu-Assad's "Rana's Wedding" -- a political comedy about a Palestinian woman's mishaps getting married in Ramallah -- debuted in U.S. theaters with favorable reviews and the hopes of capturing the art-house market and offering American audiences a uniquely Palestinian perspective. Sadly, the movie failed (grossing only around $45,000). But Abu-Assad is now back -- and with the backing of Time Warner subsidiary Warner Independent Pictures, his new film "Paradise Now" (opening next Friday) is poised to become the biggest Arabic-language film ever released in the United States.
Winner of various prizes at the Berlin Film Festival, workshopped at the Sundance Filmmakers Lab and Palestine's official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film, "Paradise Now" comes with strong buzz and a major marketing push from Warner Independent, including high-profile festival slots and word-of-mouth screenings with various human rights organizations, political think tanks and universities as well as Middle Eastern, Arab and Jewish groups.
A sympathetic and suspenseful portrait of two Palestinian men who agree to carry out a suicide bombing in Israel, the film has predictably found itself surrounded by controversy.
On the one hand, audiences who shudder at the thought of a story that seeks to understand the oppressed culture behind Palestine's "martyrs" have verbally assaulted the film and its distributor.
Warner Independent has received messages like "Muslim = Death" and angry missives like this one: "Why do you glorify the sick Arab homicide bombers who kill innocent civilians? . . . Maybe you should have named your movie 'The Barbarians.'"
Laura Kim, WIP's Executive VP, Marketing and Publicity, says she expects to receive more hate mail as the film plays in theaters. "But for as many calls, emails and letters that we get from people protesting our release of the film," she explains, "there are more of those that are in support of the film."
And yet on the other hand, "Paradise Now" could inflame debate on the opposite side of the political spectrum: as one more depiction of Middle Eastern men committed to violence.
"Just the fact that it's about suicide bombers makes us nervous," says Arab Film Distribution's John Sinno, who released "Rana's Wedding." "We've seen how the issue of suicide bombers has been used to attack the whole line of Palestinian resistance. It can be easily misinterpreted."
As Laila Al-Qatami, Communications Director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, says, "So often, when we see Arab Americans or Muslim Americans, they have no identity beyond that they are a terrorist. They're never just a Muslim working in an office."
As both cinema and TV screens are inundated with the stereotypical images of Arab or Muslim-as-terrorist (from HBO's agit-prop acquisition on loose nukes "Last Best Chance" and Showtime's upcoming series "Sleeper Cell" to Joseph Castelo's indie "The War Within" and Stephen Gaghan's studio release "Syriana"), however narrow-minded or well-meaning these depictions are, we're a long way off from a harmless Arab-American family sitcom (The Shalhoub Show, anyone?).
Walking into this divisive mix is director Abu-Assad, a Palestinian exile who has lived in Holland for twenty years. For "Paradise Now," he survived Israeli missile attacks, a mine explosion and the kidnapping of one his crewmembers (returned two hours later) to tell the concise and deeply nuanced story of his fellow Palestinians and their struggle to survive under the Israeli occupation. Going up against challenges from the right and the left, from the West (for not depicting the victims) and the East (for placating the West), Abu-Assad says the only way out of this political thicket was "to be honest, really, and to rely on reality."
"Research is your best weapon," explains Abu-Assad, who met with a lawyer who represented failed suicide bombers and spoke with Palestinian resistant fighters and friends of deceased attackers. "Because their deed is such a horrible deed, we immediately imagine horrible characters: that they are these fanatic, evil people driven by hate and religion. But when you go and face it, you will be shocked at how ignorant we are. These people are very human."
But will U.S. audiences accept them as human?
In their marketing materials, Warner Independent is trying to make "clear that the film is one that carries a message of peace," says Laura Kim. "We are working with many organizations to help get the word out that the film is one to begin a dialogue, to ask questions."
That said, Kim admits, "I don't think anyone here thought we'd hit the jackpot with the film, but we all believed that it should be seen. We have looked into past films by Arab filmmakers, and they are all difficult, including 'Paradise Now.'"
Based on the performance of past Arabic-language films, Marie-Therese Guirgis, of rival distributor Wellspring Media, believes "Paradise Now" will be hard pressed to gross over $500,000. "But it's the first Arab movie, to my knowledge, distributed by a studio and they are spending more on it then has been spent in the past," she says. "I would love to see a scenario where the film really works so people feel more confident releasing Arab films."
Guirgis also points out that "Paradise Now" is particularly distinct from other "Arab" films because of its story. "It is a subject that dominates the news and should be of interest to anyone interested in global events."
Other film executives will be watching closely how "Paradise Now" fares in the marketplace.
John Sinno, for one, is releasing the gripping Israeli-Palestinian conflict chronicle "Private" in theaters on November 18 in New York, shortly after "Paradise Now" debuts. Winner of a Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival, "Private" follows a well-to-do Palestinian family whose home is taken over by Israeli soldiers and the tensions that arise as a result. "The two films complement each other," says Sinno.
Rather than release the film under the Arab Film Distribution banner, Sinno has created a new company, Typecast Releasing, to distribute "Private." "Our office was attacked last year," says Sinno. "And we didn't want to color the film in a wrong way."
Whatever stereotypes still linger, specialized audience's taste for Middle Eastern and Arabic-language cinema seems to be growing.
Last Friday, in Washington D.C., the 10th Arabian Sights Film Festival kicked off with films from all over the Arab world. Originally intended to be a one-time event, the festival became an annual series due to its overwhelming success, says Shirin Ghareeb, Assistant Director of the D.C. International Film Festival. "Our audience wants to see films that offer an alternative and a more realistic view of Arab culture and they continually ask us to bring more," she says.
And in New York, the first CinemaEast Film Festival, devoted to films from the Middle East and its Diaspora, will take place Nov. 4-10. Opening with Egyptian director Oussama Fawzi's critically acclaimed "I Love Cinema," the festival helps to develop market opportunities for foreign filmmakers and allow them to network with New York industryites, according to Livia Alexander, executive director of ArtEast, which also co-sponsors a screening series with the Tribeca Film Festival called "No Visa Required."
It's definitely the in-vogue topic," says Alexander. "Just as Iranian filmmaking was in the '90s and German film was in the '70s, this cinema definitely has interest because of the political climate right now."