- The Washington Times - Friday, November 11, 2005

Hany Abu-Assad, a Palestinian born in Nazareth in 1961, is the director and co-writer of the ominously distinctive import “Paradise Now,” which observes the bungled mission of two young Palestinians from Nablus who have volunteered to be suicide bombers and are bound for Tel Aviv.

The filmmaker moved to Amsterdam in 1980 to study engineering while living with an uncle who had established a family outpost in Europe many years earlier. He worked in the aircraft industry in Holland before pursuing a film career.

“In engineering … your decisions cannot be risky,” he explained recently while in town for a day of movie promotion. “Otherwise, your airplane will crash. You have to be sure of every calculation. I began to feel that the need for something riskier was big in me.”

He may have overdosed on the risk element while making “Paradise Now.”

Envisioned as a “hyper-realistic thriller,” it was so dependent on the immediacy of a politically dangerous location that Mr. Abu-Assad ended up spending five nerve-racking months trying to complete the principal sequences.

“Most thrillers are artificial,” Mr. Abu-Assad observes. By contrast, he says the “Paradise” scenario was revised repeatedly as he became more and more familiar with the location and the characters.

“But if I go back, I will not work that way again,” he says. “It’s a high price to pay for a risky challenge. All the time you’re tense and worried … On this film, I had to be concerned with keeping people alive.”

While in Nablus, the company was shadowed by a quartet of armed and sometimes glowering Palestinian militant factions assigned to monitor their work. “Every day I had to negotiate with four factions,” Mr. Abu-Assad recalls. “One for us, one against, two neutral. I become very paranoid.”

On one occasion, the director appealed to the Palestinian Authority to secure the speedy release of a business manager who had been abducted. The man was back within two hours, but a large group of German crew members found the atmosphere unbearable and quit.

“You need to hire replacements and tell them honestly what they’re getting into,” Mr. Abu-Assad remarks. “We survived many crises, but you never know. My French cinematographer was steadfast, so I love him. If he went, we were through.”

* * *

Marc Levin got in the habit of touching base with anti-Semitic Web sites while compiling material for the documentary feature “Protocols of Zion,” which attempts to assess and discourage abiding bigotry in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The title alludes to a vintage anti-Semitic forgery, circulated by the czarist regime more than a century ago but still available and exploitable.

Mr. Levin, a New Yorker born in 1951, is more concerned with refuting a specific, freshly contrived lie: that no Jews died on September 11 because they were alerted in advance by agents of a global Jewish conspiracy.

“Go on these Web sites, and everyone is a Jew,” he says during a conversation at the Madison Hotel. “Pope John Paul. Rupert Murdoch. Pick a name. But when they talk about 9/11, no victims were Jews. It’s hard to keep up.”

Mr. Levin has spent about 30 years making what he calls “street-level” documentary films. His survey of anti-Semitism takes him from an Arab-American neighborhood in Paterson, N.J., to a neo-Nazi enclave in West Virginia to Beverly Hills, where he fails during an idle stopover to arouse the interest of such pillars of the community as Larry David and Rob Reiner.

“There are plenty of people in the documentary field who are better qualified to work on historical and analytical levels,” Mr. Levin observes. “I’m more useful mixing it up in a visceral, argumentative way.

“Quite a few Jewish organizations think it’s unwise to respond to anti-Semitic libels. They believe even entertaining the charges gives them legitimacy. I can’t agree. I was on Michael Medved’s radio show with Malik Shabazz, the chairman of the New Black Panther Party. He finally acknowledged [as a consequence of seeing the film] that many Jews died on 9/11. Let’s not kid ourselves. He hasn’t had a change of heart. But I think we nudged him to shift some ground. He was a complete denier before he agreed to attend a screening.”

* * *

The 18th edition of an annual European Union Film Showcase continues at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre for another nine days, offering 25 features and a similar volume of shorts from member countries. Most are U.S. premieres and may never surface again after festival exposure.

Two exceptions are the British show-business comedy that began the series earlier this week, Michael Winterbottom’s “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” and the one that closes it on Nov. 20, Stephen Frears’ “Mrs. Henderson Presents.” The latter is a Christmas release; the former is scheduled for early January.

A reader who recently asked, “Whatever happened to Jeremy Northam?” may be cheered by “Shandy,” which is about a movie company shooting a film version of Laurence Sterne’s discursive novel, which scarcely lends itself to conventional adaptation.

Mr. Northam has been cast as a caricature of director Winterbottom. In the leading role; Steve Coogan plays himself, Tristram and Tristram’s father.

For more information about the European showcase, consult the AFI Silver Web site (www.afi.com/silver) or call 301/495-6720.

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