By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News website
Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad knew he was stepping into a political minefield when he went to the West Bank town of Nablus in the summer of 2004 to shoot a feature film about two suicide bombers.
He ran the risk either of being accused of glorifying extreme acts of terrorism or of betraying the Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation.
Paradise Now, a film about two childhood friends who volunteer for a suicide mission in Tel Aviv, has recently opened in the main cinema in that city.
It has also opened in France, Germany and the US but a scheduled showing at a film festival in the UK was cancelled after the 7 July London bombings.
Despite its controversial subject matter, the film has broadly been well received. It has been sold to 45 countries, won several awards and has been a hit on the international film festival circuit. It has also been accepted as the Palestinian entry for the foreign language category of the Oscars.
In a telephone interview from Israel, where he has been promoting the film, the 43-year-old director acknowledged he was "very surprised" that there had been little controversy surrounding the film. He not only expected a strong reaction from groups that might find the film sympathetic to suicide bombers, but he says he expected some negative response from Palestinians.
Paradise Now has already been screened in the Palestinian territories and, according to the film maker, was well received.
So, why has the film confounded expectations?
Abu-Assad says one suggestion is because the film "allows you to think - and any film that allows you to think is impossible to fight".
Abu-Assad says making the film was "incredibly difficult" (photo: Seamus Murphy)
The point behind the film is to help people understand the environment and motivations that could persuade ordinary people carry out such extreme acts of violence, the film maker says.
He says that almost every day in the newspapers there are stories of suicide attacks. He began to ask what was it that could drive someone to commit such acts.
"I came up with the idea for the film while thinking about making a thriller," he says. "The act of killing yourself at the same time as killing your enemy was a thriller in itself. It is the most horrifying thing that anyone can do and it is made all the more horrifying because little is known about the people who carry out such extreme violence."
Abu-Assad talked to people who had known suicide bombers, gleaned real-life experiences from a lawyer who has acted for failed suicide bombers, and studied reports by Israeli security officials based who interviewed them.
Dangers of filming
The making of the film required a lot of daring. Because of the desire to make the film as authentic as possible, filming was carried out on location in Nablus, one of the centres of Palestinian militancy.
Abu-Assad acknowledges that it was an "insane idea" to film in such circumstances.
Filming was regularly interrupted by Israeli and Palestinian gun battles and Israeli incursions were part of the daily routine. The crew were exposed to Israeli missile attacks on one side and feuding Palestinian militant factions on the other.
A member of the crew was kidnapped after rumours spread that the film was a polemic against suicide bombings, while six European crew members fled after an Israeli missile attack on a nearby car. Eventually the production crew was forced to complete some of the Nablus scenes in Nazareth.
"Filming was incredibly difficult," he says. "Apart from filming in an area under occupation, some of the Palestinian factions thought I was not presenting what they call their heroes - the suicide bombers - in a good light. They ordered me to stop filming." The order was ignored.
The film focuses on the psychological struggles of Khalid and Said, two friends who have dead-end jobs in Nablus.
The two young men, who have been friends since childhood, have already volunteered to become suicide bombers. After a last night with their families, they are taken to the border with bombs strapped to their bodies. However, the operation doesn't go according to plan and they become separated.
Filming was set in Nablus, a town with a strong association with Palestinian militant groups
In one scene, Khalid is shown questioning whether martyrdom is for him. In another, Said is shown arguing with a female friend who has guessed his mission. Here, Abu-Assad is able to explore human anxieties, and dilemmas on the effectiveness or futility of suicide bombings.
"One Palestinian faction, in particular, was unhappy with the idea of the film humanising their heroes. They wanted them to be portrayed as superheroes who knew what they were doing - not humans with doubts. Ironically, some Israelis had a similar response - they didn't like the idea of suicide bombers being portrayed as human beings," says the film maker.
Largely, however, Abu-Assad says the Palestinian factions were happy with the film. Some even played parts as extras.
The director says that while the film explores the legitimacy of resistance, it never condones the taking of life.
"The biggest motivation here is the feeling of impotence which comes with the daily humiliations. In order to fight this impotence, you would prefer to kill yourself. And by attacking the enemy, you gain power and transfer that impotence to the other side. You can say to them: 'I'm killing your civilians, you can't protect them any more'.
"This is an important conclusion. Up until now, the Israelis have been fighting in a way that will just create more impotence and more violence."
The film, which has an Israeli co-producer, is being supported in Israel by the Israeli Film Fund. Its head, Katriel Schory, says he thought it was an important film for Israelis to watch.
"The film is fiction but there are elements that are close to the situation in the West Bank. If it creates debate and raises questions, then that is a good thing," he told the BBC News website.
"It would be good for the Israeli people to get insight into moods and the psyche of the Palestinians."
But he predicts that the film fund will still "get loads of heat and resentment and endless letters" because of its support.
Abu-Assad says that, while he hopes to create dialogue, he is realistic enough to know that films "don't change anything, except allowing you to question".
"The most important thing for me is the challenge that I took," he says.
"The Israelis are busy with the ugly side of the occupation - the power and the checkpoints and the tanks - in order to oppress the Palestinians. For me it was important to make something beautiful out of this - to tell a story."
At a recent screening in Washington, Abu-Assad told the audience that he wanted that story to be a "metaphor for emotions that we can all share... This is the story of humanity".
"I wanted to defy this logic and force and produce something that history will not forget. All I can be is a witness."