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W Asia tragedies vie for Oscars

LOS ANGELES (Reuters): The turmoil of the West Asia will have a front-row seat at this year's Oscars.

Two films -- one about Palestinian suicide bombers and the other about Israeli assassins -- compete for major awards after being both praised and damned in the court of public opinion.

To hear the very different makers of ''Munich'' and ''Paradise Now'' tell it, their films have dodged a lot of verbal shell fire on the road to the Oscar red carpet.

But they add their nominations also represent a victory for movies that preach understanding and tolerance in a region not famed for either.

''Paradise Now,'' the first Palestinian film ever to receive an Oscar nomination, is up for best foreign language film while ''Munich,'' directed by Hollywood heavyweight Steven Spielberg and co-written by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner, is up for five awards including best picture and best adapted screenplay.

In a recent interview, Kushner was still reeling from the hostile reception that greeted ''Munich,'' a movie about the moral price paid by Israeli Mossad agents who tracked down and killed Palestinians responsible for the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Almost before the movie was shown, it was being slammed by Israel's supporters who saw it as equating the acts of terrorists with the people who hunt them.

The key quote in the film is one that Kushner made up for then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. He has her ordering the reprisals, saying that ''every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its values.'' Kushner said that the subtext for that phrase was also America's tactics in the war against terrorism -- a point rammed home by the film's closing images of the World Trade Center. Violence, the film says, begets violence.

''The attack on 'Munich' was not coordinated but it amounted to a real campaign to have a lot of people not see the film and it got mixed up with Oscar issues,'' Kushner said.

But instead of sinking without a trace, ''Munich'' won five Oscar nominations.

''What astonishes me about the response to 'Munich' is this angry rejection of the idea that it makes any difference to know what motivates people to do bad things, that you don't need to know why,'' Kushner said. ''It is like saying that real men shoot first and ask questions later like in 'Dirty Harry' movies.'' GLORIFIES BOMBERS And that is the problem Hany Abu-Assad faced in making his movie ''Paradise Now.'' He wanted to explain why young men were willing to blow up themselves and others in the dozens of suicide bombings that have wreaked havoc in the West Asia.

''Paradise Now'' is considered one of the front-runners in its category but it has in recent weeks suffered fierce criticism from Israeli and American Jewish groups, who charge that the film glorifies suicide bombers instead of explaining them.

A group of Israelis who lost children in suicide bombings sent a petition yesterday signed by 32,000 people to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences asking it to disqualify the film. That has never happened to an Oscar nominee.

Yossi Zur, whose teen-age son was killed in a bus bombing, said, ''What they call 'Paradise Now' we call 'hell now', each and every day. It is a mission of the free world not to give such movies a prize.'' But Arab American Institute President James Zogby bristles at such categorizations and at Israeli efforts to have the film described as coming from the Palestinian Authority rather than from Palestine.

''The problem here is that the folks from Israel are not satisfied in controlling every aspect of Palestinian daily life but in controlling every aspect of the manifestation of things Palestinian in the outside world. They ought to let up and let people define themselves,'' he said.

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