Palestinian director Hany Abu Assad’s controversial Oscar nominated feature Omar merges genres and uses flawed characters to dynamically illustrate the complex political realities between Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Born October 11th, 1961, in Nazareth, Israel, Abu-Assad was first nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2006 for his feature Paradise Now, about two Palestinian men preparing for a suicide attack in Israel. His 2013 film Omar was selected as the Palestinian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards, and then the 86th Academy Awards nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
First seen locally as part of the 51st New York Film Festival, Omar screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Jury Prize and then was shown at lat year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It also won Best Feature Film at the 2013 Asian Pacific Screen Awards.
The 45 year-old director came to the idea of the film in one night, writing its story structure in four hours and completing the script in four days. After a year of financing — which brought in an American based Palestinian owned production company -- filming began near the end of 2012 and was shot mainly in Nazareth, Nablus and the Far’a refugee camp.
The film focuses on Palestinian baker Omar (Adam Bakri) who routinely scales the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank to meet up with girlfriend Nadja (Leem Lubany). He also styles himself a freedom fighter — or a terrorist depending on the interpretation — ready to attack the Israeli army with childhood friends Tarek (Eyad Hourani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat). After the killing of an Israeli soldier, he’s arrested, cajoled into admitting some guilt by association, and forced work as an informant.
Not only he is faced with having to betray his cause or play his Israeli handler (Waleed F. Zuaiter) and face 90 years in jail and risk the safety of his family. He’s forced to question who he can trust on either side. In either case the likely conclusion is a tragedy of one kind or another not unlike what is happening in the region daily.
This Q&A was garnered from a roundtable held in New York hotel this February.
Q: This is a different story from your other films — what prompted that?
HA: One day I was about to shoot The Courier, a film I made here, and felt like it’s not going to be a good movie. I wanted to escape, well not escape, but survive the project. I remember waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning sweating in a panic and I was thinking, “Oh my God, I need a project I can rely on after The Courier. Think!” And I came up with this movie in four hours. The whole structure was thought up from 8 o’clock to where I wrote the last scene.
Q: This film has a coming-of-age aspect to it.
HA: It’s so funny, almost everything in the movie was from those four hours. It had to be a love story, but the characters had to be young: otherwise it wouldn’t be believable or pathetic. It has to be a coming-of-age story or you don’t believe why they’re like this.
What happens to me in panic is like when a mother sees her daughter under a car and is suddenly stronger than the car. Panic will let you think very sharply, and all your knowledge will be very well used.
Q: Is this a genre-film-slash-suspense story?
HA: I love thrillers and really wanted to use that genre in a different way to tell a love story. I was interested in three different traditions. For Americans, the thriller contains the meat of the story. The French are more interested in the inner conflict of the character and concentrate on the inner tension through closeups and wide shots but not the tension in the story.
The thrillers of the Egyptians are different from Western thrillers, because whether it’s French or American, to keep the tension high the characters are almost inhuman. They don’t go to the bathroom because it’s a waste of time. They don’t eat or tell jokes.
However, the Egyptians succeeded in making thrillers with human characters. They’re funny; they tell jokes; but it’s still tense. That felt like what would happen if I took the meat of an American thriller like No Way Out or The Firm, the mystique of French thrillers like Le Samourai and the humanity of an Egyptian thriller like There Is a Stranger in Our House and come up with something original. This was my experiment in the thriller genre. In answer to your question yes, it is a combination of a coming-of-age story with a genre thriller.
Q: You strike a good political balance with Omar.
HA: I love the kind of movies that challenge my thoughts of right and wrong. I love movies that challenge my moral judgement or any judgement, political or otherwise. And consciously I do movies that resemble what I like.
Q: You had complete creative control. What did you achieve here that you didn’t in the past?
HA: In everything there is a limitation and a price. Indeed I had my artistic freedom, but I had a lot of limitations of resources. You pay a price for everything. As a filmmaker you always want to explore new ventures. I have the luxury of choosing the light and lenses; I want to meet mainstream expectations, or do a film I’m happy with 100% and fuck luxury.
Q: The casting director did a great job.
HA: It’s true, I have to give her credit. She was the only casting director available, so we didn’t have a choice. But she’s the best. She worked with other good filmmakers and she had a good record. You know how it works.
Casting directors bring you tons of options and you see their pictures and videos. And from the thousands you pick hundreds that you actually meet. And from the hundred you bring back 20 for another test, and from 20 you reduce them to five. It’s a process of testing, testing all the time. Because I use an invisible style, the style of the movie doesn’t draw attention to itself. It says to the audience: here’s your character; live with him or her.
The actor becomes the most important element in the movie because his emotions and believability lets you live with him or not. That’s why during casting I’m very careful and bring an actor back many times, testing him again and again until I choose. Then I rehearse a lot because that’s when I have the luxury to change things without the pressure of shooting. When I’m shooting it’s just pushing them in a direction I want, but also letting them go because we did a very careful process of casting and rehearsal.
Q: There seems to be a general renaissance of Middle Eastern cinema…
HA: I hope so. This is up to you to decide. This gives me a good feeling. The Middle East deserves attention since it’s been neglected, not because there’s no talent but because it was a truly political decision to neglect them. When the mainstream neglects them, this multiplies the effect.
Q: Have Palestinians seen this film?
HA: Yes, and most of the reactions were excellent there. I feel it succeeded because I don’t want to make a film just for sophisticated audiences or festivals like Cannes. I really want to do a movie for the people and for my mother to understand and enjoy.
For sure there will be people who don’t like the movie and that’s all right. How many times have I admired directors who they have done a movie I didn’t like? It’s nothing personal; it’s your right not to like a movie.
Q: What did your mother say?
HA: She loved it more than Paradise Now. She thought it was a compelling story.
Q: What was the reaction in Israel?
HA: It was mixed, though I have to say it was mostly positive and I was really surprised. I was thinking there would be more hostile reactions. The hostile reactions were based on political ideals, not the quality of the movie. It doesn’t matter what I think politically. Take The Godfather. Politically [the Godfather character] is very wrong, but it doesn’t matter, you appreciate the film.
After seeing the movie, crime is still crime, but you appreciate that it challenges your ideas. You appreciate it so much because you felt sympathy for someone you would never feel sympathy for in reality. I tell everybody: we can discuss politics, but movies are about emotional involvement with characters you can’t connect with in reality. The reactions from the Israelis was mostly good. Some dismiss it for political reasons.
Q: What do you think of the new peace proposals?
HA: I am optimistic. Every conflict will end. Endless conflict does't exist. Whether it’s tomorrow or after a year I can’t judge, but I am optimistic we are on our way to solve this problem.
Q: Have you seen the Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing?
HA: I loved it. It was an opportunity for me was to [learn] about mass murder and killing for joy — they’re real, not actors. When do we have the opportunity to talk to mass murderers? It doesn’t exist. This movie gave me the opportunity to hear them. The act of killing is still killing but to see them as a human being is amazing.
Q: Are you excited about your upcoming award adventures in LA?
HA: It’s funny, because I had this experience before and you live with the attention for months and weeks. Every day the attention increases and increases. The first time it was fun and because it’s the first time, the disappointment was really heavy because you hear someone else’s name and you are disappointed whether you like it or not. Because I know the taste of disappointment I’m like, “Oh no I have to go through this again!”
I’m traumatized specially because we have a really tough competition. All the films I’ve seen are really good, I would vote for all of them. There’s not one where I said, “No I can not choose this movie.” It’s a very tough year. This is why I feel like I have to go through this. The Oscar [competition] is so tense for everybody. Your legs bend because of the tension. It’s a show you have to go through this.
Q: Do you want to do a TV series given the success of such shows as Homeland?
HA: I am thinking about it seriously. I can’t tell you now, but I am working on something.