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 for the 86th Academy Awards nomination for Best Foreign
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. There it won the Jury
Prize and then was shown at last year’s Toronto International Film
Festival. It also won Best Feature Film at the 2013 Asian Pacific
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. The movie 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
Not only he is faced with having to betray his
cause or play his Israeli handler (Waleed F. Zuaiter), 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
a New York hotel this February.
is a different story from your other films. What prompted that?
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 four 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 eight o’clock to
where I wrote the last scene.
film has a coming–of–age aspect to it.
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.
this a genre–film–slash–suspense story?
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 close ups 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
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.
strike a good political balance with
I love the kind of movies that challenge my
thoughts of right and wrong. I love movies that challenge my moral
judgment or any judgment, political or otherwise. And consciously I
do movies that resemble what I like.
had complete creative control. What did you achieve here that you
didn’t in the past?
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.
casting director did a great job.
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. From the thousands
you pick hundreds that you actually meet. From the hundreds you
bring back 20 for another test. 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.
seems to be a general renaissance of Middle Eastern cinema…
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.
Palestinians seen this film?
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 have
done a movie I didn’t like? It’s nothing personal; it’s your right
not to like a movie.
did your mother say?
She loved it more than Paradise Now. She
thought it was a compelling story.
was the reaction in Israel?
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 ideals. 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 were mostly
good. Some dismiss it for political reasons.
do you think of the new peace proposals?
I am optimistic. Every conflict will end.
Endless conflict doesn’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
you seen the Oscar–nominated documentary The Act of Killing?
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.
you excited about your upcoming award adventures in LA?
It’s funny, because I had this experience
before. 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 especially 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.
you want to do a TV series given the success of such shows as Homeland?
I am thinking about it seriously. I can’t tell you now, but
I am working on something.
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