Hany Abu-Assad knows that a lot of Israelis won’t want to hear anything he has to say when they find out that his latest movie, Omar, is about a young Palestinian who kills an Israeli soldier, and that’s all right with him. The film is opening this week at cinematheques throughout Israel.
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“I do have a very conflicted feeling about doing publicity here [in Israel],” says the Nazareth-born-andbred director, who returned home a few years ago after years of living in Europe, in an interview at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.
“On one hand it’s very important. Whether you like it or not these are citizens of the same place you are living in and you have to share with them in the end.
It’s your responsibility and there’s no way out except sharing,” says the soft-spoken 51-year-old.
Omar, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival this year, is on the short list for a nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (the nominees will be announced on January 16).
But on the other hand? “You are David fighting Goliath. How can you fight this indoctrination?” he says, then answers his own rhetorical question. “It’s a mixture of myth and political interest. You feel like Don Quixote, you feel kind of responsible, to create an awareness.”
The awareness that Abu-Assad wants to create is an understanding of who the Palestinians are and what their lives are like. But he gets that Israelis will find it difficult, to say the least, to watch a movie in which the extraordinarily handsome and winning young hero, played in a star-making turn by Adam Bakri (the son of actor/director Mohammad Bakri and the brother of actor Salah Bakri) is involved in killing an IDF soldier and then gets arrested by the Shin Bet, whose officers torture him and pressure him to become an informant.
“We live in a time when the politicians have failed.
And if you look at any time in history when politicians have failed, it’s the artists who have come forward to try to make sense of the world. In general, I wish I was free from responsibility. I wish I could rely on our politicians but they have no real power. It’s politicians from the US, Europe and Israel who have the power to solve the conflict, not the Palestinian politicians.”
By now, Abu-Assad is used to being asked about the conflict, and also about Yuval Adler’s recent film, Bethlehem, which has a superficially similar plot. Says Abu-Assad: “This is a Palestinian story, Bethlehem was from the Israeli perspective.”
He’s also used to making films that generate controversy.
His previous film, Paradise Now (2005), which won a Golden Globe and received an Oscar nomination, was about two Palestinians sent to Tel Aviv to detonate suicide bombs, one of whom changes his mind about carrying out the mission and one of whom doesn’t.
Although his films may sound aggressively political, Abu-Assad is a filmmaker first and foremost, and not a propagandist. While the political situation is in the foreground of Omar, the film is also a romance about Omar’s love for a young woman, Nadia, and how that love affair becomes complicated after he gets arrested.
It also deals with the rivalry between different factions among the Palestinians, and how Palestinians are tantalized by the dream of peace and prosperity (exemplified by huge billboards advertising cell phone companies that portray wealthy, idealized Palestinian families) and the daily reality of a life of economic hardship and few opportunities.
“Omar’s inner conflict is that he wants to live a normal life. The billboard life. But the reality is so different,” says Abu-Assad of his protagonist.
For Abu-Assad, the heart of the film is the tragic love story. “It’s a real love story. Very universal,” he says. In preparation for making the film, Abu-Assad watched “lots of sad love stories” including A Place in the Sun, Titanic, and Casablanca, as well as re-reading Othello and especially Romeo and Juliet.
Many of the problems that the lovers face in the story come from conflicts within Palestinian society, particularly the constant rumor-mongering and the specter of being accused of collaboration.
Abu-Assad is candid in his criticism of Palestinian society, and recalls his childhood and youth as a time of “great frustration... I was a young guy in a society that didn’t appreciate modernity.”
His great escape was movie-going, and seeing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975 changed his life.
“I remember the day. I went out with a feeling of, ‘Oh, my God. I will make the decision. I will challenge the authority.... Everybody’s obeying the authority except the character [played by Jack Nicholson]. He challenges it. He died but his spirit went on.... And that spirit went to me. I wanted to be free from everything.
I wanted to be free from oppression from my own society. And I thought, ‘I want to make such a movie. I want to be a director.’” No one was supportive of this ambition, however.
“In ’76, if you said you want to be a film director, Palestinian people would laugh.” His father, who worked distributing cement for the Nesher company, told him that the family would support him if he studied engineering or medicine, and Abu-Assad chose engineering. When he completed his studies, he worked in the aerodynamic industry in the Netherlands for several years. Eventually he came home and worked with his father, encouraging him to modernize his business, but then left to work as an assistant for the Palestinian directors Bashir Abu-Manneh and Rashid Masharawi, who were then based in Tel Aviv.
Although it may surprise people, Abu-Assad began his directing career with with the Dutch-language romantic comedy, Het 14e kippetje, which he followed up with the documentaries, Nazareth 2000 and Ford Transit.
Now, as he awaits word on whether Omar will bring him his second Oscar nomination, he admits to being a bit worried.
“The first time [with Paradise Now in 2005, which was nominated for but did not win an Oscar] I was so excited. Now I am so scared. It was a difficult process, almost like when you have a birth and then the baby died. With the next pregnancy, you are so scared.”
Win or lose, Abu-Assad promises that his next film will be a comedy. He has an idea for a story “about a director who studies film in Stalingrad and then comes back to Nazareth with a script that he’s sure will win the Palme d’Or at Cannes about a dog that dies. And everybody says, ‘Why does the dog have to die in the end?’” But even if that next film is a comedy, it’s hard to think Abu-Assad will work too long without making another political film.
“The end of the conflict will come in our lifetime,” he says. “We don’t know when or what the price will be. But it’s going to end.”