NEW YORK – At a press conference held earlier this month at the 51st New York Film Festival, Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad said it was very important for him that Israeli audiences see his films. Assad, who was born in Nazareth, noted that he was at work on the Hebrew subtitles for his latest film, “Omar.” After the film gets Hebrew subtitles, it will be submitted to the Israeli censor, he said. He finds it hard to believe that the censor would disqualify “Omar” from screening in Israel because another of his films, “Paradise Now” (2005), was shown in the country. He said he was very curious to find out how Israeli audiences reacted to “Omar” because it presents subjects that are very familiar to them.
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Indeed, it is difficult to believe that “Omar,” which tells the story of a young Palestinian whom the Shin Bet security service tries to recruit as an informant, will be banned by the Israeli censor, though the film, which will be shown at the New York festival on Friday and Saturday, has a number of violent scenes that portray the Shin Bet and the Israel Defense Forces as torture machines that do not hesitate to use vicious psychological pressure to extort information from people they interrogate. Abu-Assad’s criticism of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank does not differ essentially from the criticism expressed in other films that have been screened in Israel in recent years, such as the award-winning documentaries “The Law in These Parts” (2011), “The Gatekeepers” (2012) and “5 Broken Cameras” (2011).
Moreover, if the censor decides to ban “Omar,” the same fate would likely have to be accorded another film that deals with a similar subject and that just won six Ophir Awards, including Best Feature Film and Best Director. The film is “Bethlehem,” which also describes the complex relationship between a Palestinian informant and a Shin Bet investigator and which, in many respects, is the Israeli version of “Omar.” Whereas “Omar” has been chosen to represent the Palestinian Authority for the category of Best Foreign Language Film of the Year for the 2014 Oscar awards, “Bethlehem” has been chosen to represent Israel for the same category. It will soon be known if either (or both?) of the two films will be among the five films nominated to compete for an Oscar on March 2, 2014.
Unlike director Yuval Adler, who made his cinematic debut in “Bethlehem,” Abu-Assad already made history when “Paradise Now” was nominated for the foreign film Oscar in 2006, the first time a Palestinian movie was so honored. The film, which represented the PA, lost out to South Africa’s “Tsotsi.” As Abu-Assad points out, “Omar” is much more conciliatory than “Paradise Now,” which tells the story of two young Palestinian men from Nablus who plan to carry out a suicide bombing in Israel. “Paradise Now,” which produced a storm of controversy in Israel, is regarded as one of the most successful films in the history of Palestinian cinema; it has been screened at many important film festivals around the world, winning a Golden Globe award in 2006, and it was instrumental in launching Abu-Assad’s Hollywood career. In the wake of that film’s success, Abu-Assad in 2012 directed the U.S. crime thriller, “The Courier,” starring Mickey Rourke and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
Paranoia strikes deep
Asked why he chose to return to Israel and the West Bank to film “Omar,” Abu-Assad told reporters after the film’s October 1 press screening at the New York festival: “One of the reasons I made this film was that when I was shooting ‘Paradise Now,’ we thought that there was a traitor among us giving the [Israeli] army information. It became a question of ‘who is the traitor among our crew?’ We lived in a very paranoid, horrific situation.” A few years later, the Palestinian filmmaker was told by a friend that the Shin Bet had threatened to reveal sensitive secrets about members of his family if he refused to become an informant.
Abu-Assad also read in the press about Palestinian informants who were exposed and killed. All of these situations touch on what happens in “Omar,” which he was motivated to make because of his “personal experience where true events make me feel that I need to make a story about this. Especially about trust and how important that is for community, for love, for friendship … for everything. I avoided giving it just a Palestinian aspect. There are a lot of Palestinian details, but it is a very human story. It happens everywhere in this world, where three friends and a lover get caught in a play of mistrust, let’s say with the Secret Service, playing a role. I feel that it is a very human story.”
Still, it is impossible to ignore the political and historical context of “Omar.” The film is about a young Palestinian man, Omar (played by Adam Bakri, the son of Israeli Arab actor Mohammad Bakri, and who makes an impressive film debut here), who wants to marry Nadia (Leem Lubany), the sister of his best friend, Tarek (Iyad Hourani). The situation gets complicated when Omar, Tarek and a third friend, Amjad (Samer Bisharat) become involved in the murder of an Israeli soldier and Omar finds himself in an Israeli prison. After an interrogation accompanied by kicks, punches and other abuse, an Israeli interrogator, Rami (Waleed Zuaiter), offers Omar a deal: immediate release from prison in return for handing over Tarek to the Shin Bet.
Omar and his friends live in an unnamed Palestinian village that is divided in two by Israel’s separation fence, and Omar is forced to climb the fence whenever he wants to see his beloved. Abu-Assad wanted to create an imaginary Palestinian town in which the separation fence randomly splits neighborhoods, which is the situation today in the West Bank. The director notes with bitterness what he describes as an absurd situation faced by many Palestinians in the West Bank who live today in small, isolated territories created by the separation fence, which indiscriminately divides Palestinian refugee camps, as well as Palestinian towns and villages; he wanted to recreate that claustrophobic atmosphere in “Omar.”
The film was shot for a week in Nablus and then for six weeks in Nazareth. He recalls the shooting for “Paradise Now” as a nightmare, as he encountered endless obstacles placed in his path by both the PA and Israel. In contrast, the filming for “Omar” was a relatively simple affair.
Just as in “Paradise Now,” Abu-Assad in “Omar” avoids dividing his characters into heroic figures and villains. All the characters in “Omar” operate in a harsh, protracted reality that casts a heavy shadow over their passions and ambitions.
When he was asked at the press conference whether he viewed the character of Omar as a hero, Abu-Assad replied that the young man in the film is more of an anti-hero: He wants to create a better life for the people he loves but fails. In the context of the Palestinian situation today, the director continued, Omar is trapped by his circumstances; He is doomed to fail no matter what action he takes.
Tales of vengeance
Abu-Assad’s desire to film “Omar” in the West Bank should not surprise anyone who has been following his unusual career. Born in Nazareth, he has lived in The Netherlands for many years but defines himself as a Palestinian director. After working in The Netherlands as an aircraft engineer, he became a filmmaker almost by chance when he decided to produce the film “Hatta Ishaar Akhar” (“Curfew”) in 1994. Four years later, he directed his first feature film in Holland, “Het 14e kippetje.” He went on to direct “Nazareth 2000” (2001), a documentary, and “Ford Transit” (2003), which blurred the boundary between feature and documentary films and which also generated controversy after it won the Spirit of Freedom Prize at the 2003 Jerusalem Film Festival. His film “Rana’s Wedding” won the Golden Anchor Award at the 2003 Haifa Film Festival.
Prior to its upcoming American debut at the New York festival, “Omar” won the Special Jury Award at the Cannes Film Festival in May. He says this was the first time he wanted to make a film with an entirely Palestinian crew, although he knew this would mean working with inexperienced actors and actresses and with technicians who had never worked on a movie set before.
Abu-Assad’s next project is shaping up as a big-budget Hollywood movie. Two weeks ago, it was reported he had been chosen to direct the American remake of a 2005 South Korean revenge film, “Chinjeolhan Geumjassi” (“Sympathy for Lady Vengeance”). He considers the original a fascinating movie because it is connected to his continued interest in stories of revenge. In “Paradise Now,” he focused on the question: What is preferable – to live in shame or to die? In “Omar,” he asks: What is preferable – to live in guilt or to die? In both cases, the characters are trapped by circumstances that are stronger than they are. In such situations, there are no good options, Abu-Assad observed - the only choice is between bad and worse.