Internationally acclaimed director Hany Abu-Assad‘s latest feature Omar takes him back to his native Palestine to tell a story about the extremely difficult decisions that an average, everyday man must face — whether to follow his heart or stay true to his convictions. After the winning Un Certain Regard’s Special Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the film has been selected as the Palestinian submission to compete for an Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film Category. Such a feat is not unknown for Abu-Assad whose previous film shot in the occupied territories, Paradise Now, earned him an Academy Award nomination and won the Golden Globe Award in the same category. As with most films about the political and military conflicts in the region, the issues are certainly relevant, but as the filmmaker mentioned himself, this is a film about love in the face of grueling adversity. Hany Abu-Assad talked to us about the message of the film, the casting his protagonist and the pressures of the Awards race.
Carlos Aguilar: How do you create a story that inevitably is politically charged, but is about the individuals rather than only about the conflicts?
Actually, I think I do it unconsciously. There is no theory about how to balance it very well. It is not like you calculate it or you come up with a
formula. It is all about experiencing the past. I think unconsciously you do that. I think also filmmaking in general is about feeling and not about theory. You need to know a lot of rules about filmmaking: character development, grammar, and all these thing, but then you use it instinctively. I ask myself this question all the time. I have no solid theory, I just do what I feel is right.
Aguilar: Omar is between two words. He is divided between saving his life and doing what he thinks is right to help his people. Could you talk about
this duality whic he experiences?
In general I like movies that deal with trapped men. Men that need to make choices that are not obvious or easy choices. Then how do you visualize this? You create this character conflicted between two sides, because drama is about the conflict of two things, between your duty and your will, between what
you want and what you can’t have. It is all conflict between two things, and this is why you put your character in a place where you can visualize the conflict.
Aguilar: Could you tell me about what the wall signifies, both in your film and for the Palestinian people living with it everyday?
Abu-Assad: In the film it is just an obstacle. Every love story has obstacles; in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ the obstacle is that the families are fighting. In Omar the obstacle is the wall. This is the outside obstacle, because the inside obstacle between the two lovers is trust. You need a
visualization of the outside obstacle and what can be better than a wall. For the Palestinians it means a division from each other, because the wall didn’t
separate Palestinians from Israelis, it separated them from themselves. This is the reality, and the wall is a kind of jail to the Palestinians.
Aguilar: Could you talk about the casting process, especially about your decision to cast Adam Bakri, in the leading role, which he plays
Abu-Assad: The casting is very simple actually, but it is very important. You choose the best actor for the role, and you test them and you test them, and you bring
them back, and you have to make sure the actors fit the roles. Adam Bakri
is a young actor, but I saw potential in him, I thought he could make Omar a
much better character than what was written. That is why I chose him.
Aguilar: Did you experience any resistance or difficulties to shooting in Palestine, given the theme of the film?
Abu-Assad: Not his time, it was an easy shoot for me. I didn’t have any trouble with the authorities or the Israeli army. I’m very happy about that, maybe finally
they are going to let me do what I have to do. [Laughs]
Aguilar: Without revealing the ending of the film, could you talk about why you chose to end the film this way, so abruptly, and in such a powerful
Abu-Assad: First of all, the ending is real. I knew this would be the ending in advance, because this is the story I read in the newspaper. I know we can’t reveal the
ending, but the story was about a collaborator who killed his agent with the same gun the agent gave him. I thought, “Wow this is a strong ending”, and because we
are dealing with this subject in the film, I knew before writing that this would be the ending. Dramatically, it makes sense, because lets say, when your
character makes a choice that will force him to make another choice between two bad choices, then the ending can’t be different than what it is now.
Aguilar: Your films essentially give a cinematic voice to the Palestinian cause; do you see film as a tool for social change?
Abu-Assad: Not change, but a tool for resistance. First of all, movies are really to entertain. A movie should entertain you in a way that will also open your mind. I
think movies are tools to enrich your experience, in this case as resistance to injustice and to the Occupation.
Aguilar: Would you say Omar is a film about love or about the Occupation?
About love. About human beings trapped under the Occupation. About a love story under the Occupation.
Aguilar: Do you think this is a film that people from Israel will be willing to see, and what do you think they will get from it?
Abu-Assad: I showed it to some Israelis and they liked it very much as a movie, and also they thought that because it is so real, and everything that happens in it is
real, they felt like this is the real story. We will start showing it very soon in December, or January of next year in the cinemas of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem,
Aguilar: Has the film premiered in Palestine, what was the reaction from the locals there?
Yes, and it has been really successful. People are coming and the film is confronting them with issues that they know about, or have heard about, and it has
given them material to think about these issues, which is good.
Aguilar: This is the second time that one of your films represents Palestine at the Oscars, and you were actually nominated for ‘Paradise Now’ a few
years ago. How do you feel about this on the second time around? Is there any pressure?
It’s funny you ask this [Laughs], there is a lot of pressure you see, because you know the game more than before, and you know how the pressure will be. On
one hand I’m very happy, really happy, but on the other side I’m worried because the responsibility is bigger than before.
Aguilar: Given that there so many thematic layers to ‘Omar’, how would you summarize its underlining message?
The most important thing about his film is that it is a tragic love story, it is timeless and placeless. It is also an entertaining thriller. It is about
human beings who try to do right but by making wrong choices they are forced to make much more difficult choices. The audience should know that this is a
movie not just about politics, but it is really about people, love, trust, and betrayal.