Postcard: West Bank

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 June, 2014, 10:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 June, 2014, 10:02am

Hany Abu-Assad sits down in the busy bar of London's Mayfair Hotel, a little jet-lagged. It's been one year, almost to the day, since his latest film, Omar, won the Un Certain Regard jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Since then, he's been touring country after country with the movie which has been garnering almost universal praise.

Omar tells the story of a young Palestinian coerced into collaborating with the Israeli authorities, but even the right-wing Israeli press has been giving it five-star reviews. It's in stark contrast to Abu-Assad's 2005 film, Paradise Now, which dealt with two Palestinian men preparing a suicide bomb attack in Israel. While it won a Golden Globe and garnered an Oscar nomination for best foreign film, it drew fire from the Israeli media and authorities.

Omar, however, has been a different experience. "There is no official reaction," the 52-year-old director says. "They ignore it and I think it's smart of them. They've become smarter. Previously, they made fools of themselves."

Back when he shot Paradise Now, he had "tonnes of difficulties" with the Israeli army. "Wherever I went, I'd tell about the difficulties I had." This time, he had a smooth passage, shooting in and around the bitterly disputed Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory, the West Bank.

That was indeed wise on the part of the Israeli authorities, for Omar has echoed Paradise Now's worldwide success, gaining Abu-Assad a second Oscar nomination for best foreign film.

Arguably what makes Omar so accessible is that it's not, superficially at least, a polemic. "It's a love story set in the thriller genre," Abu-Assad says, explaining that he initially wanted to make a movie about paranoia. "When you have no trust in others or in yourself, you have no life. Trust is important in society. I thought, 'What is the best story that can show this feeling of paranoia?' And you know that when you're in love, and you suspect your lover, you've become paranoid."

Omar (played by Adam Bakri) is a Palestinian baker in love with teenager Nadia (Leem Lubany), the younger sister of his friend Tarek (Eyad Hourani). Theirs is a sensitive courtship, but things go awry when Omar, Tarek and their buddy Amjad (Samer Bisharat) carry out a sniper attack on a Israeli military outpost, killing a soldier. Soon afterwards, Omar is captured, interrogated and tortured - just the beginning of an increasingly complex web of lies and betrayals that he finds himself in.

Abu-Assad doesn't criticise his characters for their actions. "They have the right to resist. It's the right of a human being to resist injustice."

Born in Nazareth, Israel, Abu-Assad emigrated to the Netherlands in 1980 and identifies himself as Palestinian. He has twice been interrogated and has a friend who was forced to collaborate with the Israelis, as Omar is, "because they knew a secret about him".

This insider information certainly gives a chilling authenticity to the scenes between Omar and his interrogator, Agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter, who also helped produce the film). "They are a fraction of the reality," the director claims. "They do worse things; much worse. But this is not a documentary about torture. It's about love, friendship, trust and betrayal. Torture is a physical pressure on him to betray his friends."

Omar was made largely with private financing, with many of the crew working for deferred payments and the cast largely made up of non-professionals. For the director, this embodies the spirit of independence many Palestinians feel. "When you want to liberate yourself and become independent, you need to do also your movie independently. It's a step towards independence. This is what I care about."

Certainly, the film's Oscar nomination proved significant. In 2002, the Academy Awards committee refused to accept Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention because films must be nominated by their country of origin and Palestine, the committee said, was not a nation. Paradise Now was listed under "Palestinian Authority", until Abu-Assad protested and it was reclassified as "Palestinian Territory".

In contrast, Omar was simply listed as "Palestine".

While this sounds like another step towards independence, Abu-Assad is not getting too excited. "To be honest, it's not a big deal because Palestinians are still under occupation." He knows it's going to take a lot more than one movie to change the world for Palestinians.

Omar opens on June 12


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Postcard: West Bank

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