With ‘Omar,’ director Hany Abu-Assad rediscovers Palestinian cinema

Filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad. (Photo credit: Khaled Hamed)

Filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad. (Photo credit: Khaled Hamed)

Originally published October 11, 2013 in the Indypendent.

Hany Abu-Assad has returned to his filmmaking roots, but this time making a human drama story about Palestinian freedom fighter—or militants, depending on which side of the Green Line your government sits—was less difficult for the Palestinian director.

Abu-Assad’s latest feature “Omar,” which premieres at the 51st annual New York Film Festival on Oct. 11, represents two steps forward—in his career and his efforts to make Palestinian films with Palestinian resources—and one step back, to some of the same themes and narrative elements of his acclaimed 2005 film “Paradise Now.”

“Omar” is being lauded in the press—inaccurately—as “the first film fully-financed, cast and produced out of Palestine,” according to Screen Daily. This week, from a hotel in Geneva, where “Omar” was about to premiere, Abu-Assad said he was very proud of the fact that he and his production team were able to make a quality movie using Palestinian money and talent.

If Palestine was a free and sovereign country, this would matter less for him, he said. “I don’t care about nationalities. But I think because you are under occupation you want your independence, and this is a step toward independence,” he said.

While “Paradise Now,” Abu-Assad’s last film made in the Occupied Territories, had European co-producers, “Omar” was financially backed almost entirely by the Palestinian community.

“We reached out to everyone [for funding],” producer Waleed Zuaiter told Variety. “Like, if you were one-eighth Palestinian, we came to you; for us, there were no borders.”

Zuaiter, a Palestinian-American raised in Kuwait, who also played an Israeli agent in “Omar,” helped raise $2 million to finance the film. The money came mostly from Palestinians living outside the region, and about five percent from Dubai, he said.

But the first film financed and produced by Palestinians was a 1981 movie called “Return to Haifa,” funded entirely by Palestinian money collected by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, according to Annemarie Jacir, a Palestinian filmmaker and friend of Abu-Assad.

Her 2012 film “When I Saw You” was also fully funded and produced by Palestinians, she said in an email.

“I think it’s very significant that our own community is supporting our work,” Jacir said. “It’s the only way we can truly be independent and this self-reliance is crucial.”

Abu-Assad said the story of “Omar” came from life. It follows a young Palestinian as he climbs the separation wall in the West Bank to visit a young woman he loves. The relationship is threatened as Omar attempts to elude Israeli intelligence forces after he is arrested and recruited to help the Israelis catch a member of the Palestinian resistance.

Abu-Assad said a friend found himself in a situation similar to one of the characters in the film, when Israeli agents compelled him to collaborate by vowing to reveal a secret about his personal life.

“I felt immediately this is a good drama,” Abu-Assad said. The phenomenon of Palestinians collaborating with Israeli security services is a taboo subject in the Occupied Territories, as the collaborators or spies are viewed as traitors to the Palestinian cause by the resistance and public at large.

Abu-Assad, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, was born in Nazareth in 1961. At 18, he moved to the Netherlands to study aviation engineering. Later, he entered the film industry as a producer and made his first short film, “Paper House,” in 1992. Abu-Assad lived and worked in Europe and the U.S. for decades before returning to his birthplace in recent years.

His first Hollywood film, a 2012 action flick called “The Courier” was a flop, but he said he was able to apply the lessons of his failure—the result of a low budget, poor script and lack of director’s control—while writing and directing “Omar.”

The film, like “Paradise Now,” was shot on location in Israel and the West Bank city of Nablus, but nearly 10 years made a difference in shooting experience. Then, more than cameras were shooting.

“After ‘Paradise Now,’ I had some years of traumatic experience because it was a tough shoot,” Abu-Assad said. “After that I was very scared to be near any shooting or even fireworks.”

The Palestinian director was shooting his Oscar-nominated film on location in 2004 and 2005, during the Second Intifada, a period of unrest and increased violence between Palestinians and Israelis.

“This time it was such an easy shoot,” he said. “Nobody disturbed me. Not from the Israeli authorities. Not from the Palestinian Authority.”

The director even got permission to shoot on the separation wall, although the actor was only allowed to climb up to a certain height. The scenes at the top were shot on a set in Nazareth using a faux wall. Abu-Assad accounted the relative ease of shooting in the West Bank, compared to filming “Paradise Now” to the increased authority of Palestinian police in the Occupied Territories.

Beyond examining the intricacies of the Palestinian collaborator’s relationship with Israeli forces, “Omar” tackles the occupation, separation wall, use of torture in Israeli prisons and daily humiliation Palestinians face at the hands of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. These are recurring themes in Palestinian film.

But defining Palestinian cinema is not easy, according to Livia Alexander, an arts curator and scholar, who has wrote her Ph.D. dissertation about Israeli and Palestinian cinema. Some consider Palestinian films merely those movies about Palestine or Palestinians. Others count films being made by Palestinian directors, whether they were born in Ramallah or Dubai, she said. Still others differentiate between Palestinian filmmakers living in the diaspora, the Occupied Territories and in Israel.

But Abu-Assad’s work is surely placed within the Palestinian canon, because of his birthplace and the topics he explores.

“[Palestinian filmmakers] go back to that same kind of well,” including themes of displacement, belonging, the occupation and the Nakba, or catastrophe, when Palestinians were displaced from their homeland at the founding of Israel in 1948, Alexander said.

Abu-Assad said producing his film with Palestinian money was only one unique element of “Omar.”

He said the fact that the Palestinian public and not just political or intellectual elites are enjoying the movie is also an achievement.

“If you leave your public to others then you don’t [assume] your responsibility as an artist,” Abu-Assad said. “I took my responsibility and I said, okay, I want to make a film that the normal people will watch and enjoy, but me too.”

The last time Abu-Assad was at the New York Film Festival in 2005, “Paradise Now” was premiering in New York. That year, the New York Times called the film, winner of the 2006 Golden Globe for best foreign language film, “a taut, ingeniously calculated thriller.”

With “Omar,” like his other films, Abu-Assad said he does not want to change audiences’ minds about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the occupation.

“I don’t think film should end the discussion,” he said. “Film should start the discussion.”