Beauty coming from ugliness

Beauty coming from ugliness

A conversation with 'Omar' director Hany Abu-Assad

Hany Abu-Assad sees “Omar” as a love story and a thriller.

My interview with Hany Abu-Assad took place during the New York Film Festival in the fall. Abu-Assad’s film “Omar” had been chosen to be screened at the festival and he would shake up the crowd at a post-screening conversation at Lincoln Center later that week with some political remarks. My conversation with Hany was pleasant, even warm; he seemed to appreciate that I represent a Jewish newspaper; no one in my position had ever sat down to chat with him.

We generally avoided politics, though he would periodically raise the issue of the “occupation of the Palestinian people.” I did not challenge his politics, but rather stayed with questions about the film and his work as a Palestinian filmmaker. “Omar,” as I wrote in my review of the film last week, is smart and well made. The film is not a finalist for Best Foreign Language Oscar by mistake; it is because of the film’s quality, not its politics. Though “Omar” is a fine film, I would be very surprised on March 2 if the members of the Academy choose it over the other nominated films from Belgium, Cambodia, Denmark, and Italy, but you never know.

Hany Abu-Assad already had a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination when he made “Omar.” He is highly respected in Israel, and we should look forward to a collaborative film between him and an Israeli film colleague in the not-too-distant future.


EG: You grew up in Nazareth. How has that experience affected your work?

HA: I always felt that I was curious about life when I was kid. I was a Palestinian in Nazareth. I was a Muslim in a Christian city and a Palestinian in Israel. I am coming from the middle class in a very poor environment. The people [around me] in the ’60s were very poor and we [my family] had a good standard of life. I became furious. Why a Muslim as a minority in a Christian city? Why a Palestinian in Israel? Why am I rich in a poor society?

This led me to go outside when I grew up. I wanted to conquer the world! And then again I was a minority in Europe. I was the Arab in Europe – you know, the foreigner in Holland. You know as this kind of minority, you always try and find out the differences – and actually the beauty in it and the conflict in it. Somehow, I believe my movies tell more about me than about anybody else – which is actually a fusion of things.

EG: How does that relate to “Omar”?

HA: “Omar” is a love story and it is a thriller. Usually, they don’t go together, but I made them go together. Being a Muslim in Nazareth seems that it doesn’t go together, but I made them live together.

I truly believe that in my view of the political situation, there is no way but to share that land and live together. There is no other solution. We have to be equal. Yes. This is why we are different, but we can still find something beautiful about it.

This is my vision. This is who I am. If you ask my identity – I am a fusion of things that don’t usually go together and yes, I make them very beautiful through my art. In the end, I think my movies are beauty coming from ugliness.

EG: In “Omar.” you use the Wall [the barrier that separates the Palestinian territories from Israel] as a central visual. What about it?

HA: Every time I see the Wall I am depressed, as I see it dividing Palestinians from Palestinians, not the West Bank from Israel. It is a source of tension for me. When I was writing the story, a love story – and love stories need two obstacles, the inner obstacle and the outer obstacle – and you need to visualize the outside obstacles. You don’t want to talk about the obstacles.

And then…the Wall! For five seconds, I was happy with the Wall. What is stronger than a wall being an obstacle between two lovers? Nothing.

EG: At a certain point, the man cannot climb that wall to reach his love. What of that? What of the old man who comes to the aid of the youth?

HA: In a love story, when you lose the motivation – which is the love – you become impotent. This is why it is visually very strong. When we as human beings feel broke, this old man – with his experience in life- can give the youth the power he needs to climb again. It is a statement about life. We all come to a point where we might feel impotent. We can’t do it any more. You are broke. The only thing that can bring you back is wisdom – and wisdom is [embodied by] the old man.

EG: Speak about your three major male characters.

HA: Tarek is the adventurer who starts the war. Every war is started by the adventurer. Omar is the brave one who will fight this. Then there is Amjad, the opportunist, who will win – the one who goes with power and survives in any war.

EG: And what of Nadja? Women in the film seem to be relegated to second class status. She seems modern, but she still has to adhere to a certain set of standards.

HA: I was accused by Palestinian women about this and maybe it is right. But it is not about this. The film is about men and she is only the victim.

EG: How are your films received by Palestinians in power and the Palestinian people?

HA: What is important to me is not what the authorities think. It is the real people, the normal people, whether they are Palestinians or Israelis. What I found about Palestinians who watch my work is that they cannot be involved; there is some kind of distance. They – my movies – were not popular. They were more or less of interest only to some people who are interested in culture.

Most felt that my movies did not talk to them. They preferred Turkish and Egyptian soaps. With “Omar,” I feel that “normal” people are feeling it, compelled to it, living with it. This is an achievement.

Authorities…[he nods, intimating that they don’t matter]. The shift is that this is a movie that the normal people can follow. Even if there is intellectual discourse and it is difficult and deep, it still is entertaining. This combination is the most difficult – to be both entertaining and go to the depth of the core of your subject. I feel that in Palestine, with “Omar,” I succeeded.

EG: There is a similarity between your experience in making films like this to that of some Israeli filmmakers. Have you had interactions with Israeli filmmakers? Are you accepted by them?

HA: Oh yes. A good friend of mine is Ari Folman (“Waltz with Bashir,” “The Congress”) and Dror Shaul (“Sweet Mud”). I have a good relationship with many documentary filmmakers [he lists a few]. And I just received a phone call from (he mentions another Israeli filmmaker) to work together on a film.

EG: So you are comfortable working with Israelis. But in the film, you seem to question Palestinians working with Israelis.

HA: Working with Israelis is something different than working with the Secret Service. People know the difference.

EG: Some Israeli movie-makers have used both Israeli and Palestinian writers, cast, and crew. You have chosen in “Omar” to primarily employ Palestinians. What of this?

HA: Look. I’ll not make a movie in order to prove that we can live together. For me, two things: We can live together. Period, and I’m sure about it. And there is no problem being equal if the occupation is condemned. And I don’t need to make a movie to condemn it or not condemn it. I don’t need to discuss this. This is how it needs to be, on any place on this earth. Making a movie for me, first of all, is to tell a good story, a story that is not just related to one place. “Omar” is really about love, betrayal, friendship, and trust.

In “Omar,” I did hire several professionals who were Israelis, but when I could I wanted to hire Palestinians, in order to create… to build up an industry. I do want to make it clear that I am against the occupation, but not against Jews. If we can be equal with Jews, it is a win for Palestinians to have Jews as partners.

EG: What about screening your film in Israel?

HA: We are creating an Israeli version (with Hebrew subtitles) and the film – just like Israeli films – must first pass the censor. I am not concerned. Most Israelis who have seen it like it. I would like to make it a hit in Israel too, because it is a good movie.

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