Back in 2006, and having already picked up the Golden Globe, Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now became the first Palestinian film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. A thought-provoking and incredibly well executed drama about two would-be suicide bombers, it was worthy of all the praise.
Eight years have passed but his ability to make high quality films has clearly not diminished. Omar, his return to Palestine, was nominated again at this year’s Academy Awards and is out in the UK on 30th May. Omar focusses a more personal story on a young Palestinian freedom fighter who is forced to work as an informant after he’s tricked into confessing to an attack on an Israeli soldier.
Ahead of the release, Culturefly had the opportunity to speak to Hany about his new film, the comparisons with Paradise Now and his future plans.
Culturefly: Omar is the third film you’ve made in Palestine. Why did you decide to return to this setting?
Hany Abu-Assad: I’d been doing a lot of projects in the US that had failed to come to completion and I started to panic. I panicked that I was never going to do anything that mattered again. I woke up having had a nightmare about this and wrote Omar very quickly.
CF: Where did you come up with the story for Omar?
HA-A: It was partly my own experience. Paranoia and betrayal run very heavily through the film. I’ve been interrogated there two times for no reason and have become very paranoid myself. I felt someone in my crew was spying on me when I was making Paradise Now. I never managed to prove that this was actually the case. It could just have been paranoia. But after a while you start to think that maybe they’ve bugged the hotel or are listening in on my phone as they certainly have the capability to do so.
I also had a friend with some deep secrets and the Israeli’s found out about it and threatened to reveal the secrets unless he collaborated.
CF: It does come across as a much more personal story. Was that the deliberate focus from the outset or did it evolve over time?
HA-A: I wanted to do a much more emotionally involving story than I had with Paradise Now. In that film the story dictated a level of distance whereas Omar dictates a closeness, a more personal involvement in the characters. I think to understand the act of killing others there has to be a distance. That was required in Paradise Now. It’s not the case in Omar where everything is very much centred on the main character. It’s his story.
CF: The cast you put together are mostly unknown. Was that a conscious decision?
HA-A: It wasn’t a specific aim at the start. Every movie has several elements. These include things like the script, the visualisation and of course the cast. I’ve always thought the cast is the most important. A bad cast will destroy all the other elements and the film will fail. Because of this, I take a very meticulous approach to choosing my cast. I want to see every actor and every possible combination so I bring them back again and again to test them. The whole process of running them through different combinations took around six months. So no, I wasn’t looking for untested actors. They just happened to be the best in all the combinations.
CF: The Paradise Now shoot was notorious for the difficulties you faced shooting in Palestine. How did you find it this time around?
HA-A: It was much easier this time. The Israeli’s had started to ignore me. I think this is because every single journalist asked me about the problems I had during the shoot for Paradise Now and I would speak about all the difficulties we had. They are very clever. They know that if the same happened this time it would only end up in the press again.
CF: Boundaries loom large in your Palestinian films. There’s the checkpoint crossing in Rana’s Wedding (2002), the fence in Paradise Now (2005) and the dividing wall in Omar. Do you deliberately include these elements or are they just an inevitable part of the background when filming in Palestine?
HA-A: I’ve always been fascinated by Shakespeare’s characters as they start out undefinable – they are neither good nor evil. The drama forces them to take a side even if they try not to. Yet the moment they choose a side they tend to lose who they are and in many cases die. I’ve always thought of my characters as undefinable initially and I truly believe that they lose who they are when they are forced to choose – a situation that occurs all too frequently in Palestine.
Having said that, I actually think that there is very little difference on either side of the dividing walls. The problem is the existence of a wall that forces a choice. The trouble comes from having to choose, not from the final choice. The very obvious boundary lines in Palestine provide a good way to visualise this in a film. In Omar, the outside obstacle is the wall while the inner obstacle is the choice he faces.
CF: Speaking of the wall, I understand you weren’t allowed full access to it.
HA-A: That’s correct. We were allowed to film Adam (Omar) climbing to a certain height on the actual boundary wall but not the top two metres so we had to film that elsewhere. The close-up shots as he climbs over the top are not the real wall. Anything you see in the wide shots is though.
CF: Despite being a pro-Palestinian film seen from the Palestinian side, the main Israeli character is treated sympathetically. Why did you choose to do this?
HA-A: It makes for a better and more enduring film. Omar was not done to condemn the Israeli’s, it’s not protest propaganda. It’s about the impact a situation like this has on individuals. I also believe that one day this conflict will end and I want my movie to outlast this. I want it to address themes like family, love and betrayal rather than just condemn the occupation. The occupation is condemned without this movie.
If you want to do a movie that outlasts history it has to treat everyone fairly. It won’t force audiences to think properly if one side is portrayed using callous stereotypes.
CF: I’m interested in your attitude towards violence as a means to elicit change. Omar takes a fairly ambiguous approach.
HA-A: I looked a lot more deeply at the act of violence itself in Paradise Now. In that film I really wanted to debate the purpose and validity. This time around Omar just picks a side and we see what happens. I wanted to look at the impact picking a side has on an individual rather than the action picking a side requires. Otherwise I’d just be repeating myself. I want to mature as a filmmaker rather than repeat the same old stories.
CF: Are you pessimistic about the future of Palestine. Your last two Palestinian films end on fatalistic notes?
HA-A: I’d say I’m optimistic. After 66 years of conflict the attempts to divide and seclude are failing. It’s time for both sides to give up ideas about exclusivity and start to take the steps towards reconciliation. I think it will come. It just needs someone to push the door open a little first.
CF: Both Paradise Now and Omar have been nominated for a number of awards including the Oscars. What impact does this have on you as a filmmaker?
HA-A: It can be very helpful. It certainly grants easier access to projects and money but the flipside is significantly raised expectations so there are new challenges to handle as well. In a strange way it’s not necessarily easy to be successful but it’s ultimately a good thing.
CF: You mentioned that you wrote Omar very quickly. This is the first time that you have written a screenplay alone. How did you find it?
HA-A: It’s incredibly tiring to be alone and it felt like digging a mine that you get stuck in. Having to think about everything on your own is a very hard process. It’s not easy and you start to become insane. I would not want to do that again even if the end results are better.
CF: If writing alone is so difficult, what’s it like directing from someone else’s script?
HA-A: I’ll actually be doing just that on my next project and having done it before I think I have learned from the mistakes of the past. It can be great filming other scripts but it can also be a real challenge. The one thing I do know now is that it’s a mistake to take on projects you are not passionate about. I won’t be doing that again.
CF: I assume you are referring to The Courier. As a straight to DVD US action film it was an intriguing choice given your previous films. Why did you take it on and how did you find the experience?
HA-A: I really wasn’t passionate about the script. I certainly liked the idea but it was poorly executed. At the time I’d been in pre-production for a film in Brazil which collapsed due to the economic crisis. I’d been so passionate about that film and genuinely thought it was going to be a masterpiece. I’d worked so hard on it and it all fell apart. I was left broke and greedy so I accepted anything as I just had to do something. I took it for the money and I realised I could attract financiers and actors because of the success of Paradise Now. I failed them all with the end product.
Having said that, I learned more from that film than any other I’ve worked on. When you have a poor script you really come to appreciate the value of a good one. It improved me as a filmmaker so I don’t regret it.
CF: What have you got planned next and will you continue to make films about Palestine?
HA-A: I’m open to films in Palestine and the wider world. I want to do both. I have a few projects on the go now. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s a good idea to have several projects on the go in case one falls through. That way you aren’t left with nothing. I’m currently developing a story set in Palestine that stays far away from politics. I’m also casting for an American movie at the moment and supervising an Arabic film that also stays away from the conflict here. The most important thing though is that you’re passionate about what you do. I’ve learned from my mistakes on that front and I’m passionate about all the things I’ve currently got lined up.
Culturefly would like to thank Hany for taking the time to speak to us. Omar is out in the UK on 30th May.