In the very first scene of Omar, Hany Abu-Assad takes us back to the world of his widely acclaimed Paradise Now. Three young Palestinian men—Omar (Adam Bakri) and his two childhood friends–are about to conduct a terrorist attack on an Israeli military base. But this time Abu-Assad’s scope is wider. In Omar, he doesn’t only examine the state of a soul entangled in a never-ending conflict, living in a place of shifting and subjective values. He also looks closer at how such an environment doesn’t allow for an idea Westerners hold dear: privacy. It’s not only Palestinian national pride and identity that suffers under that unbearable oppression, but also love, friendship, hope, youthfulness and the building of a personal life. In latest his film Abu-Assad also speaks to the short- and longterm effects of torture, treated here as an everyday communication tool. We talked in Cannes this past May, soon after his ambiguous and non-condemning Omar premiered at the festival, getting a standing ovation from the emotional crowd. Now it is playing at the AFI Fest.
Keyframe: Omar is the first film fully produced by Palestine—true?
Hany Abu-Assad: Yes. All other films before, even my Paradise Now, were financed by some European or other foreign [entity]. This is the first time when ninety-five percent of the film budget is Palestinian. It is exceptional. Also, in the past we had to bring crews from abroad, both Elia Suleiman, Rashid Masharawi and me. [For example] In Paradise Now, the cameraman and production designer were French, the gaffer was German, the editor, Dutch. All the key crew positions were [taken by] foreigners. This time we wanted to give these key positions to Palestinians. For my director of photography this was a feature debut, he shot only short movies before. Also the editor was a feature first-timer. It’s not only about nationality; it’s also about money. If you hire a crew from abroad, you’re gonna end up needing a million dollars more for all the expenses. And [shooting] takes almost three months. If you calculate [what] every person [costs you]… it’s a huge sum. But we made this choice also because we believe that every country should rely on their own money and their own crew to be truly independent.
Keyframe: Does it make you proud?
Abu-Assad: Actually it does. For sure I’d like to be proud [simply] of my movie, but when I look closer at it I know I could do better. But here I’m already proud because of the Palestinian funds we managed to raise and Palestinian crew. And it must be high quality, because we are in Cannes.
Keyframe: You are present at many international film festivals. Do you think it is important to confront worldwide audiences with Palestinian culture? Do you think that film has a power to change the world?
Abu-Assad: Sure it is important, because the more aware people are of what the situation [in Palestine] is, the more pressure there is on the politicians to come up with solutions. [However] I don’t believe we have any actual power, it’s somewhere else. But we the people can pressure the authorities to find a solution. As human beings, our job is pressure them and spread awareness. This is part of the movie’s [mission]. But not more. [After watching my film] people will stick to their ideas, but hopefully will be more aware of what’s going on. If anybody thinks that my movie itself is gonna change something, they are very wrong.
Keyframe: You are deeply rooted in your native culture, but in fact a citizen of the world. Is this a coincidence that both your leads are actors trained in the United States and are fluent in English?
Abu-Assad: First of all, they are Palestinians, and our people are spread all over the world. Now I live in Nazareth, but I lived in Holland for twenty-five years. Therefore I am also Dutch, I speak the language, I worked for the newspaper there. This is also a part of me. When I go back to Amsterdam and have to stay in a hotel, it’s so weird. Like you are a guest in your own city. But it doesn’t mean I’m not Palestinian! Here, we wanted to make a Palestinian movie. I tried to find the best talent. Adam [Bakri, the lead] studied in the U.S., but was born in Palestine and lived there, until three years ago, when he left for school. It was purely about quality, not where they’ve been.
Keyframe: Let’s focus on this particular story. What made you feel like this was the right time to make a film like that?
Abu-Assad: I was spending time with a friend who told me a story—not exactly the same one, but similar, about how [Israeli] Secret Service [Mossad] is utilizing the secret data to make people collaborate. It made me wonder what would I myself do in such a situation. We all have secrets… but if someone came to me and threatened to reveal my deepest secret unless I worked for them? It immediately struck me as a perfect idea for a movie. Ultimately, the best movies are based in reality and are bringing the audience in the conflict with themselves. Here we have such situation. If you betray yourself–it’s bad, but if the secret comes out—there are consequences you have to face. It seemed like an interesting conflict that I wanted to explore.
Keyframe: Your protagonists are leading their own private struggles that are standing in their way. Were you trying to metaphorically suggest that one of the reasons Palestinians cannot win in real life are their internal struggles?
Abu-Assad: It’s funny, because when you’re making a film you never think about such things. No way you can think of what is the unconscious message, consequence of that. When I was working on Omar my goal was to create a good story with well developed characters, good drama, with a mixture of genres and styles. Tragedy balancing the comedy. These are the things I can talk about, the filmic approach to the subject. And the theme: one of friendship, trust and love. And betrayal… the perfect mixture. But how this will read outside, how will it be interpreted… [as a director] you never think about that.
Keyframe: I actually had the very same feeling after Paradise Now, that the characters are doomed because they are torn by their own doubt, never able to accomplish anything.
Abu-Assad: After the film is made you look at it and think: ‘F&*$, it’s all true’ [the things people are saying about it]. I keep on asking myself: ‘how come?’ It’s definitely not conscious. But I think unconsciously I’m so intrigued by this, by characters who are torn by their own limitations and shortcomings, that I will always make my movies about that. When I had this story I was immediately intrigued by this exact conflict. But it’s not deliberate. It’s just a part of me, of who I am, what I’m interested in.
Keyframe: Everyday routine and ordinary life are always present alongside the great drama in your films. Your protagonists are no heroes, just common citizens.
Abu-Assad: You need to maintain the balance. Why did I choose a baker [to be my main character]? I felt like when you’re making bread, there is fire that can create, bake bread, bring food, but it can also burn and destroy. If you keep the bread in the oven one minute too long, it will burn. This is craft. I think every director has his own idea how to visualize a conflict. It just seemed like a nice idea. I can give you more examples: the wall, for example. In every love story you have two obstacles. One that comes from the outside—like the family in Romeo and Juliet or the wall in this case. I didn’t want to be political, but this wall… when you see it it’s just so [powerful]. [The other obstacle comes] from the inside. Here it’s the doubt and insecurity. They both cannot trust each other. So the same reason that made him fall in love with her—namely, insecurity—is what later killed their love. This is how you build your story.
Keyframe: You said when you look back at your film you can easily see flaws. What are Omar’s strong points in your opinion?
Abu-Assad: I think the strongest element here is authenticity. Even if it’s made as a mainstream movie, it’s not. Because the ending is so anti-genre! The whole movie is playing according to the rules, but not the finale. I allow the mainstream to get into the movie, it’s exciting, helps keep the tension. The strongest element of it is that you believe it is real. It is very believable.
Keyframe: The torture scenes you confront us with are very believable, almost too realistic. How much what we witness has to do with reality?
Abu-Assad: The torture scenes are unfortunately very accurate. Some time ago a report was released, full of photos as well, about the methods that Shin Bet [the Israeli internal security service] uses. It’s funny, because it is a story of a guy who’s been accused of torture by one of the prisoners. The accused name was Captain George, he was an Israeli interrogator. He of course denied it. But then it turned out that there is actually a tape somewhere, that shows what he did. Because they [security service] tape what they do. It was probably the organization that released it, because who else could bring it outside, to the world. And suddenly this guy became this bad seed, they were all like: ‘Oh! This is not how we behave as an organization, it’s just him!’ So the guy went on live TV defending himself, saying that it’s not just him but everybody that’s doing it. He refused to be the bad guy. There are so many stories like that documented in the human rights reports. I think in my film the way I show [torture] is actually very gentle.