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Interview: Palestine's tragic Oscar hopeful tests identity, ideas

Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad talks about his latest film, the Oscar-nominated 'Omar', and why movies should show us what we don't like

Reuters, Tuesday 28 Jan 2014
Omar Palestine Still
Still from 'Omar'
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For a director whose last film, Paradise Now, caused such controversy in Israel for its humanistic portrayal of two Palestinian suicide bombers, Hany Abu-Assad had a surprisingly easy time making his latest movie, Omar, in Nazareth, northern Israel.

Abu-Assad and the film's lead actors are all Israeli Arabs who identify as Palestinian. That, plus Omar's story – lovers separated by Israel's West Bank barrier and a hero brutalised by Israeli secret police – would be enough to raise eyebrows.

But Abu-Assad said that he had complete freedom in Israel while making the film.

"Whatever we wanted, we could shoot. And this is a great attitude. I think the [Israeli authorities] were smart to do that, because every journalist will ask me, 'How was your shoot?' and I have no stories to tell," Abu-Assad said in a telephone interview.

Such a conciliatory spirit is absent from Omar, however  -- as elusive as hopes for  Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The film examines the grind of daily life under Israeli military occupation: a young Palestinian lethally lashes out at the army and is forced to either spy on his own side or end up in prison with no prospects of marrying the woman he loves.

What follows is betrayal, both real and misperceived, and the consequences are bleak and bloody, inspired, Abu-Assad says, by Shakespeare's tragedy 'Othello'.

"The problem of Othello was his insecurity. When you are insecure, you start to believe the unbelievable. When you are paranoid, you can't make rational decisions," he said.

"I think we all have this moment in life - unless you live in this luxury where you don't have to live under extreme pressure - and then we feel the powerlessness of our existence. We Palestinians know that."

'WE SHOULD DISCUSS THIS'

Omar has earned Abu-Assad his second Oscar nomination, and with the international attention, has attracted scorn from Israel.

It's not the first time Abu-Assad has been at the centre of a political storm over his films.

The Oscar-nominated Paradise Now garnered such wrath in 2005 from Israeli officials that they petitioned the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, asking that the film not be presented in the Oscars ceremony as representing the state of Palestine. The film did not win the Oscar that year for best foreign film.

Almagor, an Israeli group representing those bereaved or wounded by Palestinian attacks, says it will lobby against Omar too.

Abu-Assad thinks that such censure is misplaced, especially as his latest film is less overtly polemical.

He said that Omar is more about how our actions affect our friendships and love life, and how we find a balance between duty and desire.

"A movie should show you what you don't like," he said. "I mean, we should discuss this. Nobody agrees with the actions in 'The Godfather', right? But we still appreciate that movie because it lets us see [things] from a different point of view. If [Omar] will threaten your ideas, then there is something wrong with your ideas."

Like many among Israel's 20 percent Arab minority, Abu-Assad, 52, describes himself as Palestinian. At a screening for Omar in Tel Aviv, he declined to speak Hebrew, opting instead for English: "I want [Israeli Jews] to make the same effort to understand me as I make to understand them."

Ninety-five percent of the film's $2 million budget was raised from Palestinian businesspeople. The rest of the money came from Dubai.

Israel's 2014 entry for the Oscars, Bethlehem, which also deals with West Bank espionage, did not make the Academy's short-list.

"I am against how most Israelis see this conflict," said Abu-Assad. "They don't want to accept the idea that they are the occupier. But [Bethlehem] was very interesting for me. It wasn't just an entertaining and good movie. Politically, it was mind-opening."

(This article has been edited by Ahram Online for style and content)

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