"I made Omar especially for Palestinians": director Hany Abu-Assad

Menna Taher, Thursday 28 May 2015

Ahram Online talks to Hany Abu-Assad about 'Omar', a Palestinian thriller currently out in cinemas in Egypt

Still from Hany Abu-Assad's Oscar-nominated 'Omar'

The beauty of the Palestinian film Omar lies in its minimal yet suspense-driven approach. It is gripping yet lyrical, horrifying yet delicate. In parts it is a fast-paced drama, while in others the film pauses for a second to encapsulate a moment.

Omar is currently screening across chosen cinemas in Cairo, marking its first outing on Egypt's commercial screens since its release in 2013.

In an interview with Ahram Online, the film’s director Hany Abu-Assad revealed that he tried to make his film a combination of three thriller styles: the Egyptian, French and the American.

“I tried to make Omar a homage to three different directions in the thriller genre," he said. "It’s a homage to the Egyptian political thriller El-Karnak by Barakat, to the French thriller Le Cercle Rouge by Melville, and to the American thriller The Firm by Pollack. I love how the Egyptians humanise the thriller, I love the aesthetic of the French thriller, and I love the dynamics of the American thriller. This is why I tried to make Omar combine these three directions.”

The film follows Omar (Adam Bakri) and his two best friends Tarek and Amgad and their lives amid the Israeli occupation. It captures their gradual transformation from determined individuals, who would not let the occupation affect their lives, to broken individuals who have witnessed too much.

Omar’s youthful vigour shows from the opening scene as he is climbing the separation wall, evading bullets and running as fast as he can to reach the house of his friend Tarek. It all feels like a game to him and such a recurring event seems to be but a minor hurdle to meet his friends and lover, Tarek's sister.

Chases down narrow alleys are frequent in the film. As he scurries against graffiti-sprayed walls, the mood of entrapment and disorientation is heightened. Not only do these chases enhance the suspense, but they are also visually pleasing.

But not every chase is held in such a claustrophobic location. At times, he climbs buildings and jumps from one place to another with the ease of Parkour practitioners. Yet no matter how easy to overcome those physical obstacles might seem to have become, a major conflict plays out -- in a different, more complex arena: the psychological realm.

Omar is more shaken by humiliation than physical aggression. Some aggravating situations he encounters build up his anger, which leads him to joining his two friends to kill a random Israeli soldier. As a result, he is imprisoned and the film’s events unfold.

All these events are not foreign to Abu-Assad, who experienced “humiliating and violating encounters with the Israeli occupational forces as a youth.”

Paranoia is also a great psychological tool used to control Palestinian rebels. In the film, the Israeli Secret Service implants ideas of possible betrayal by friends in the minds of the three friends. As they start to suspect one another, their lives are slowly destroyed.

Perhaps it seems senseless for three young people to kill a random Israeli soldier. What would they gain from such an action, when the consequences are so dire? Yet it seems that it doesn’t really matter to those young people. It seems like the only possible thing to do that is within reach. For them, it is a natural act within their lives. Their outings consist of training to shoot and defend themselves. The mellow nature of these outings is profound and convincing. They train then sit, playing music and teasing one another.

The film is handled through a realist lens, yet Abu-Assad still manages to use the surroundings to reflect the inner mood of his characters. At the beginning, Omar and Nadia meet in an idyllic setting. Later, the lovers meet in a tunnel. Likewise, his ability and inability to climb the separation wall reflects Omar’s own inner state.

Bakri portrays Omar’s spirit superbly through his natural performance. He plays a good-natured, easy-going person who harbours torrents of anger. As the film alternates between the serene and the grim, this persona fits the lead actor.

He captures the way in which a young inexperienced man would act in such a situation of extreme danger. In some instants, Omar is quite cautious and calculative, but at other times he is quite rash in his actions. In one scene, he rolls a long plant around the gate so that when the pot falls down it serves as a warning call. In other situations, his impulsive youthfulness pushes him to act brazenly before thinking.

Omar Trailer

What is most compelling about this film is that, after all he goes through, it seems that his utmost desire is to live with his lover Nadia. Amidst the brutality of the surroundings, the love story between the two seems like the one pristine element in this Palestinian tale.

These youth are bereft of any innocence because of their daily struggles against the occupation, yet very innocent when it comes to matters of the heart. Their love letters make Omar feel like a story from another era, and give the film a certain timelessness.

The story is all the more powerful and heart-breaking because it reflects the daily struggles of a whole nation.

“I think I made Omar especially for Palestinians,” said Abu-Assad." I don’t make movies to justify our cause. Our cause is just, with or without a movie.  I make movies to confront myself and my people with our dilemmas."

More and more Palestinian films are tackling their issues from different perspectives, with Abu-Assad delving into the psychology of it, and Elia Suliman portraying the absurdities of occupation.

Palestinian cinema is marking its name on the industry’s world map and is bringing home recognition.

Abu-Assad was nominated twice for the Academy Awards for his films Paradise Now and Omar, and Omar also won a Jury Prize at the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival.

Elia Suliman was also nominated for the Palme d’Or for his film The Time That Remains.

According to Abu-Assad, there has been an increase of production in the Palestinian film industry.

“Twenty years ago, we were producing a film every three years," he said. "Now we are producing three films a year. We are making good progress.”

Despite the difficulty most Palestinian films face with funding, Abu-Assad managed to find funding for Omar in less than half a year. It was also almost entirely funded with Palestinian money.

“It is very difficult to get funding for any film, and for sure a Palestinian film because most of our stories are sad," he said. "Most people want to see hopeful stories.  Anyway, I think that the only way to get money is by writing a good script, that also others recognise is a good script.”

A story in itself, Abu-Assad’s good script was actually written as the result of a panic from previous failures. The outline for the script was written in one frenzied night.

“That night, I had a panic attack because I hadn’t been able to write anything good for the last four years," the director explained. "I asked myself: Why? The answer was clear. Nothing came from the heart. All that I was trying to do the year before were film concepts that might have commercial appeal. Then I asked myself, What [is the] story I want to tell and is really from the heart? Immediately, [I came up with] the story of Omar, a story taken part from the experience of friends and part from my own experience.  When I started to write without any kind of control, things came out and I to this day do not know how the story came out.”

Liberation seems like a far-fetched dream for many Palestinians, but it seems that Abu-Assad and his fellow filmmakers are following British writer Neil Gaiman's famous mantra of making good art, no matter what the hardships.

“I think good art coming from any people always helps any cause to be respected," said Abu-Assad. "The moment you can share feelings, emotions and thoughts with others, then they feel closer to you, and this will help you in liberating yourself from oppression.”

Omar is currently showing in Downtown’s cinema Zawya, the Wonderland Cinema in Nasr City, the Dandy Mall Cairo-Alexandria road, and the Samouha Cinema in Alexandria.

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