Despite Robert Frost’s warnings to the contrary, there seems to be something in the Arab-Israeli conflict that very much loves a wall. The most familiar walls are those built in the name of Israeli national security, which continue to draw international scrutiny, and which Jews and Palestinians view from opposite sides of a decades-long struggle. Then there are the walls most Israelis — and of course tourists in Israel — will never see: the ones built to separate Arab communities in the occupied territories and refugee camps from each other.
It is this second type of wall that features most prominently in Hany Abu-Assad’s Oscar-nominated love story, “Omar,” and which serves in the film as a stand-in for the implacable force of the occupation itself, which divides Palestinians from each other and too often leaves them, literally and figuratively, with blood on their hands.
Director Hany Abu-Assad, cordial but not conciliatory, spoke with the Forward’s Sheerly Avni in a midtown hotel in New York City in early February about the despair of young people in his country, the efforts he has made to be seen as an artist first and a political specimen second, and finally, the passion behind his attempt to help kick-start an autonomous Palestinian film industry.
Sheerly Avni: “Paradise Now” was the first Palestinian film nominated for an Oscar; it made history. There is also a historic dimension to “Omar,” as only the second film that was almost 100% funded by Palestinian private equity. Why was the funding model so important to you?
Hany Abu-Assad: It’s what I am most proud about with this film, the fact that we made it ourselves. The financing was Palestinian, the cast was Palestinian, and almost all the crew were Palestinians. There were some Israelis as well, but the decision-makers were all Palestinian, and this is important to me. I am very proud of the fact that we succeeded in making a worldwide, well-received movie from our own resources and our own crew. At least when it comes to telling our own story, we are showing that we can do it without help. And I say this not out of nationalism, but out of a very human desire for freedom.
How is the desire for an autonomous Palestinian film industry not a form of nationalism?
Nationalism is about having or wanting a country, with its own national identity. Right now, I don’t care about “country.” I care about civil rights, human rights, equal opportunity, justice; I don’t care about whether you are Palestinian or Christian or Muslim or Jewish. These are individual identities that are not necessary to share with others. What you share with others is your values, rather than your identity. You can do what you want, believe in whatever god you want, have different opinions about everything, but our values should still be about respecting each other’s equality and civil rights.