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.
You have spoken in the past about not wanting to be seen purely as a political filmmaker, and not wanting to see the world in black and white.
The best movies I’ve seen are movies that challenge my beliefs, and make me question my moral judgment, or political judgment, any judgment. This is why I want to make movies that will challenge me. And if you make characters who are completely good or completely wrong you will not challenge anything or anyone.
In “Omar,” the characters are mostly just extremely naive, and young. With the exception of one, an elderly man who makes a small but moving cameo towards the end, and of course the Secret Service agent seeking to turn Omar into an informant, there are almost no elders, or even adults, in the whole movie. Was this intentional?
The parents of these kids were all revolutionaries. But they failed. You know the ’60s. In the ’60s everyone was a revolutionary, not just in Palestine. And after you’ve failed, and you’re disappointed, you don’t have the courage to tell the kids what to do. You failed to protect him, to bring him a better life. So you become absent. You no longer believe you can offer wisdom to the new generation. And especially in refugee camps, this new generation is truly lost. Yes, even the act of violence which first lands Omar and his friends in trouble seems motivated more by a sense of adolescent recklessness than political fury. Resistance is a choice, and it’s a valid one, but in order to resist, you have to have some sort of strategy, a sense of what moves the other side will make as you make yours. In our situation, revolutionary resistors did not bring their experience to the next generation, and now the next generation is starting from zero. I wanted to turn my attention to that.
Is capturing this youthful predicament part of why you have so few professionals in the cast?
I didn’t have a principle of wanting to work with just professionals or non-professionals. I wanted people who would give me the feeling that they could be honest with his character. Inexperienced actors are more malleable and you can mold them, but you also have a sense that they could break at any second. Which is what I love about them, because you want to get this purity that looks very solid and you can get just one time. I believe that every actor will be only be truly pure in his emotions once in his life, because after that every time, he will always be acting. And with these young actors, it was almost as if I took their virginity as actors — it’s so good to see.
In “Paradise Now,” the actors were quite young as well, but that film was in many ways more overtly political, at least in terms of political discussion. Why is there less discussion in “Omar”?
I think that “Omar” is a more mature film, and it concerns itself more with human emotions. And yes, it’s boring to have two characters talk about politics onscreen, so I have less of that in this film. And as an artist, as a filmmaker, I try to be independent of politics. I want to make a movie that will outlast the conflict. Because this conflict will end — one state, two states, 20 states, 100 states, it doesn’t matter — it will end. The conflict will die. You don’t want your movie to die along with the conflict!
“Bethlehem,” which was directed by an Israeli and which treats a very similar agent-asset relationship, also features a teenaged protagonist. What kinds of differences and similarities do you see between your film and “Bethlehem”?
My film deals with the inner conflict generated by a love story, which is quite different from “Bethlehem.” But I liked it very much, and I also liked the fact that it gave me an opportunity to see how the Israelis see this conflict, how difficult it is for them to accept that they are occupiers. Even for a good person — and of course most Israelis are good people — it’s hard to admit: “Even if I am against the army, I am still the occupier. Even if I am left-wing, and I want good things for the Palestinians, I am an occupier.” You might think, “Oh no I’m not one of them,” but you are one of them. Because you are an Israeli.