Caught in the middle: Hany Abu-Assad's 'Omar' follows plight of a young Palestinian

Last October, Hany Abu-Assad attended the New York Film Festival press screening of his latest movie, Omar, Palestine’s entry for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. Afterward, he fielded the usual questions from film critics about his visual style, the challenges of shooting in occupied territories, and his preference for amateur actors. Omar, opening in the U.S. on March 7 via Adopt Films, is the story of a Palestinian resistance fighter coerced into becoming an informer for the Israeli police.

Surprisingly, no one asked Abu-Assad whether the relationship between his hero and his jailer reflected reality, although one critic asked about the nature of heroism in the movie. Abu-Assad responded by explaining that his film is a classic tragedy. In our interview a few days later, we discussed that characterization of Omar, after I confessed that the film’s cathartic moment left me feeling saddened, rather than enlightened. Apparently, others had admitted to similar emotions.

In audience testing for Omar, the protagonist’s predicament, and his eventual transformation, elicited starkly different reactions from viewers living in free societies, as opposed to those living in areas with limited political autonomy. “People who live under the occupation feel there is hope in my movie,” he explains, “and those who have no experience with oppression feel that Omar is boxed in.” He expects most Americans to feel the latter: “I think these big changes in characters in American movies are unrealistic, and audiences who see these films, who are outside the ‘box,’ they need a bigger bridge.”

Abu-Assad was born in 1961 in Nazareth, which has the largest Arab population of any city in Israel. Much of the on-location shoot for Omar, inspired by a true story Abu-Assad heard from a friend, took place there, without incident. “I am part of the Israeli occupation,” he says, “yet I am part of the Arabic world.” Abu-Assad has also lived in the West, working as an airline mechanic in the Netherlands. His first foray into film was as a producer. Asked about his artistic influences, he always names Egyptian cinema, which he describes as “the Hollywood of the Arab world.”

Omar is Abu-Assad’s fifth film as a writer-director. Two are documentaries, Nazareth 2000 (2000), a short about protests in that city prompted by the visit of Pope John Paul, and Ford Transit (2002), an often hilarious yet harrowing feature-length adventure, filmed entirely inside a commuter van that ferries passengers through Jerusalem and Palestine. Abu-Assad’s narrative films are Rana’s Wedding (2002), a satire chronicling one woman’s efforts to overcome incredible bureaucratic obstacles to her wedding; the controversial, Oscar-nominated drama Paradise Now (2005), which depicts the recruitment and training of two suicide bombers, and The Courier, an action film which Abu-Assad directed but did not write. It went straight to video in 2011. “I was sitting in a hotel room, so worried about that,” the filmmaker remembers, “that I wrote the outline for Omar in a few hours.”

Omar, like all of Abu-Assad’s work, chronicles the vagaries of living under Israeli occupation. Shot from the point-of-view of the eponymous hero, it follows three childhood friends, Tarek (Eyad Hourani), the head of a resistance “cell,” Amjad (Samer Bisharat), an unemployed musician, and Omar (Adam Bakri), a baker. “They are all archetypes of male society,” Abu-Assad observes. “You have the adventurer, Tarek, who will start the war, Omar, the soldier, and Amjad, the opportunist who will earn from the war.” At the beginning of the film, Omar deftly scales the Separation Wall to meet his sweetheart Nadja (Leem Lubany), who is also Tarek’s sister; at first, his biggest obstacle to happiness is his fear of asking Tarek for Nadja’s hand in marriage. By the middle of the movie, after he is arrested and compelled to become a collaborator, Omar’s challenge is honoring all the commitments his heroic personality demands of him.

The Separation Wall, an important leitmotif in the movie, is the actual wall, except when Omar is atop it; accepting the restriction by Israeli authorities, the writer-director completed these shots in a studio. “Omar’s intentions are good,” he says, “but the outcome is very tragic. The love story is doomed to failure from the beginning.”

While Omar is in jail, he is tricked into a confession by Agent Rami, an Israeli officer (Waleed F. Zuaiter of The Men Who Stare at Goats). Imprisonment proves daunting, especially after Omar learns that he will be there for life. Rami makes him an offer, and while Omar has no intention of betraying Tarek and Amjad, he thinks he can find some middle ground. In his community, his release immediately makes him a suspected traitor and, slowly, his life deteriorates, as even Nadja seems to lose trust in him. 

The filmmaker explains that the love story lies at the core of the movie. “These kinds of heroes are tragic because their intention is to preserve their love,” he says, “but they are young and insecure and they end up killing it. Then, they sacrifice themselves to the other as a redemption because they feel they have made this huge mistake.” For audiences living under occupation, he observes, self-sacrifice is a form of salvation. “The cause of this tragedy is the occupation,” he continues. “Omar at least protects Nadja from Agent Rami. That’s why Palestinians see it as an act of a tragic hero just as, for instance, in Titanic when the hero sees that they cannot both go in the same lifeboat, he sends her alone.”

It can be argued that Omar leaves Nadja in the care of an unscrupulous husband. In response Abu-Assad says, “I did not think of that. At least Omar ensures that her life is not destroyed, and that her children will be well-off.”

Omar is likely to be as controversial as Paradise Now, in part because of Abu-Assad’s stance in the longstanding debate of whether armed resistance, as depicted in these two films, constitutes a revolutionary act or an act of terrorism. “I did not have in mind to make a movie for people who are indifferent or against the situation there, or who are ignorant about it,” the writer-director admits. “I think if you start to make movies to educate, you fall into a bigger trap. Movies should be about feelings we all share. The main thing is that you understand the universal parts of it.”

One indisputable aspect of Abu-Assad’s work is his talent for directing amateurs. In Omar, as in Paradise Now and Rana’s Wedding, the cast is excellent, and the lead actors made their screen debut, or were cast in their first starring role. “If you are an experienced actor, I can get you to a very emotional and honest point, but I will never get this virginity and purity of performance,” the filmmaker admits. “In acting, it is so beautiful to see that freshness, but young, inexperienced actors need rehearsals. I work a lot with them on trust. They must have that. Then, you push them into being emotionally naked, as Lubany is in the scenes with Omar near the end of the movie.”

The Dubai International Film Festival, this past December, opened with Omar, and the film was released theatrically in January in Tel Aviv, after Abu-Assad told the press at DIFF that there ought to be a boycott of Israeli films. Uncompromising in his political views, the filmmaker is nevertheless engaging and open in interviews, even when confronted with disagreeable questions about his convictions. At one point, he recalls our previous interview for Paradise Now. That leads to a discussion about a writer’s life, and discovering one’s métier, which often comes to define, for better or worse, one’s personality. Or perhaps it is the other way around, Abu-Assad muses. “The problem of modern times is identity,” he says, “because our times are dynamic and none of us has a home."