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Palestine’s tragic Oscar hopeful tests identity, ideas

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: The complexities and contradictions of the Middle East conflict come into play in both the real-life production story and fictional plot of “Omar,” Palestine’s contender for a best foreign language film Oscar.

The movie’s director and lead actors are ’48 Palestinians. While it depicts lovers literally walled-off by Israel’s West Bank barrier, and a hero brutalized by Israeli secret police, the $2 million drama was filmed mostly in Nazareth, northern Israel.

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

There is no conciliatory spirit in “Omar.” The film looks at the grind of life under Israeli military occupation. A young Palestinian lethally lashes out at the army and is pressured to spy on his own side or end up in prison with no prospects of marrying the woman he loves.

Betrayal – and the perception of betrayal – follow, with bleak and bloody consequences – a plot which Abu-Assad says was inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy “Othello.”

“The problem of Othello was his insecurity,” he said. “When you are insecure, you start to believe the unbelievable. When you are in paranoia, you can’t make rational decisions.

“I think we all have this moment in life,” he continued, “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.”

“Omar” is Abu-Assad’s second Oscar nomination.

His previous entry, the 2005 thriller “Paradise Now,” is a sympathetic depiction of two Palestinian suicide bombers. It infuriated many Israelis, some of whom complained to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It did not win.

Almagor, an Israeli group representing those bereaved or wounded by Palestinian attacks, says it will lobby against “Omar.” Abu-Assad thinks such censure is misplaced, especially as his latest film is less overtly polemical.

“The movie is really about what happens in your friendship and love when you do actions that can affect that and how you do the balance between your duty and desire,” Abu-Assad said.

“A movie should show you what you don’t like, also. I mean, we should discuss this,” he said. “Nobody agrees with the actions of ‘The Godfather,’ yes? But still we appreciate that movie because it lets us see the picture from a different point of view. If this will threaten your ideas, then there is something wrong with your ideas.”

Describing himself as Palestinian – like many most of Israel’s 20 percent Arab minority – the 52-year-old Abu-Assad declined to speak Hebrew at the Tel Aviv screening of “Omar.”

“I want [Israeli Jews] to make the same effort to understand me,” Abu-Assad said, “as I will do to understand them.”

Some 95 percent of the film’s $2 million budget, he said, was raised from Palestinian businesspeople, the rest coming from Dubai.

Israel’s entry for the Oscars, “Bethlehem,” which also deals with West Bank espionage, did not make the short list.

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

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 30, 2014, on page 16.
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Summary

The complexities and contradictions of the Middle East conflict come into play in both the real-life production story and fictional plot of "Omar," Palestine's contender for a best foreign language film Oscar.

The movie's director and lead actors are '48 Palestinians. While it depicts lovers literally walled-off by Israel's West Bank barrier, and a hero brutalized by Israeli secret police, the $2 million drama was filmed mostly in Nazareth, northern Israel.

"Omar" is Abu-Assad's second Oscar nomination.

Almagor, an Israeli group representing those bereaved or wounded by Palestinian attacks, says it will lobby against "Omar". Abu-Assad thinks such censure is misplaced, especially as his latest film is less overtly polemical.

Describing himself as Palestinian – like many most of Israel's 20 percent Arab minority – the 52-year-old Abu-Assad declined to speak Hebrew at the Tel Aviv screening of "Omar".


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