On Love, Defeat, and Collaborating With the Enemy: ‘Omar’ Comes to Beirut

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A screen shot from Hany Abu-Assad's latest film, "Omar".

By: Ali Wajih

Published Thursday, January 22, 2015

After sweeping the film festival circuit and winning several awards, “Omar” (2013), a Palestinian film, has finally arrived to Beirut. Opening tonight, January 22, at Metropolis Empire Sofil, Lebanese filmgoers can finally watch Hany Abu-Assad’s feature, which was shot entirely in Palestine with an all-Palestinian cast and crew.

This screening is an opportunity to look back at the career of the artist behind “Omar” and “Paradise Now,” who presented the cause in a different way, without the slogans, cliches, and claims of infallibility. He considered the spirit of his people and then relayed his discoveries to global audiences.

Hany Abu-Assad is up to the hilt in the affairs of Palestine. Born in the city of Nazareth (1961-), the Palestinian filmmaker has claimed a prominent place for himself in what is known as the new Palestinian cinema.

The term refers to the film genre created by Michel Khleifi (1950, Nazareth) in the documentary “Fertile Memory” (1980, 100 minutes) and the feature “Wedding in Galilee” (1987, 112 minutes). The films portray the cause of the Palestinian people and Palestinians in a way that steers clear of slogans and cliches.

The genre also freed Palestinians from the Fidayeen fighter cliche — during an era when revolutionary factions produced their own films — presenting them as flesh-and-blood individuals who can make mistakes. The genre also tackles themes like love, defeat, being lured into collaborating with the enemy, and how to resist the temptation. All these issues, and more, are critiqued and analyzed.

In form, Hany Abu-Assad’s films also distinguished themselves through their cinematography, narrative, performances, and soundtrack. Many names were involved in developing and executing these works, such as Elia Suleiman, Nizar Hassan, Mai al-Masri, Iyad Daoud, Azza El-Hassan, Anne-Marie Jacir, and Rashid Masharawi. Abu-Assad hired Masharawi by coincidence, convincing him to leave aeronautical engineering, which he was studying in the Netherlands, to pursue a career in film.

Abu-Assad’s documentary “To Whom It May Concern” (1991, 15 minutes, Best Film at the Arab World Institute in Paris), was the first work to convey a different Palestinian voice, raising difficult questions about the Palestinian stance during the Gulf War. The self-autopsy, diagnosing the reasons for the internal bleeding, would be a strong theme in subsequent films.

The short film “Paper House” (1993, 28 minutes - Best Short Feature at the Arab Cinema Biennale in Paris) exposes a military occupation that has no qualms whatsoever about demolishing homes where children live.

The documentary “Under the Microscope” (2000, 23 minutes) investigates the martyrs of the intifada in Abu-Assad’s native city, which he had previously featured in his film “Nazareth 2000” (2000, 55 minutes).

“The Pope’s Visit” examines a municipal project at the turn of the millenium, and the dispute over the Shahabuddin Mosque, as sources of tension and quarrels in the city. Muslim-Christian relations are upset with encouragement from the Israeli Shin Bet security service.

Two friends, and fellow workers at a petrol station, Abu Arab and Abu Maria, bear witness to all this. The turn their lives take is not pleasant, despite their sarcastic spirit.

Palestinian characters in Abu-Assad’s films are always cheerful, and this one is no exception. Those living within the Green Line are shown to have not forgotten the fact that the occupation is a thorn in their side. They too are prepared to become martyrs in any intifada, and Abu-Assad is interested in emphasizing this.

His feature film debut, “Rana’s Wedding” (2002, 87 minutes, written by Ihab Lamey and Liana Badr, based on a novel by the latter), tells the story of Rana (Clara Khoury), who is given a choice between travelling or marrying, and goes on a frantic journey to find her lover Khalil (Khalifa Natour). Rana scrambles and runs through the frame of surveillance cameras, which make Jerusalem a large prison. The siege, the checkpoints, and the suspicion of everything from mobile phones to rubbish bags, convey some of the hell that life in the occupied capital is, and its absurd reality. “They are demolishing a home on the day I am trying to build one,” Rana says, as an Israeli bulldozer levels yet another house. The film won the grand prize at the Cologne Mediterranean Film Festival, and Khoury won Best Actress.

With “Paradise Now” (2005, 92 minutes - Golden Globe for best foreign film, Academy Awards nomination for best foreign film), Abu-Assad achieved international fame. The film raises tough questions about the operations carried out by Palestinians: Are they suicide attacks or martyrdom attacks?

The film tackles this theme through the story of Khaled (Ali Suliman) and Said (Kais Nashef), who are planning to blow themselves up in Tel Aviv. Said is burdened by the past of his father, who was a collaborator with the enemy. His relationship with Suha (Lubna Zabbal) opens his eyes to life affirmation and to searching for alternatives to resistance (the film doesn’t mention any). Said does not reject any of this, but perhaps “washing off the shame” is a stronger motive than promises of paradise. In the plot, religion turns out to be a superficial motive.

The themes of struggle, betrayal, and love are repeated in Abu-Assad’s latest film, “Omar” (2013, 99 minutes. Academy Awards nomination for best foreign film).

Omar (Adam Bakri), Amjad (Samer Bisharat), and Tariq (Iyad Hourani) are friends since childhood. Their world turns upside down when they shoot at an Israeli soldier. The pure love between Omar and Nadia (Lim Lubani) cannot survive the occupation and its agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter). Amjad’s feelings for Nadia complicate matters as well.

The handsome young man soon faces the test of collaborating with his enemy. Torn, he collapses and loses everything. His will is stronger than his circumstances, but there is a price to be paid.

The corrosive intrigue among friends and the arbitrariness of the occupation are also two important themes.

In his last two films, Abu-Assad doesn’t justify collaboration, but merely seeks to understand its causes. In the documentary film “Ford Transit” (2003, 80 minutes), the director mocks collaborators who are forced to sell their Ford cars after being exposed, and are forced to use public transport. Between the checkpoints of Ramallah and Jerusalem, we accompany many characters as they speak about their daily suffering.

The recurrent theme is that occupation is an external obstacle to Palestinian progress. In “Omar,” the occupation wall divides the city in two. The occupation wall seeks to guarantee that no freedom fighter will make it over ever again.

Hany Abu-Assad is also keen on showing that his characters are film buffs. Abu Arab and Abu Maria allude to Youssef Chahine and Alain Delon. In “Nazareth 2000,” the sister complains that there is only one cinema. Suha talks to Said about Japanese minimalist cinema. Nadia laughs when Amjad imitates Marlon Brando in “Omar.”

At that same film, Abu-Assad reproduces the last supper scene from Buñuel’s “Viridiana” (1961). Nimbly, masterfully, the cameras chase the protagonist — especially during running scenes, of which there are many as the characters are often running from, or in search of, something

The film features astounding debut performances (with the exception of veteran actor Waleed Zuaiter). The synthesis is masterful, from the camera’s insistence on zooming in on faces and situations, to its capacity to convey the broken reality of the characters.

Without preaching or showiness, Hany Abu-Assad channels the spirit of his people and relays it to an international audience. He relies on local ingredients to create a universal vision. Yes, resistance is legitimate in all its forms, under any law, even if that does not impress judges on major film panels.

Palestinian filmmaker and Nazareth native, Hany Abu-Assad. Al-AkhbarPalestinian filmmaker and Nazareth native, Hany Abu-Assad. Al-Akhbar

Disappointment in Hollywood

In 2012, Abu-Assad made a Hollywood film entitled “The Courier” (99 minutes), featuring Mickey Rourke. It is a stale detective story with no taste or smell. The film did not represent a breakthrough, despite Abu-Assad’s (director) serious effort to make a decent commercial flick.

Currently, he is working on a Palestinian film about consumerism, and another Hollywood film titled “The Mountain Between Us,” featuring Oscar-nominated actress Rosamund Pike. The film is slated for a 2017 release, according to IMDB.

“Omar” by Hany Abu-Assad will be screened starting today through February 4 at Metropolis Empire Sofil (Ashrafieh, Beirut). To inquire call: 01/204080

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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