Time­less themes

Os­car-nom­i­nated thriller Omar has en­dur­ing el­e­ments that are stronger than life, ‘big­ger than us’.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - OSCAR SPECIAL - By COLIN COVERT

TWO-TIME Os­car nom­i­nee Hany Abu-As­sad is used to mak­ing films that gen­er­ate in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion, praise and con­tro­versy.

The Dutch-Pales­tinian di­rec­tor’s Par­adise Now, a 2005 Golden Globe win­ner and best for­eign film Os­car con­tender, was about two Pales­tinian sui­cide bombers en route to Tel Aviv. One changes his mind about the mis­sion and one doesn’t.

His Os­car-nom­i­nated Omar also deals with the anti-Is­raeli in­sur­gency, but its scope is broader and its story deeper. A propul­sive thriller and a ro­mance, it fol­lows Omar’s courtship of a young woman, Na­dia, and how that af­fair evolves af­ter he’s ar­rested by the Shin Bet in­tel­li­gence ser­vice.

The film shows the West Bank res­i­dents’ dream of peace and pros­per­ity (huge bill­boards advertise con­sumer goods and por­tray happy, air­brushed Arab fam­i­lies) and the eco­nomic hard­ships that put the bill­board life far out of reach.

Abu-As­sad, 51, fer­vently loved films since the day he saw One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest as a teen, but he ini­tially pur­sued the more prac­ti­cal path of en­gi­neer­ing. He fol­lowed that ca­reer to the Nether­lands, where he has spent half his life. It was there that he re­turned to his pas­sion and in 1998 di­rected his first fea­ture, a ro­man­tic com­edy called The 14th Chicken.

That might seem an un­likely de­but for a po­lit­i­cally en­gaged film­maker, but Abu-As­sad rep­re­sents a new wave of Is­raeli and Arab au­teurs who don’t feel com­pelled to make ev­ery facet of their movies about to­day’s po­lit­i­cal tur­moil. You could lift the char­ac­ters in Omar out of their set­ting and put them in a Mafia mi­lieu, and you wouldn’t have to change a thing.

“I think this con­flict will end,” he said in a re­cent phone in­ter­view. “This year, next year, in 20 years, the con­flict will die. And you don’t want your movie to die with it. This is why you are tack­ling big­ger is­sues, hu­man is­sues” of friend­ship, trust and be­trayal.

He freely ad­mits in­cor­po­rat­ing no­tions from Romeo And Juliet in the young lovers’ courtship, and Othello in the hero’s grow­ing jeal­ousy. “Omar is a tragic love story about a lover who makes a bad choice,” he said.

“These themes are stronger than life. Shake­speare died, but his sto­ries are still in his­tory be­cause they are about themes that are big­ger than us.”

In­se­cu­rity makes you fall in love, Abu-As­sad said, as you be­come de­pen­dent on your lover for hap­pi­ness. In­se­cu­rity also kills the love, he said, be­cause it’s unattrac­tive. “I felt it in Othello and I tried to rein­ter­pret it in a dif­fer­ent time.”

The film’s other key in­flu­ence is The God­fa­ther, with its in­tri­cate web of loy­alty oaths and cold­blooded be­tray­als. Omar’s in­fat­u­a­tion with the idea of armed re­bel­lion thrusts him into a world of para­noia as he is pres­sured by the Is­raelis and trapped be­tween ri­val Pales­tinian fac­tions.

“Good drama is al­ways based on con­flict be­tween de­sires and duty,” Abu-As­sad said. “Omar’s con­flict is be­tween his de­sire for Na­dia and his duty to his people, his coun­try. All the char­ac­ters,” in­clud­ing a tough but fal­li­ble Is­raeli in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer, “are torn by the good and bad in them.”

As the com­plex­ity of AbuAs­sad’s char­ac­ters has grown so has the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of his film tech­nique. The film fea­tures breath­less foot chases through claus­tro­pho­bic, maze­like streets. They were a headache to shoot, he said, as lo­cals made noise dur­ing many shots in hopes of get­ting hush money from the pro­duc­tion. As far as Is­raeli of­fi­cials were con­cerned, he met no re­sis­tance what­so­ever.

“Maybe they think I am noth­ing, why should they in­ter­fere with me?” he said. “Is­raelis are hu­mans who do these jobs in cen­sor­ship or the se­cret ser­vice who could make your life un­easy. They’re not, like, evil, they’re people. I think they de­cided not to make my life dif­fi­cult be­cause some­one will ask me how dif­fi­cult it was and if I had many bad sto­ries, they would be in a bad light. Now I have no bad sto­ries.

“They are very happy,” he said with a chuckle, adding, “I am happy, too, by the way.” – Star Tri­bune (Minneapolis)/ McClatchy-Tri­bune In­for­ma­tion Ser­vices

Tragic love story: The thriller Omar deals with big­ger hu­man is­sues like love and be­trayal; film­maker hany abu-as­sad rep­re­sents a new wave of Mid­dle east­ern au­teurs. — aP Photo/adopt Films

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