Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now balanced an uncompromising commitment to the Palestinian cause with a sensitivity to the contradictions of Palestinian experience. His most recent film, Omar, turns the complex tensions of occupation—and the taboo of collaboration—into a tightly plotted espionage thriller. Set on both sides of the infamous separation barrier, the film follows the easygoing Omar (Adam Barki), a young man from Nablus who is arrested and forced to work as a spy for the Israelis. As Omar navigates an increasingly paranoid reality of shifting allegiances—to his young girlfriend, her militant older brother, a vulnerable childhood friend, and the Israeli handler (wonderfully played by Waleed Zuaiter) monitoring his every move—we slowly realize there is something allegorical to this tightrope walk: the film is striking its own careful balance between entertainment, realism, and politics. It’s a tricky act to pull off. Earning both his and Palestine’s second Oscar nomination (Paradise Now was the first), Abu-Assad has managed to craft a work that follows the step-by-step prescriptions of a commercial genre while simultaneously incorporating both on-location authenticity and an immense political fury.
Joshua Sperling (Rail): The central character in Paradise Now turns to violence partly because he resents that his father was an informant for the Israelis. Your new film, Omar, deals with the question of collaboration directly, building it into the plot. What draws you to this very sensitive topic?
Hany Abu-Assad: I made Omar for several reasons, the first being personal. As a kid I was raised to be careful because you never knew, someone might be working for the secret service. Then, much later, when I was making Paradise Now, the Army showed up wherever we were filming. Maybe it was just an accident. But I started to suspect that someone in our crew was telling the army our plans. Then I started to think: maybe they bugged my hotel room, so I changed rooms. Then I suspected they had bugged my phone, so I stopped using phones. That feeling of paranoia is very disturbing—it’s a nightmare, believe me. And I lived through that.
Rail: In addition to paranoia, Omar explores the sense of guilt and betrayal—the awful double-bind—collaborators experience.
Abu-Assad: Something related happened to a friend of mine. The Israelis knew a secret about him—in his case, they knew that he was a homosexual. And they threatened to reveal the secret if he didn’t collaborate. When I heard this story I thought it was a fascinating source of drama. I wondered what I would do in his place. I should also say that the ending of Omar was in fact inspired by something I read in an Israeli newspaper. So the combination of my personal experience, stories I’ve heard, and stories I’ve read about made me feel I should make something about it. But back to the original question: why is collaboration so dominant in my films? I think because it’s an important issue. As a society we should be more open about it. That way we can understand it and fight it better.
Rail: There are many similarities between Paradise Now and Omar. Both follow charismatic, easygoing young men who are driven to acts of violence. But in Omar there’s a much faster pacing, with tighter plot-points and very gripping Steadicam chase sequences.
Abu-Assad: On the level of the script, I think Omar is beyond Paradise Now. In Paradise Now there was a question of whether the resistance was good or bad; in Omar it’s not a question of strategy, but a spontaneous response to the occupation. So yes, it’s a continuation—or development—of the plot of a young man driven to violence. But whereas in Paradise Now, there’s a very calm, observational style, in Omar I chose to be more involved with the characters. Also, on a cinematic level, I approached Omar as a genre movie. My references were threefold: American thrillers such as No Way Out and The Firm; French thrillers such as Le Cercle Rouge and Le Samouraï; and the Egyptian thrillers I watched when I was young. I wanted to make a unique fusion of these three cinemas. You also touched on the aesthetics of the film. In Paradise Now there was more of a monochromatic, Western look. I wanted Omar to be more dynamic and colorful.
Rail: There’s also a much greater sense of claustrophobia in Omar. The humiliation of the occupation is made very concrete. In a pivotal scene—what turns out to be the “inciting incident” for Omar’s decision to take part in a raid—Israeli soldiers belittle and humiliate him.
Abu-Assad: This comes from the fact that Omar is both a thriller and a love story. Every love story must have two obstacles: the inner and the outer. The inner is trust but the outer can vary. In Romeo and Juliet it’s because the families are fighting. Here it’s the occupation and the wall. I felt that you have to visualize the obstacles; you don’t want to talk about them. So by creating this claustrophobic wall feeling, I could make the obstacle strong and powerful. Rather than talking about the occupation, I wanted you to see and feel it.
Rail: Do you consider Omar a political film?
Abu-Assad: For sure it’s a political movie. Why? Because I’m a political voice and I have a political point of view. We are telling the story from the Palestinian side. It’s condemning the occupation. But you don’t need to make a movie in order to condemn the occupation. The movie is not about that. Every human being should condemn every occupation, not just the Palestinian occupation. The film is about love, trust, friendship. The place for political discussion is somewhere else—you can do it on a sofa with your friends. In a movie it’s boring.
Rail: There has been a trend in recent films about the Arab-Israeli conflict to cover several characters on both sides of the conflict. Omar is the opposite of this. It’s named after its protagonist, whom it follows very closely for the entire film. We never leave his point of view.
Abu-Assad: If you make a list of the best movies—at least those that I love—they are always told from one point of view. This is not about the conflict. And you don’t have to be in agreement with this one point of view. Take The Godfather; for sure you are not agreeing with his actions. But the greatness of the movie is that it makes you live with that character and come to know him. Or take One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Apocalypse Now. You never meet these characters in real life but you live through them during the film. This is where there is enrichment—and you only get this from showing a single point of view.
Rail: But your decision to restrict our point of view to Omar must go beyond a question of craft. There must also be a political basis to this.
Abu-Assad: Yes, that’s true. There is a political level and a character level. On the human-being level we are all guilty and we are all victims. But on a political level if you make a balanced movie about the conflict you turn it into a “vicious circle” or “closed circle.” This is the worst thing you can do because it’s exactly what the politicians want you to believe. They want you to think there is an equality between the occupiers and the occupied. If you say this, it’s really a disaster. The occupation can make good people, like the Israeli character of Rami, do bad things. And yes, you can show that. But to say it’s not clear who the victim is—this is a very obnoxious attitude. Because there is no justification for occupation. There is no apologizing for it. You can’t just say, “Well, it’s a vicious circle.”
Rail: What I found very impressive about Omar was that it works as genre but it also feels very grounded in reality. How do you balance the needs of genre with the desire to remain close to life (which you need for the film to have any political charge)?
Abu-Assad: This is exactly what I am trying to explore. I really love this genre—I follow thrillers in every tradition. I didn’t want to make a boring movie that was just a discussion about the conflict. But, again, if you decide not to show the two points of view, that’s it: the political discussion is done. As for the realism, I think this comes from the Egyptian thrillers, not the American ones. They shoot on real locations, on the streets of Cairo. And on the character level, they sometimes break the genre: they will make a joke at a very tense moment, for example. I call this an anti-genre moment. But you can rebuild the tension in a new way that makes the character more true to life. I also don’t put in any artificial character development. Every moment from Omar is real—I either heard it or I took it from the newspaper. I don’t want to be judgmental but most American thrillers are artificial in this respect.
Rail: Given that you are holding up a mirror of sorts, what has the response been in the region to the film?
Abu-Assad: Three days ago we had a premiere in Tel Aviv. All the Israeli pundits were there, about 500 in the audience. I was very curious to hear what they would say. Whether from the right or the left their response was the same: they said it felt like a very true movie. And for the Palestinians who lived this story—who were in jails or had connections with the other parts of the film—when I hear from them, the biggest compliment I can get is that it felt like real life. Often cops or lawyers will tell you the films about them are all fiction. It wasn’t the middle class whose reactions I was most scared about, it was the everyday people who lived through similar realities.
Rail: Has there been any backlash from the Palestinian community to certain aspects of the film?
Abu-Assad: In general, let’s say 95 percent of reactions were good reactions. A very small percentage have taken issue with the film. I was very curious about this. Some people thought it was too critical toward the Palestinians. They thought it would feed the prejudgment of the West. My response is that this is not my problem—the prejudgment of the West about the Palestinians is a problem of the West. Another critique, from the Palestinian point of view, was that the film was telling the Palestinians to give up the struggle—that we have no hope. I found this very strange. And normal people who saw the movie in Palestine will tell you they did not feel this. They felt there was hope. The film is saying that you have to stand up, you have to say no to the occupation.
Omar opens on February 21 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Angelika Film Center.
JOSHUA SPERLING teaches film and literature at Oberlin College. His first book, A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Work of John Berger, has recently been translated into Korean, Chinese, and Turkish.