What are the chances of Middle Eastern Oscar hope Omar winning Best Foreign Film come March?
‘One in five,’ deadpans its director Hany Abu-Assad. He’s not joking either, having done the awards circuit before, with 2005’s Paradise Now – which won the Golden Globe but missed out on the Academy Award to South Africa’s Tsosti – the director knows just what to expect. The only difference is that this time he’s not sure he deserves to win – nine years ago he was certain. ‘The last time – I have to be honest – I felt Paradise Now was very good but the other movies were...’ he hangs, letting the silence speak volumes, ‘not bad, but I was disappointed to not take the Oscar. [This time] all four are very good movies. The competition is huge – if I lose I will be honoured.’
The director’s combination of bare honesty and brute self conviction should come as little surprise to anyone who’s seen either movie. Both take place against the same tortured background of the director’s homeland, Palestine’s occupied territories. Paradise Now depicts the human back story of a pair of suicide bombers setting out on a mission to attack on Tel Aviv. In Omar, we zero in on a young freedom fighter sucked into the murky world of informants and secret police following a botched operation. As well as occupying the milieu, the two movies share one other quality – both opened the Dubai International Film Festival, in 2005 and 2013, the only times an Arab film has done so, and Abu-Assad the only director to walk the red carpet twice on opening night.
That two movies eight years apart should carry such seemingly similar content speaks volumes about how little progress has been made with the region’s ongoing political struggles. Indeed, for Abu-Assad the occupation presents struggles even thousands of miles away from home – in 2005 there were moves to disqualify Paradise Now from the Oscars with the argument Palestine wasn’t a country, the Academy later classifying it a submission from the ‘Palestinian Territories’. (Omar is currently listed as being from Palestine). Perhaps its little surprise the director used his Golden Globes acceptance speech to make an impassioned plea for statehood.
That he was in the position to make such a plea is in itself remarkable. As the man behind the first Oscar-nominated feature from the Arab world – Egypt has submitted 29 movies for consideration since 1958 but never been nominated, a flagrant snub and ‘injustice’ in the director’s eyes – Abu-Assad readily admits a sense of responsibility to represent the region, cinematically at least. But he’s at a loss to explain his own breakthrough in the West.
‘This is a question you should ask them – the people who work for the Golden Globes and Cannes – I can’t tell you why they accept my work, it’s going to sound... arrogant.’ And the effect of such recognition? ‘It’s a trap: On the one hand you want to keep your dignity and not please them with what they want to see. On the other hand you want the recognition – this is a trap.’
With dignity comes controversy. Some saw Paradise Now’s humanised depiction of suicide bombers as a sympathetic portrayal, or worse, a glorification. Victims of such attacks campaigned to ban the film, calling it immoral. Yet paradoxically there were many Palestinians who object to the way Omar depicts ‘jasoos’, or traitors, as not uncommon amongst freedom fighters. None of this is helped by Abu-Assad’s assertions the film’s incidents were entirely drawn from true events. ‘All of the details are inspired by things I heard and stuff I’ve been through,’ he tells us. ‘Once I felt that paranoia that the secret police are after me; you think every man or woman you meet, there’s a possibility they’re secret police.’
Despite the charged nature of such material, Abu-Assad is quick to assert that there’s more to his work than politics. He tolerates questions about his intent with the weariness of a man who has faced nearly a decade of polemical pigeon-holing, and talks at length about the symbolism in his movies; Omar, for example, is a baker because ‘when you deal with fire, you need to be very careful’. Discussing his hero’s moral dilemma – of escaping capture and pursuing love for himself only by betraying his comrades – Abu-Assad is clearer on the message: ‘No one will say desire is more important than duty – people who do that, we condemn them... it’s a very dangerous path’.
Rather than polemics, both Paradise Now and Omar share a common setting in the ranks of the Palestinian resistance simply because this is the world Abu-Assad knows best, the director insists. ‘I don’t like a direct message,’ he says. ‘The occupation is bad. I think it’s bad without my movie. They’re set in Palestine because I’m Palestinian, it’s not that I’m doing movies about the conflict – I’m using the conflict to explore universal human issues. In two years, four, ten, twenty, a million... [the conflict] will end, like any conflict. You want to do a movie that will survive the place and become bigger than [that situation], and look at the bigger issues of human beings.’
It’s worth noting that between these two self-penned works Abu-Assad made another rather different movie, working as a director-for-hire 2012 Hollywood action caper The Courier, starring Mickey Rourke and Grey's Anatomy’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan. ‘It went straight to DVD,’ the director deadpans once more, when asked about the project’s success. Artistically as well as commercially he’s happy to label the project a failure – the problem, he explains, is that he wasn’t ‘extreme’ enough in his first foray with the mainstream American market. ‘When you have a very straightforward movie – it was very artificially constructed – then you direct artistically. You have to explore the form, the language of cinema.... I didn’t.’ But by happily admitting blame for the movie’s failings, Abu-Assad remains comfortable that he could do better next time, and intends on making more English language movies in Hollywood. ‘I learn from mistakes, and I will follow the path again,’ he says with intent. ‘My connection with Hollywood is good – if I wanted to I could work tomorrow.’
While Abu-Assad still lives in Palestine for most of the year, following both his experience of The Courier, and the two months he will spend in Los Angeles during awards season, it seems at the age of 52 the director may now be ready to leave his homeland’s problems out of his work, for now at least. His next project, he tells us, is a ‘dark comedy’ about our consumer-led society. Initially it sounds like a wry joke, but slowly it dawns on us he just might be telling the truth. Does that mean he’s getting less controversial in his old age?
‘More commercial, less controversial!’ he laughs. ‘I don’t think I make controversial movies – just being Palestinian is already controversial. My movies are really about human beings and real things, their concerns are with the human race and the human heart – it’s all rudimentary.
‘But let’s say I think it’s time to explore movies outside the conflict, and themes without the conflict. Maybe I’m mature enough to look at consumption society... without the conflict.’
Find out more about Omar here.