The Oscar-nominated director discusses the first film fully-financed and produced out of Palestine, his remarkable debut actors, the film market and future projects.
Academy Award-nominated Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now) won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for new thriller Omar, set in the occupied West Bank.
Omar follows three childhood friends who become ensnared in a deadly cat-and-mouse game with an Israeli intelligence officer after they join the Palestinian insurgency movement.
The film boasts a number of strong performances, including stunning debuts from star-crossed lovers Adam Bakri and Leem Lubani, and a strong turn from Palestinian-US actor Waleed Zuaiter, who also co-produced the film.
Why did you want to tell this story?
I was initially inspired by two stories I heard: one, the story of a homosexual friend of mine who was blackmailed into collaboration by the Israeli secret services. That struck me as a good drama for a film. I wanted to explore how human beings react when they are put indifficult traps like this. Another story was about a collaborator who shot the man he was working for. I became very curious as to what I would do in similar circumstances.
I guess the homosexual angle might have made the film very niche?
Homosexuality is such a strong and important subject that the film would have changed significantly and conflicted with the main theme of my film, which is trust. Homosexuality in that context couldn’t merely be in the background of the film.
Why did you choose to foreground young adults?
Two reasons: the first is that they are the biggest victims of this kind of lifestyle. They don’t have enough experience to avoid it or to make better choices.
Second: because our political leaders have failed in assuring a better future, our young boys and girls are very lost. They are standing alone, actually. In most independent, mature societies you have leaders and fathers who can protect these children to lead them to a safer future. Our leadership has failed in protecting our society. This is why human beings feel responsibility for changing their own future but they don’t have the experience to do so.
You found incredible new talent to convey that message. Both your leads are revelations. How did you find Adam Bakri and Leem Lubani?
I saw so many faces and did so many screen tests in so many different ways. Adam Bakri was very good but wasn’t the only one on our list. The other actors were as strong as him, but he was more versatile. While the others were more type-cast, Adam had a vulnerability and at the same time could also transform into a strong boy who could climb over huge walls.
I gather he is based in America. Los Angeles or New York?
New York. He trained at the Lee Strasberg Institute and comes from an acting family. His father is Mohammad Bakri, his brother, Saleh. He understands the acting tradition.
And he spoke Arabic before?
Yes, he was born in Palestine. He went to New York a few years ago because he had a scholarship for Lee Strasberg. He speaks perfect Arabic and perfect English.
And Leem had less experience?
There were quite a few candidates for Leem’s role and it took more than three days of discussion to decide. I chose Leem because she had an honesty that I couldn’t find in anyone else and she was also very sensitive. She is at high school, too, so has real experience of her character. Also because she has the potential to become a very good actress.
How old is she?
Now 17. She was 16 at the time.
How did you advertise for the role?
It’s unbelievable – we advertised through Facebook! I’m not on Facebook and don’t know how to use it, but my casting director said Facebook would be the best way because you have pictures, a profile and can go through entire albums.
Where did you audition her?
In my small studio in Nazareth. We produced the film here at the same studio.
Will she continue acting?
[Laughs] I am so happy that you share my passion for her! I really want to support her to become a good actress. I think she needs to study. She never studied acting, it’s all natural… all natural talent. I think she needs to nurture that talent and grow to become more sophisticated, but I truly believe she’s a huge talent.
Absolutely. Tell me about the shoot itself?
We shot one week in the West Bank – Nablus, then one week at a camp near Nablus, one week in the Jordan Valley, and then six weeks in Nazareth, my hometown. We had zero problems – the opposite of Paradise Now [laughs].
In that sense it was an easy shoot, because I decided I wanted to have as many Palestinians as possible working on this movie – production designer, costume designer, sound, editor – you know, all the key roles. I had more problems in the organisation of the film, but that was the only obstacle on this shoot.
Paradise Now was the opposite: we were very organised but the situation was very tough. Wherever we went, there was war, siege, shooting, kidnapping. We didn’t have those problems this time.
You didn’t suffer any of the death threats you received during Paradise Now?
No, nothing like that. Zero problems from the authorities either.
Why is that, do you think?
The authorities know that if I made the film and encountered obstacles I would speak badly about them. But I didn’t, so they don’t. The film is going to get made one way or the other and neither of us want to have problems [laughs]. I urge them to keep this policy.
I’m very intrigued about this film being described as ‘the first film to be funded by the Palestinian film industry’. What does this mean exactly and take me through the process of how it was funded?
Let’s say that most Palestinian movies (except maybe Annemarie Jacir’s When I Saw You, but that shot in Jordan) were largely funded by non-Palestinian money or shot outside Palestine. Most of the money generally comes from Europe. We were the first to be fully financed by Palestinian money (though 5% of the budget did come from the Dubai Film Festival), to shoot in Palestine and use Palestinian cast and crew – virtually all heads of department were Palestinian. This was kind of new.
The film is a step towards independence. What do we Palestinians want? We want to be independent and free but we are still depending on the help of the west.
So who exactly backed the film?
The major backers were Walid’s brothers who accounted for around 30-50% of the funding.
And what do his brothers do?
They are in investment banking. This is their first experience and I respect them a great deal because independent films are a very tough business. Most American independent movies lose money. Most European movies lose money. And they had the courage to put money into a Palestinian movie [laughs]. It’s even more of a risk.
How did your resources compare to Paradise Now?
Paradise Now had a 10% bigger budget. Omar cost around $2m, Paradise Now was around $2.2m.
So the rest of the money came from Palestinian businessmen from different parts of the world?
Yes, from the West Bank, the United States, the Gulf States, Europe.
So there are Palestinian businessmen in the West Bank who are capable of funding feature films?
Yes there are. And companies, like the Bank of Palestine.
I hope they do it again…
It depends on the numbers. It depends on how well we do in the States. But yes, the money will be back.
Are you surprised that the film has not already got distribution in the US and in the UK?
I was very surprised because even though I am one of the film
’s creators I can objectively say ‘it’s a good movie’ and a commercial movie: it’s not very difficult to follow, it’s a straightforward story, it has suspense, it’s emotionally involving, the acting is good, it’s fast-paced and it connects with young people.
But there is a combination of reasons [why Omar doesn’t have distribution in the UK and US]. First, the market is collapsing for this kind of movie. Audiences want lighter films that can give them hope. The buyer thinks that the audience needs light movies because there is economic crisis and the youth of today are still the biggest cinema-goers.
Second, it’s all about the buyer [distributor]. Buyers think they know the market. They think the Palestinian situation is a tired one – ‘oh my god, another movie about Palestine’. But you can remake this movie in any country in the world, even the United States. There are five sentences in the movie where I refer to Palestinian politics. Buyers think that most people aren’t attracted to Palestinian movies.
The third reason: some of the buyers – and they express it – think it will become a controversial movie and that some people who aren’t critical toward Israel might become offended. I don’t think they will.
But Paradise Now was more controversial and that sold quickly, right?
Very quickly. The day after the premiere there was competition.
Are there any other plans to screen the film in Palestine and the West Bank, in that region?
Last week [w/c Sept 2] we opened the film in three different locations in Palestine.
Are there many cinemas there?
No. There are nine cinemas in total. All of them will show the film.
Does it have a distributor in the area?
No. We are doing it ourselves. Some of them are ‘real cinemas’ and some are just centres that show theatre and sometimes movies. We will see. I am very curious to how the public will react here.
Are there other film voices emerging from Palestine at the moment?
Yes. Remember this name: Firas Khoury. He’s a young director I’m working with.
So you’re producing his film?
Yes, I started out as a producer, actually. I need to start producing for young talent. His two shorts are both excellent. I feel we have a great talent here. In a year from now we are planning to shoot with him as director.
What’s the story?
It’s a coming-of-age story about Palestinians living inside Israel. It’s about three friends who are struggling with their identity and are struggling with their sexuality and love. They’re struggling with their involvement in the political discussion but they are funny too.
Will this be another Palestinian-funded film?
No. My name can get a certain amount of equity for my films but this needs soft money.
And that’ll shoot where?
Israel. In the northern cities of Galilee.
What’s next for you?
A film about a girl seeking her mother. Her mother is lost and she wants to know what happened to her mother. The story is that the mother ran away with her lover, but the girl can’t believe that a mother could leave her daughter for a man. It’s a road movie.
Where will it be set?
When do you hope to shoot that?
I was hoping this year but I am so busy with promoting Omar.
Does it have a name?
Are there any confirmed partners?
Actually yes. More or less the same team as Paradise Now with The Match Factory; Razor; Pretty Pictures; Augustus Film. Laura Kim and Paul Federbush [the former Warner Independent Pictures execs who distributed Paradise Now in the US] will produce and likely handle US distribution.
So you’re not immediately doing another US film after your experience on The Courier?
[Laughs] For sure I will not make the same mistake. The biggest mistake was the script – it wasn’t good. But it’s also difficult when producers are inexperienced.
You’re not ruling out making a US film in the future?
I am open to that as long as there is a good script package. It has to be a good package.
Finally, as a Palestinian artist, are you concerned that Palestine’s plight is less talked about in the political, media and public spheres at the moment?
I don’t consider Palestine separate from the Middle East. It’s part of the bigger problem – the Middle East is burning and this is what concerns me.