Omar and the Quest to Motivate People to Invest in Their Own: A Conversation with Hany Au-Assad and Waleed Zuaiter
Omar (Adam Bakri) is a Palestinian baker who routinely climbs over the separation wall to meet up with his girl Nadja (Leem Lubany). By night, he’s either a freedom fighter or a terrorist — you decide — ready to risk his life to strike at the Israeli military with his childhood friends Tarek (Eyad Hourani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat). Arrested after the killing of an Israeli soldier and tricked into an admission of guilt by association, he agrees to work as an informant. So begins a dangerous game-is he playing his Israeli handler (Waleed F. Zuaiter) or will he really betray his cause? And who can he trust on either side?
To coincide with the opening weekend release of Hany Au-Assad’s Oscar nominated Omar, The Fan Carpet‘s Paul Risker had the privilege to speak with both the writer-director Au-Assad and actor Waleed Zuaiter to delve inside a film that will hopefully propel the progress being made in the landscape of Palestinian film and the quest for Palestinian independence.
How did you both become involved in the project?
Hany Au-Assad: The idea occurred to me when I realised that I was not happy with the scripts I had been writing. One night I panicked and I started to think about what kind of story I wanted to tell – one that really mattered to me, and that’s when I came up with the story of Omar.
When I had finished the script I sent it to Waleed Zuaiter, an actor friend of mine. First of all I sent it to hear his opinion, and secondly to know if he would be interested in playing the part of Rami.
Waleed Zuaiter: I read the script and I just fell head over heels in love with it. I told Hany “Not only do I want to play the role, but I want to produce this film with you.” So I went out and got my brothers involved as my anchor investors, and then raised the rest of the budget. We had the shared vision that we wanted to do a Palestinian film in which the majority of the crew were Palestinian. We also wanted it to be financed, produced and directed as a Palestinian film with the intention of encouraging the Palestinian film industry, and so that’s what we sought out to do.
What are your impressions of the landscape of Palestinian cinema?
Waleed Zuaiter: Omar was not only my first Palestinian film, it was my first time producing. So I just approached it as this incredible script, and being a Palestinian story one that would best be told by Palestinians. So in terms of acquiring the investment it was to also encourage other similar stories from Palestine, told by Palestinians and told in this way. The idea is to motivate people to invest in their own.
Hany Au-Assad: We are a nation under occupation; we are not a free nation, and so for us independent cinema is a step towards independence. We are still under occupation, and it’s the struggle to gain more and more independence.
Ten years ago we were able to produce one movie every three years, whereas now we are able to produce three movies a year. This means the landscape of Palestinian film, and the Palestinian film industry is moving in the right direction. Omar contributes to this landscape by opening the door to movies that can now be more significantly financed by Palestine.
Cinema can be a window onto other cultures, and it has the capacity to offer us a perspective of those foreign cultures that are unfamiliar. Omar serves to offer an alternative perspective of a world conflict and a continually flowing international news story?
Hany Au-Assad: I completely agree. When I started watching movies rather than making movies they allowed me to invest emotionally in characters that are far removed from me or my culture. They allow me to understand first myself and then the world. This kind of communication between yourself and others allows you to enrich your experience as a human being, and that’s the reason why I want to offer others the same experience. ??When I was still in Palestine I saw Gregory’s Girl, and I felt so close to the character of Gregory. He came from Scotland, Edinburgh, a place I have never seen in my life, and yet in this moment I felt a familiarity with Scotland [laughs].
I also recently saw Ken Loach’s new film Jimmy’s Hall. Even though Jimmy’s struggle took place a hundred years ago it is hard to believe just how much you become connected to that culture, the music when you watch the film. The influence of the jazz in the Irish music is amazing. For this reason I don’t know what I would do without movies, and the enrichment of experience that comes through them.
Waleed Zuaiter: In the U.S. there were people who didn’t know about the separation wall, the geography of it, and so we would hear questions being asked about that after the screenings of the film. What was a very smart choice was to not to put up any title cards explaining where they were or any other such information. What it did was it raised a lot of questions and curiosity. From that standpoint it was educational without being in your face, because you were just emotionally connected to the characters, and the wall became another character in the movie.
One of the successes of the film is the way in which you offset the personal with the national by creating an intimate love story enveloped within a larger story.
Waleed Zuaiter: One of the things that I was talking to Hany about recently was that in one of the chase scenes where he goes into somebody’s house, and the woman opens the back door to let him out, there is this sense of community, of communal struggle. Even if you don’t know somebody you are in the same situation, and people bond through this resistance and they help one another. I thought that was beautiful and a touch of genius. But Hany was telling me that some of that was influenced by filmmakers like Jim Sheridan.
Hany Au-Assad: That scene was featured in The Name of the Father when Daniel Day Lewis goes through the house and the woman helped him. Immediately I felt the importance of that scene because you feel that it is the correct response in that environment.
This is how by being open to other movies and experiences you are influenced whilst at the same time you are influencing others. It is by being open to other cultures and movies as well as experiences.
Whilst films can be identified as belonging to a particular country, they break down these boundaries transcending national identity to become a part of a cinematic culture or heritage where they ultimately belong to cinema.
Waleed Zuaiter: When I first read the script I was immediately connected to it on an emotional level. From this one world of cinema I found the one constant to be emotion. That is the one constant that we all share as human beings, and when we watch movies we want to be either inspired or emotionally moved. I reacted that way just from reading the script, and so I knew that we had something that was going to offer a powerful experience.
Hany Au-Assad: We all belong to different cultures, but as human beings we share the same values wherever we go – universal emotion and value. This is what I want to talk about in my films. Whilst there are different cultures across the world, we all share the same values and so it makes it easy to understand other cultures because they are all based on the same values in that they are human.
What experience do you hope audiences take away from Omar?
Hany Au-Assad: I personally leave it to the audience, because a good movie will allow you to become emotionally involved. You will also ask yourself questions, and the only thing I want from the audience is for them to feel the character, and to also ask questions. But I want you yourself come up with the answers, because the best way to learn is by discovering for yourself. So I want the audience to be emotionally involved in the story, but then for them to ask questions – whatever they want to ask, but just to ask questions about existential issues.
Waleed Zuaiter: I share the same feelings as Hany.
OMAR IS OUT NOW