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'Omar' production as full of twists as the movie itself

'Omar' director Hany Abu-Assad triumphed over multiple issues — financing, locations, problems with authorities, his own doubts — to get his Palestinian film made. The reward? An Oscar nomination.

March 05, 2014|Lorraine Ali
  • Hany Abu-Assad, right, is the director of "Omar," with actor, Waleed Zuaiter.
Hany Abu-Assad, right, is the director of "Omar," with actor,… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Hany Abu-Assad should be used to the tension by now. The Palestinian director has shot most of his films ("Paradise Now," "Rana's Wedding") in a region known far more for its conflict than its cinema, and his story lines often take place in between tangles of barbed wire and crowded checkpoints.

But filming "Omar" on the West Bank and in his hometown of Nazareth almost proved too much — even for Abu-Assad.

"At the end of the shoot, I told everybody, 'I'm not going to make another movie,'" said the director. "The financing, the crew, the locations, problems with the authorities. I was done. It was that stressful."

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During production, investors dropped out, refugee camp mobs sabotaged the shoot and Abu-Assad, 52, battled his own insecurity as his first Hollywood film, "The Courier," went straight to DVD.

Still, Abu-Assad and his all-Palestinian cast and crew stuck it out, and "Omar" made it all the way to the Oscars.

The film, completed for just under $2 million, was nominated for the foreign language film Oscar after winning a jury prize at Cannes and being selected to show at the Toronto and New York film festivals. It opened in late February in a surprisingly wide 70-plus cities across the U.S. and is scheduled to land in nearly two dozen more this month.

The Arabic- and Hebrew-language thriller follows young adult Omar (Adam Bakri) and three friends as their loyalty and trust is tested by the oppressive world in which they live. In typical Abu-Assad fashion, the characters feel familiar: They do Brando impressions, blow punch lines of jokes, dream of honeymooning in Paris.

But they are cut off from the rest of the world — and in some cases one another — by a towering wall that cuts through hundreds of miles of Palestinian and Israeli towns. They dodge rubber bullets and join armed resistance groups. When an Israeli soldier is shot, Omar is thrown in prison. He's given a choice: stay locked up for the rest of his life or gain his freedom by becoming a spy for Israeli forces.

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The story is propelled by nail-biting chase scenes over decaying rooftops and winding alleyways and punctuated with jarring plot twists. Abu-Assad said he learned how to craft this kind of high-tension suspense from studying American, French and Egyptian thrillers during his days as a film student in the Netherlands.

"In 'Omar,' the occupation is a backdrop to love, paranoia and betrayal," Abu-Assad said recently in a downtown L.A. restaurant. A formidable presence, his dark eyebrows often knit, he spoke in a gravelly monotone and his smiles did not come easily. "Everyone knows we do not need another movie about the occupation. What's important is, under extreme circumstances, what does life look like underneath it? What does love look like?"

With the exception of Palestinian American Waleed Zuaiter, "Omar's" main characters are played by actors who are from the region. The only experienced one of the bunch ("Sex and the City 2," "The Men Who Stare at Goats"), Zuaiter was raised in Kuwait and the U.S. and is now based in Southern California.

"When I first read the script, to me it was a Shakespearean tragedy," said Zuaiter, 43, who plays Israeli agent Rami in the film. In contrast with his intense lunch companion Abu-Assad, Zuaiter is easy and affable. "It was a very timeless, universal story. I read scripts about Palestine, but this was different. It was a story that could happen anywhere."

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Zuaiter also became the film's producer when investors pulled out a month into shooting. He turned to his brothers, professional investors, to help fund the project and find backers.

"It was a good and a bad thing," Zuaiter said of the pullout of their first investor. "It was bad because we lost a huge chunk of financing and delayed production for a good month and a half. We loaned out a good portion of our salaries. Hany took a loan himself. The good part? It's the first film to be 95% privately Palestinian funded." The other 5% came from a post-production fund provided by the Dubai International Film Fest.

Abu-Assad's first foreign language Oscar nomination was for 2005's "Paradise Now," a drama about the friendship and motivations of two would-be suicide bombers. The picture lost the Oscar, but its nomination was considered a breakthrough, given the film academy's previous refusals to nominate Palestinian movies in the category because the region was not considered a sovereign state. It became the subject of intense lobbying campaigns from both sides of the conflict. Finally, it was identified as representing the Palestinian territories.

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