Interview: Hany Abu-Assad
It’s been over a decade since the filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad shifted from documentary to fiction with Rana’s Wedding (02) and then tested the boundaries between the two with Ford Transit (03), early in the wave of such hybrid treatments. The suicide bomber tale of Paradise Now (05) was next, igniting its own controversies, though relative silence followed until Abu-Assad tried his hand at a mainstream thriller with The Courier (12). But with Omar (the subject of a previous Hot Property and now distributed by Adopt Films), the director is thankfully back in action, hitching the physical, emotional, and moral turmoil of Palestinian resistance to the tension of a sure-handed thriller, as a headstrong young man gets reeled in by Israeli intelligence and struggles to keep his loved ones out of it.
FILM COMMENT spoke with Abu-Assad about Omar last October at the New York Film Festival, but the conversation began with the intriguing news of another forthcoming project…
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
I read you have another movie lined up. Is that Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance?
I am developing three projects. I will not make the same mistake as Paradise Now… In Europe, you work on one project, then you develop it and make it. Here, you have to have several projects in development and see which one is going to come first. Otherwise, you’ll be waiting years to see what will happen. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance really fits in the trilogy that I’m trying to make. Paradise Now was “live in shame or die” and Omar “live in guilt or die” and then Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance “live in agony or die.” Revenge is a very complicated and interesting issue. [Park Chan-wook] had done it in several movies, amazingly uncompromised, and now it’s going to be a challenge to keep it that uncompromised.
Park’s movies are unreal, the way the violence is intensified, operatic. Is that something you want to try?
No, first of all, it’s been done. Why should you remake it? And second, I don’t like to expose violence in a way that it's operatic, as if it’s so clean to see. I mean, it’s been done. It’s fascinating to watch it, but I don’t want to make it. What’s interesting to me is the whole theme of vengeance—that you’re doomed. You need it but you know it’s not good. It’s like a drug you need, but you know you won’t be a better man for it.
It’s also an interesting subject in the American cinema, which glorifies it without any redemption. Revenge in our modern society is big, but we can’t do anything about it except for in the movies. In real life, if we did it, it would have huge consequences in our lives. It’s interesting to look at it like in a fantasy, in stories.
This brings us back to Omar, because there you see how the violence is part of a larger cycle. How did you come up with the scenario? Had you heard about people caught in these situations?
Actually, [it was through] myself. When we were shooting Paradise Now, I thought there was a traitor inside the crew giving the army information. Maybe it was true, maybe wasn’t, but I started to suspect people in my own crew. Because wherever we went, whatever plan we had, the army was there. Maybe by accident, maybe it’s the army’s job to be there! But you start to suspect people, and it’s a very horrible feeling—a nightmare. I started to sleep somewhere else, because I thought maybe they had tapped my hotel room. I started to put my phone somewhere else, because they might use your phone.
When you become paranoid, you start to believe the unbelievable.
Later, the head of the secret service in Israel gave an interview, and said it’s very important to give this paranoia to society, because they restrain themselves. Because if you think they are everywhere, you do nothing. He said: “You don’t need to do a lot sometimes.” And I felt like, this is important! Trust and paranoia, and losing trust in yourself and society and others—it is a state of mind that I lived with, and I know exactly what it is. I was somebody raised whose parents said: “Be careful. You can’t trust anybody because their parents might work for the secret service.” This is how we grew up. You need just one traitor in society, and he will create panic, because you don’t know who it is.
Second, a friend of mine was once approached by the secret service, and they said: “We know your secrets. If you don’t work with us, you’ll be damned by your own society.” And I thought immediately, this is a good drama. What is good drama exactly? It is when somebody has to act when he’s trapped, and whatever he will do, he is fucked. If he will not betray, he is fucked, and if he betrays, he’s fucked. And actually the choice between your own interests and the interests of others is a very important issue in our society—all over, not just in Palestine. When you betray society to save yourself, and what is the prize for that?
This is why I decided to make this movie. Personally because I know paranoia, and second, the real stories from life are so full of drama, without being artificial. Because sometimes you want a drama, and you make an artificial conflict. This is not an artificial conflict! The ending, for example, I read it in the newspaper.
How have people in Palestine reacted to the film?
They know the stories—everything was believable, which is very difficult, because the most difficult place to make the people believe in your own story, is the place where you made the film. Because they can see: “Oh, this building is very far from the other building.” Especially when films are made about cops—and most of the cops will tell you, “Oh, the crap on television.” Almost everybody came to me—people who were in jail, people who lived these stories, normal people who just heard about these stories—they came to me and they said: “Wow, I was so happy with it.” This is the test, if you made a movie that comes from life or not: it’s in the place itself. It was surprising, because all the parties there, even parties that are an enemy, felt like it’s a realistic movie.
The Israeli interrogator is a fascinating character. He can be sympathetic, even trusting, and that becomes a way for an audience to connect. How did people react to that depiction?
Some Palestinians felt that I humanized him too much. But see, I don’t care. Most of those people said: “You are too soft. Reality is harsher.” This is the critique that I get: the reality of the jail, the reality of the torture.
That it’s worse in real life?
Because it seemed pretty bad.
I explain to them that it’s not the job of the movie. It’s very important to be believable, but it’s not the job of the movie to make a copy of the reality. On the other hand, I felt like the Palestinians are traumatized. They can’t see that the people who torture them have kids, and they care about their kids. Which makes their actions even more horrible! I think by humanizing them, their actions become more horrible. It’s like: “How can you do this to someone else when you have a daughter in kindergarten?”
But this is all politics after the movie. When you do the movie, you don’t calculate it this way. You do it according to how you can make your character, first, believable, second, conflicted, and third, with an arc. All the characters in your movie should learn something about themselves. And this is why I do it! Not because my job is to humanize or not humanize them. They are humans, whether you like it or not, but my job is to look beyond this—what they learn from this.
Omar is an interesting character in that respect. He does have an arc, but at the same time he is very stubborn, and sticks to his principles.
Yes, this is his tragic flaw, actually. That he doesn’t want to admit that he’s weak. The more you want to show your strength, the more you go out in the shit, actually. [Laughs] The more you want to show you are bigger than the problem, the more you are not handling the problem well. But this is also a classic way of making characters. From Citizen Kane to Michael Corleone. These characters, they don’t want to admit to themselves that they are weaker than they thought they are. They think: “One more time, and I’m out.” Stubborn.
You have a compelling actor in Adam Bakri as Omar. Can you talk about casting him?
He comes from a family of actors. His father, his brother. He never did a movie before, but he had experience in stage acting. He studied at [Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute]. But he went through a very tough screen test. He came once, and did another call, and third, and the fourth with all characters. A lot of coming back until he proved that he could handle every aspect of his character—mentally, physically, emotionally.
“Physically” is key, given the chase scenes. The action is really effectively staged, and reminded me of the chase scenes in Point Break.
I think the most important thing in any action scene is that it has to be part of the character development. If it’s just for excitement, then it’s like “I’ve seen this before.” But it’s really about Omar trying to understand what’s going on, and you can feel his feeling of being trapped. In the first chase, you can understand that he’s not as strong as he thought he was. And the second one, he understands that he can’t rely on his own physicality—he can jump and run, but he needs to be smart.
It’s also in his home area. It’s familiar to him, so that’s why he can hide.
Yeah, it’s true. The second one was deliberately around his area. And you can feel it. He’s more confident.
Was this filmed in Nazareth, mostly?
The second chase is home in Nazareth. The first one is in a refugee camp al-Far’a in the middle of the West Bank. Five locations: Jerusalem, Nablus, the refugee camp al-Far’a, Nazareth, and Bisan where we built the jail.
What was it like shooting the climbing scenes at the wall?
We were allowed to shoot to a certain height. We weren’t allowed to go to the other side of the actual wall: we had permission just to climb to a certain point. We built the last two meters somewhere else, in Nazareth, and shot that there. The wider shot is the real one.
They didn’t want people to know that you could climb it?
Actually, it’s because they are wired. First of all, you have to understand that the wall is not between the West Bank and Israel. It is really between Palestinian villages in the West Bank. For a lot of people it’s confusing because they think—and Israel sold this idea—that it’s between the West Bank and Israel. But it’s not. It’s really surrounding the Palestinians and controlling them in ghettoes. This is the reality, and go and watch if you don’t believe me. It’s unbelievable! Second, when people started to climb—not everybody, not me, for example, I’m too old—but when young people started to climb, they started to shoot at them. Then they had to patrol all the time. The solution was to put up wires. We did it in a way that you can’t see the wires. We faked it—because one time in history, you could climb. Now? Not anymore.
You’re based out of Nazareth, right?
I live now in Nazareth. I used to live in Holland, I lived in L.A. for a while. Now I’m back in Nazareth. I am more busy with my family. With my mother and brothers—I don’t have kids. You know, I’m busy with friends. You are inspired by real people, in order to make good writing. You need to be surrounded by real characters, not people who are connected to the movie business.
What does your family think of your movies?
They love it. And I’m happy for that. Paradise Now created a huge controversy, and a discussion, and this is very good and healthy. People appreciate that, when you start a discussion. Whether it is good, bad. Is it just an act of terrorism, is it just an act of resistance. Omar is in contrast, they feel very proud [because] they feel like this is a unique thriller. They didn’t see this before.
It’s actually a mixture between two genres: a love story and a thriller. But also, the thriller in itself is unique because it’s a mixture of the American dynamic, like The Firm, and the French aesthetic of thrillers like Le Cercle rouge. The American thrillers of Sydney Pollack, like The Firm, have a dynamic feeling in the mise en scène. But sometimes in the same scene I’m also doing the French [style], where there are extreme close-ups, and they are all static, and there is this tension between close-ups and wide shots. It’s how I felt. It’s not a rational thinking. What I felt I should do, I did
And there’s the Egyptian humor in the thriller, which is very unique. The Egyptians made Al karnak, or A Man in Our House, with Omar Sharif. The Egyptians and their thrillers, there is humanity in it—characters can still be banal and make jokes. Which is amazing. I learned from them how you relieve the tension and get back to it immediately, with a new energy. An amazing thriller. You should see it.
The people [back home] felt there is a unique thriller here. You know, they all live in a state of suspicion—who’s the traitor in our society—because we are all busy with that. We don’t speak about it, but we are starting to speak about it now. It’s a good reaction when you start to realize that suspecting people are traitors because of your paranoia is very damaging to the people and to yourself, to the relationships. This movie started to create a debate about paranoia and betrayal. The reaction in Palestine is much better even than Paradise Now.
I wanted to ask about one more actor, Leem Lubany, who plays Omar’s love interest, Nadia. She’s terrific, and a newcomer. How did you find her?
Casting director Juna Suleiman found her. We tested endless girls, but Leem was terrific.
What were you looking for in that character?
Innocence. It was important for this character to be an innocent, very virginal. Because if you have some experience in life, you might not react the same way I wanted her to react. I wanted Omar and Nadia to be very vulnerable. Because the current generation, they are really lost, for a very simple reason. The previous generation, the revolutionary generation, in the Sixties, even the people in the West, all promised us revolution, justice. We’re going to free ourselves from consumer society, we’re going to become socialist. All these big things—they all failed.
And even in the West, what do they do now, the parents? Most of the parents left their kids to be prey to the consumer society. All the slogans—anti-consuming, flower power—all these parents were there. And they are in shame, I think, of themselves. Now, our society is even worse, because our parents—I am in the middle—they all shouted, “We’re going to free Palestine.” This is why it’s really about a vulnerable people, the new kids: their parents feel ashamed, there is no connection between the two generations, and they are being left alone. I felt it’s my duty to expose their vulnerabilities, because young people don’t have the experience at making decisions. That could become fatal, destructive. One decision of theirs could become a huge disaster for their future. This is why I chose young people.