Hany Abu-Assad is a filmmaker of uncommon humility. In a professional field historically stocked with men wielding markedly bloated egos, the Palestinian director of Omar is surprisingly quick to own up to past insecurities, even “failures.” Centering around the eponymous character (Adam Bakri), a West Bank native caught in a swirl of doomed romance, loyalty to his rebel friends, and serving as an informant for Israeli intelligence, Omar arrives nearly a decade after Abu-Assad’s controversial Paradise Now, and less than a year after his last film, The Courier, an English-language thriller that never even made it to theaters. Though Omar is unmistakably political, making headlines not just for its plot’s hot-button conflicts, but for its ability to rile Israelis miffed over Abu-Assad’s heritage (he identifies as Palestinian, but is a native Israeli citizen), the director insists that he aimed to sideline politics in the film. And he insists that The Courier was never bound for success thanks to insufficient production values, a subpar script, and his own mistakes. It’s all part, he says, of his continuing maturation as a filmmaker—one who just happens to have a Cannes Jury Prize, a Golden Globe, two Oscar nods, and, oh yeah, a background in aerodynamics.
I saw Omar just before I went to Berlinale, and I kept thinking about it while I was there, because there are so many pieces of the dismantled Berlin Wall everywhere, and your film depicts a place where walls still very literally divide people. Can you discuss how you decided on the patch of wall we see Omar cross, specifically in the first shot?
I needed a place where you could see this wall divide the city in the middle, not just between two separate countries or something like that. Visually it’s very strong. The purpose of the wall in the movie is to visualize an obstacle. Every love story has obstacles that need to be overcome. In Romeo and Juliet the families are fighting, and in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? there’s the class difference and the race difference. Visualizing an obstacle like that can be difficult, but in my movie, I found it very easy, because there’s this huge wall [Omar] has to climb to get to his love, and it’s very powerful.
I found the chase cinematography, wherein Omar is evading Israeli officers through narrow city streets, to be really virtuoso work. Clearly some credit goes to your editors in giving these scenes their kinetic energy, but how did you and your cinematographer, Ehab Essai, execute these chases?
The main goal was to make chase scenes where the character development is above the chase—where, during these chases, the character gets to know something about himself every time. This is why you have to understand the place if you’re going to follow the character. We thought that, by doing it in narrow alleys, we’d visualize the claustrophobic situation he’s in. Also we decided to make it real in the sense that he has to jump from the wall, we have to go from one place to another, and the geometry is clear there. That’s why it feels more real and grounded. And with this you can empathize with the character—the claustrophobic element materializes in the sense that he’s trapped. He has nowhere to go.
Equally compelling for me was Adam Bakri, who, as Omar, proves himself essential as the film’s emotional anchor. I understand Adam has been at least somewhat groomed for the business, given that both his parents are actors, but how did he get on your radar?
The casting director reviewed him first. He was studying acting in New York, and she [corresponded with] him on Skype. She showed me the tape, and I thought, “Okay, let’s see if he’s willing to come.” He came in for a screen test, and I called him back several times to test him from every possible angle. I really wanted to see how he was able to emotionally carry this for me. And he really was the best choice, I think. I have no regrets in choosing him. He adds such dimension to the movie.
Was there a specific moment, or something that he achieved during this casting process, that assured you he was the right guy for the job?
Yes. Two things. First of all, when he was in the love scenes [with Leem Lubany] you could feel his vulnerability. But, then, when he was with his friends, he was more tough, and reckless. Showing both strength and vulnerability is difficult, and he was able to do that in a very convincing way.
In 2005, your film Paradise Now stirred up controversy, not just because of accusations of it possibly glorifying terrorism, but because of ownership issues rooted in Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Did you take any steps with Omar to avoid running into similar controversies?
Well, I’ve become older, and more mature—at least I hope I’ve become more mature—and I left the political discussion out of my movie. An interesting movie is not necessarily about the politics of that race, but the emotional journey of the characters. And the audience is able to evolve with those characters. And this is why I chose to keep the politics outside of the movie—in maturing, I realized I could make a good movie without necessarily involving politics.
Well, like Paradise Now, Omar has made its way to an Oscar nomination. It’s often strange to ask someone what they think about awards recognition, because obviously it’s an honor, but what does that honor convey to you about how your work is being received on an international level?
Well, first of all, it’s so important to distributors. They all strategize their campaign toward the announcement, and the announcement is so important to them. For me, it’s important for making the movie more accessible to a wider audience. A lot of people appreciate the nomination—the certificate of an Oscar nomination. They are more open toward your movie, and it helps you enormously to reach more viewers. Personally, it’s a great honor because you want to be part of the club. It’s very tough to be one of them. And then once you become one of them, you swear to God that you don’t belong to them. [laughs] But it’s an honor, of course. I’m very glad.
Your previous film, The Courier, was a straight-to-video action film with Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Now you’re headed to the Oscars with Omar. Some might say that’s a pretty extreme departure. Do you think this variety of projects reflects the multiple levels on which filmmakers can work and reach audiences today? And, if not, what does it reflect?
To me, it reflects that if the script is not good, I can’t make it a better movie. You shouldn’t compromise with a script, and you shouldn’t compromise with a production. If a production does not have enough money to execute your vision, you will be fucked. It’s a fact. Even if you are a good storyteller, that doesn’t mean you can make something from nothing. You still need to be depending on the right script, and depending on the team that can help you execute your vision. Also, Omar is in the same genre as The Courier, so it’s not like, “Oh, you changed genre, so you’re not good in this genre or that genre.” No, no, no. I think [the fact that] it’s in the same genre highlights the importance of the script. And also, I made mistakes. I grew up. I learned a lot from The Courier. I don’t regret it. What I learned from The Courier is more than what I learned from four movies combined together. I made some wrong choices in certain circumstances, and I tried to make a conventional movie, and this is why the movie wound up going straight to DVD. You learn from your failures.
I read that you studied aerodynamics years ago, and worked as an airplane engineer for some time. I was wondering, in what ways, if any, do that discipline and the discipline of filmmaking relate to one another?
[laughs] You know, I hope there is a connection because then I will not feel like I spent eight years of my life [as an airplane engineer] for nothing. [laughs] I wish there was some kind of connection. I don’t think I can use things from my aerodynamics engineering in my storytelling craft. It’s a completely different craft. In filmmaking you are relying on the interests of the viewers. In airplane engineering you are relying on exact science. You wouldn’t believe it: You take a movie like Omar, and you screen it in Canada, you’ll have a different reaction than if you screen it in…Portugal. You get very different reactions from the audiences. There is no science. It’s all about subconscious rather than conscious, I think.
The film, of course, get its heartbeat from this impossible romance that Omar is trying to preserve, and I appreciated the use of love notes in the film. It’s an element that’s not only necessary in this case, but also classic. Considering you seem to have a lot of classic storytelling interests to start with, is this just another reflection of your romanticism as an artist, beyond its basic plot logic?
Yeah, probably. When you do these things, you don’t do it with a clear, conscious goal of romanticism. You try to visualize romance, and text messages nowadays are less romantic. They are very cold, they are not secretive anymore. And notes, secret notes, can visually have tension in themselves. There’s no tension, really, in getting a text. But there’s a lot of tension in opening this paper, to read what’s in it.
Reportedly, you devised the structure of this story in four hours, in one night, and then completed the script in four days. For me, that insists this was a story you needed to tell. Why?
You have done your homework. I love it. This relates back to your question about The Courier. When I was making The Courier, I panicked, and the fear in me became so big. And I asked myself why I was not more invested in this movie. And my conclusion was that there was no urgency in telling the story. So I asked myself, “What is urgent?” And then it came in one night, all together. The panic then allowed the urgency to come out. And this story [of Omar] is very personal. I was once a victim of paranoia about similar issues I’d seen in the newspaper. And, for me, the urgency to tell the story came out during a panic attack I had one night. In four hours, I did the whole structure, and I have no idea why it come out so strong. I think it’s tied to…if you look at when someone panics, or when a mother panics because her child is in danger, she will be able to do things that, on normal days, she cannot do. I think this is what happened. I opened up, and used every possible bit of urgency and storytelling craft. And Omar is what developed.