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Hady Abu-Assad brings the Palestinian reality to Cannes Festival with Omar

By Leona Vicario - June 17, 2013
Section: [Main News] [Culture] [Features]
Tags: [culture] [cinema]

The "Omar" crew at the Cannes International Film Festival.


The Palestinian film Omar, the latest feature by Palestinian director, Hady Abu-Assad (Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee for his feature film, Paradise Now), received an award in the Un Certain Regard category during the last round of the annual Cannes International Film Festival.

The prize recognizes young talent and innovative work. By awarding it this time to the film Omar, the jury allowed for the exposition of the inherent complexities found within the West Bank, the long-entrenched conflict found therein and its impact on love and friendship.
Not available yet to the general public, the film focuses on three Palestinian friends— Omar (Adam Bakri, Paradise Now), Amjad (Samer Bisharat) and Tarek (Eyad Hourani) — who mark a breaking point in their lives by carrying out an act of vengeance brought on by internal and external circumstances. "The plot comes from this military country [Israel]; a country which behaves in a military way. There is also the wall between families and friends in the West Bank and Israel which separates the continuity of life,” the Palestinian actor Eyad Hourani explains. 
However, director Abu-Assad insists that the film is not about politics: "It is really about when you make a decision — a not well prepared decision — what the consequence of that is. It is about human behavior rather than political discussion."
Eyad agrees that the film is based on the characters' feelings, constrained by ever present physical and psychological barriers. "These three friends are worried about the Israeli military harassment over the population and the possibility that this mistreatment just continues and they do not stop. So they organized to kill a soldier as response to this continuous situation," Eyad explains. 
After the assassination, the Shin Bet (the Israeli intelligence organization responsible for internal security within Israel and the West Bank, also known as the Shabak) begins an investigation to find out who is behind the murder. Omar, who is madly in love with Tarek's sister, Nadja (Leem Lubany), is detained by the military police in relation to the event. 
Subsequently, Omar is tempted to betray his beliefs and feelings, in an attempt to deal with an imposed military system that tries to divide the society from within; breaking the environment of trust within the Palestinian community, thus turning them into isolated and suffocated human beings focused solely on personal welfare. 
Promoting the Palestinian culture from Palestinian efforts
Omar was filmed both in the West Bank and Israel proper (Nablus and Nazareth). 90 per cent of the staff working on the project is Palestinian and it is the first film funded completely by Palestinian money.
The American-born actor Waleed F. Zuaiter (The Men Who Stare at Goats), who also stars in the film, created the independent film production company, ZBROS LLC, along with his two brothers, which has bet on Omar as its first production. Along with a handful of private investors, the company found support from the Dubai International Film Festival during the post-production process.
With a modest budget of $2 million, this new project may potentially open the doors to an artistic industry that has, until now, remained in the hands of external supporters, sometimes even related to larger corporations. "There are not too many opportunities here. The artists wait for organizations like the Cinema [Jenin] or the [Freedom] Theatre but they are in need of funds from outside. So if they get them fine but if not, there is nothing to do. And this is a problem because the Palestinian Authority does not give funds for productions; they do not support actors or cinema. They do not pay attention to culture,” regrets Eyad, the film’s only actor living within the occupied territories. 
As many others, Eyad is one of the artists who began his artistic path in the porverbial creative factory known as the Jenin Freedom Theatre. In the heart of one of the most mistreated areas of the West Bank, particularly during the second Intifada, the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin Refugee Camp gives Palestinian youth the tools not only to explore their lives and develop their ideas, but also to analyze their own reality from an artistic point of view. It is impossible for Eyad to tell the difference between his reality and the role that he plays in the movie. "I am Tarek and Tarek is me. We both share the same circumstances: we are both at the same age; we are stuck in a place between walls and war.” 
In Eyad’s opinion, culture should be the working framework within which to develop Palestinian resistance. “Culture is the way, the only way for us. We, as Palestinians, do not have this military system as Israel does. We cannot use guns in front of Israel, the situation is unequal. They have a 'gun culture’. We use politics and they have war," Eyad points out. "They are controlling and we do not get anything from them through politics. So we have the way of culture resistance but it does not come in days, it comes in years after years. The generation has technologies that can be used to express our live, our circumstances around the world and also to develop this small thing, the small ideas of change," he wishes.
"The first thing that we need is culture: cinema, music, theatres, schools, etc. These matters should be developed. But we are weak in these areas; we are just trapped between Israel and a hard life to face: no money, no job opportunities, etc," Eyad regrets. "Our situation is not just about politics, simplifying that Israel kills our people and we hate them and always the same. The culture is necessary to explore our life. We need to life the live and our freedom. But instead of that, in 2013, we are under occupation and a military country controls us still." He already faced the physical barriers and the occupation’s pitfalls when he needed to ask Israel for permission to leave the country and join the film crew at the Cannes Festival. 
The actor remembers how culture was never something detached from Palestinian life; however, more than 60-years of conflict have weakened cultural strengths, and instead, focus is now placed on mere survival. "Palestinians used to be aware about the importance of culture. But nowadays there are not too many opportunities left to enjoy culture: to go to the cinema, to the theatre, to a festival… Ten years ago there was a war right here [Ramallah] with the tanks in the middle of the street, the schools were closed down…This stopped the development of the community." 
Asked about the message that he hopes Omar transmits to the public, Eyad relates his own, as well as Tarek’s (his character in the film) opinion. “We face hard circumstances in a hard place. The wall over our land, which separates our families, the laborers… They [Israel] want us separated (…).A film does not die. With a film you can reach the entire world. And I would like people to understand our situation. Look at the Palestinian life. Do not learn about it from politics or from TV. I would like that the idea that they have about Palestine would come from the life. Come to visit and see the truth.”

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