Cinema has long been the instrument that gives voice to the powerless and the oppressed, with that in mind Hany Abu-Assad returns to his native Palestine after the US straight to DVD misstep: The Courier.
Omar (HAA’s second Oscar nomination after Paradise Now) is a genre thriller reflected through the prism of a love story that envelopes the mounting paranoia and criss crossing of allegiances that occurs within the struggle against Israeli occupation. Feted at Cannes last year (where it won the Prix du Jury in the Un Certain Regard section) and numerous other festivals, it screams to exist alongside that other great film of occupation, paranoia and betrayal: Jean Pierre Melville’s L’armée Des Ombres.
You studied aerodynamics and was an airplane engineer before becoming a filmmaker. Can you tell me a little about your journey to becoming a filmmaker?
I worked two years as an engineered and decided this is not the way I want to spend my life. I felt I needed more challenges in a creative way but I didn’t know in what. I quit my job and met a filmmaker from Gaza and I become his assistant and I decided this was the way I wanted to spend the rest of my life: making movies. I feel like it’s an accident but I have always had a passion for cinema, I started watching movies when I was very young and it became an addiction.
Most people will know you for your breakout film Paradise Now, which was nominated for an Oscar and you then you followed it up with The US thriller The Courier (which only received a DVD release here), but there was a long gap between the films. Why was that?
Actually after Paradise Now I was invited to the US to develop movies and I started to write projects. Many of those projects failed because they came from very artificial places, nothing coming from real life. So I spent 6 years in the US doing nothing and in the panic I decided I needed to do something I really wanted to do and I came up with Omar and it saved me from doing movies that don’t matter.
You have said that you learned more on The Courier than your previous films combined, what did you learn?
From your failures you learn more than your successes. When you have a successful movie you become lazy and you don’t exercise your brain, but when you fail you realise the limitation of your creative and your talent and the limitation of the business.
I read that you wrote the script in four days and came up with the structure in four hours, is this true?
I was in a panic that night, I woke up at 4am sweating like I have never been before. I asked myself why and I realised it was because I was doing nothing important just superficial work. So that night I started thinking about what type of stories I want to do and afterwards I thought about my experiences and about paranoia and the feeling that someone else is spying on you and giving information on you to the secret service and it may be true or not true but this feeling is really traumatic. So I started from that point, and then what is so similar to paranoia? It is a love story and when you have no trust with your lover. Then I started writing the structure within four hours I had it and four days later it was written.
The paranoia in Omar reminded me of certain Jean Pierre Melville films (Army Of Shadows/L’armée Des Ombres), was he an influence?
I was conscious of Jean Pierre Melville. Actually if you look to Omar it is influenced by three traditions of genre thriller. When I was developing the style of the film and even writing Omar I said OK it’s a love story bit I want to put it into a thriller genre. Then I said is it going to be an American thriller or French thriller or Egyptian thriller? I felt the Americans were very strong on the dynamic of the story but the paranoia in the French thriller comes from the picture itself and my biggest example there was Jean Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge and Le Samouraï and then I felt I needed more humour and I like the Egyptian thrillers so I put some of their humanity in there.
Would you describe Omar as being a Achilles like hero?
Omar’s dramatic flaw is that he doesn’t want to show his weakness and this stubbornness by not showing his weakness brought him to a very tragic ending.
The physicality of Omar (the film) is one of the defining characteristics of the film, the chase sequence and the wall climbing. How important was that?
The nature of the story dictates the physics of the film. Omar is a love story set in Palestine and then the wall is the symbol of the ultimate obstacle, because every love story has to have an inner obstacle and an outer obstacle; and that symbol was the wall.
What has been the reaction in Palestine to Omar?
I am very satisfied with the reaction. I felt I need to do a movie where Palestinians can identify themselves with the story. Of course the most difficult audience for the movie is the local audience because they know the reality and understand nuance and accents for example. Now Palestinians are the most difficult audiences because they know the situation over there better than anyone. So if I satisfied them I knew I had done a good movie, because I haven’t cheated too much. But the most important thing is not to give answer but only ask questions and allow the audience to come to their own conclusions.
How difficult is it for Palestinian filmmakers to make films at home?
The occupation is for sure limiting your life, freedom of movement, freedom of speech but on one hand occupation is an extra pressure as a filmmaker but sometimes art is served by oppression. Don’t misunderstand me I wish there wasn’t an occupation but oppression can truly be a source of inspiration which is sad but true.
What is happening with the US remake of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance that you are attached to direct?
I have dropped out of that for technical reasons. I have an American product I am casting, a Palestinian project I am writing and an Arab project that I am supervising.