Two-time Oscar nominee Hany Abu-Assad is used to making films that generate international attention, praise and controversy.
The Dutch-Palestinian director’s “Paradise Now,” a 2005 Golden Globe winner and best foreign film Oscar contender, was about two Palestinian suicide bombers en route to Tel Aviv. One changes his mind about the mission and one doesn’t.
His Oscar-nominated “Omar,” opening Friday at the Edina Cinema, also deals with the anti-Israeli insurgency, but its scope is broader and its story deeper. A propulsive thriller and a romance, it follows Omar’s courtship of a young woman, Nadia, and how that affair evolves after he’s arrested by the Shin Bet intelligence service.
The film shows the West Bank residents’ dream of peace and prosperity (huge billboards advertise consumer goods and portray happy, airbrushed Arab families) and the economic hardships that put the billboard life far out of reach.
Abu-Assad, 51, fervently loved films since the day he saw “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” as a teen, but he initially pursued the more practical path of engineering. He followed that career to the Netherlands, where he has spent half his life. It was there that he returned to his passion and in 1998 directed his first feature, a romantic comedy called “The 14th Chicken.”
That might seem an unlikely debut for a politically engaged filmmaker, but Abu-Assad represents a new wave of Israeli and Arab auteurs who don’t feel compelled to make every facet of their movies about today’s political turmoil. You could lift the characters in “Omar” out of their setting and put them in a Mafia milieu, and you wouldn’t have to change a thing.
“I think this conflict will end,” he said in a recent phone interview. “This year, next year, in 20 years, the conflict will die. And you don’t want your movie to die with it. This is why you are tackling bigger issues, human issues” of friendship, trust and betrayal.
Drawing on Shakespeare
He freely admits incorporating notions from “Romeo and Juliet” in the young lovers’ courtship, and “Othello” in the hero’s growing jealousy. “ ‘Omar’ is a tragic love story about a lover who makes a bad choice,” he said.
“These themes are stronger than life. Shakespeare died, but his stories are still in history because they are about themes that are bigger than us.”
Insecurity makes you fall in love, Abu-Assad said, as you become dependent on your lover for happiness. Insecurity also kills the love, he said, because it’s unattractive. “I felt it in ‘Othello’ and I tried to reinterpret it in a different time.”
The film’s other key influence is “The Godfather,” with its intricate web of loyalty oaths and coldblooded betrayals. Omar’s infatuation with the idea of armed rebellion thrusts him into a world of paranoia as he is pressured by the Israelis and trapped between rival Palestinian factions.
“Good drama is always based on conflict between desires and duty,” Abu-Assad said. “Omar’s conflict is between his desire for Nadia and his duty to his people, his country. All the characters,” including a tough but fallible Israeli intelligence officer, “are torn by the good and bad in them.”
As the complexity of Abu-Assad’s characters has grown so has the sophistication of his film technique. The film features breathless foot chases through claustrophobic, mazelike streets. They were a headache to shoot, he said, as locals made noise during many shots in hopes of getting hush money from the production. As far as Israeli officials were concerned, he met no resistance whatsoever.
“Maybe they think I am nothing, why should they interfere with me?” he said. “Israelis are humans who do these jobs in censorship or the secret service who could make your life uneasy. They’re not like evil, they’re people. I think they decided not to make my life difficult because someone will ask me how difficult it was and if I had many bad stories, they would be in a bad light. Now I have no bad stories.
“They are very happy,” he said with a chuckle, adding, “I am happy, too, by the way.”