Omar is a young Palestinian baker who often climbs the Israeli-built security barrier that divides his hometown — to visit his secret Israeli love, Nadia. After he's arrested and accused of the murder of an Israeli soldier, he starts working as an informant for Shin Bet, the Israeli secret service; it's a dangerous game Omar plays, one that brings trust, love and friendship into question.
That's the central story of director Hany Abu-Assad's new film, Omar, which is only the second Palestinian film ever to be nominated for the Oscar in the foreign-film category. The first such film to receive that distinction — also directed by Abu-Assad — was Paradise Now in 2006. NPR's Rachel Martin spoke with the director, and with Adam Bakri, the actor who plays Omar.
On the inspiration for the film
Hany Abu-Assad: When I was filming Paradise Now I thought they were spying on me, and I thought there was a spy or a traitor inside my crew. And I become very paranoi[d], and that actually motivate[d] me later to do Omar. Because when you lose trust in your crew and you don't know exactly who is the traitor, you become insane. And it might be also not true, like there was no traitor. But the paranoia lets you believe in the unbelievable, and I thought that this was very interesting to do a movie about.
On which scene reveals most about Omar's character
Adam Bakri: My favorite is the scene on the wall, where Omar can't climb the wall anymore, and an old man helps him climb the wall — towards the end of the movie. ... Because all of a sudden this wall represents everything that prevents him from doing the most simple thing, which is love and living like everybody else. People would actually think it divides Israel from the West Bank, but actually it also crosses through Palestinian towns in the West Bank, and it divides neighbors from each other. Even when I did the scene and I was standing in front of the wall, it hit me, the meaning of this huge thing that you see every day. And that they see every day in the West Bank. It almost covers the sun.
On what is most poignant about 'Omar'
Abu-Assad: Most of the people in the West Bank, they have no travel documents to go anywhere. And they can't even see the sea. The sea is just 15 kilometers far from them, but they are not allowed to go to there. They are stateless. And I think when you are born and raised in such a climate, you want to get out — it doesn't matter how. And if you [get] in trouble and the secret service will give you this visa to go out, you might find it a good reason to betray your friends.
You know, the whole movie is actually the conflict between the duty and the desire of human beings. And your inner conflict between what you want and what is your duty toward others. Toward your love, toward your friends, your country. And always I find these kinds of conflicts more interesting than the conflict with the outside obstacle — in this case the Occupation — because the Occupation's just the catalyst who makes this relationship more intense.
On the role of the Occupation in the film
Abu-Assad: Artists are very sensitive to their situation. They try to be honest to what their daily life looks like. And the Occupation is dominating our entire life. And if you want to be honest to your situation, you have somehow to include it in your story, even though I thought ... this occupation will end, and die soon, hopefully. And I don't want my movie to die with it. I put it really in the background, in the sense like what this occupation do[es] with people, with universal feelings like friendship, love, trust, and betrayal. And I think that the story can happen anywhere in the world, even without the Occupation.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Trust is the foundation of relationships. Binding together friends, lovers, even political allies. And when that trust is betrayed, those binds fray or disintegrate all together. That theme is at the center of the Oscar-nominated film "Omar," directed by Hany Abu-Assad. Adam Bakri plays the main character Omar, a young Palestinian man separated from his girlfriend by a towering concrete wall. The wall not only divides Israel from the West Bank but it crosses through Palestinian towns, dividing neighbor from neighbor. The film is deeply personal for Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad. It grew out of filming his earlier movie, "Paradise Now," which went on to win an Academy Award. During the filming, Abu-Assad suspected he had been the victim of a betrayal.
HANY ABU-ASSAD: When I was filming "Paradise Now," I thought there was a spy or a traitor inside my crew and I become very paranoia. And that actually motivate me later to do "Omar," because when you lose trust in your crew, you become insane. And it might be also not true, like there was no traitor, but the paranoia lets you believe in the unbelievable, and I thought this was very interesting to do a movie about.
MARTIN: So, he did. But he framed the issues of trust and betrayal with a love story.
ABU-ASSAD: Omar is a young Palestinian, 22, baker, and he loves Nadia and is separated by a wall, and he do everything to give his love. It's a love story actually.
MARTIN: It's his motivation to see this young girl, Nadia, that compels him to climb this wall. But at the same time, he goes there under the auspices of planning some kind of attack with Nadia's brother and their other friend. Is he more motivated by the antipathy toward the occupation or his love for Nadia?
ABU-ASSAD: Well, the occupation is separating Nadia from him and his duty and also to get his lover, he have to resist the occupation. It's resisting the occupation and also it's an act of coming closer to his lover.
MARTIN: Do people do what he did, climb those walls on a regular basis?
ABU-ASSAD: They used to. Nowadays, most of the wall is now covered with also wires and you can't climb anymore. And this is why they put the wires. But in the beginning, when there were no wires on top, you could easily climb. Not easy - young people could do that.
MARTIN: I want to ask you about another scene, this one where Tarek - this is Nadia's older brother - Omar and their friend Anjun, they've discovered a man in the West Bank who has ratted them out to the Israelis for the promise of a visa to go to New Zealand. Can you tell me what was poignant to you about that particular scene?
ABU-ASSAD: First of all, it's resembling reality. Most of the people in the West Bank, they have no travel document to go anywhere and they can't even see the sea. You know, the sea is just 15 kilometers far from them but they are not allowed to go to there. And I think when you are born and raised in such a climate, you want to get out, it doesn't matter how. And if you come trouble and the Secret Service will give you this visa to go out, you might find it like a good reason to betray, you know, your friends. This is first. And secondly, I find it kind of funny. It's a very brutal scene, you know, they beat him. But on the one hand, like, where is this New Zealand? They don't know even where is this New Zealand. Because I like to do this, you know, in a very tough, tragic moment to have a comic relief that you can build the tension again.
MARTIN: It's also - it struck me as representing another kind of tension. Doing what you're supposed to do for the group, for the collective, for your people, and at the same time feeling torn because there are other things that you want to do for yourself and to preserve your own sanity. And those two seem to stand in tension in this film.
ABU-ASSAD: Yeah. Because the whole movie is actually, the conflict between the duty and the desire of human beings and your inner conflict between what you want and what is your duty toward others, toward your love, toward your friends, your country. And always I find these kind of conflicts more interesting than the conflict with the outside of (unintelligible), in case the occupation, because the occupation is just (unintelligible) who makes this relationship more intense.
MARTIN: You have described this film, Hany, as a love story. But the conflict, the occupation, is so intrinsically linked in the public's mind to the Palestinian people. Does that limit you in some way? Does it always have to be about the conflict, to some degree?
ABU-ASSAD: Again, not really. I think, you know, you have the love and days of Cholera and Omar's love and days of occupation. Artists are very sensitive to their situation. You know, they try to be honest to what their daily life looks like. And the occupation is dominating our entire life. And if you want to be honest to your situation, you have somehow to include it in your story, even though I thought, like, you know what? This occupation will end and die soon, hopefully. And I don't want my movie to die with it. I put it really in the background in the sense like what this occupation do with people, with universal feelings, like friendship, love and (unintelligible). And I think this story can happen everywhere in the world even without the occupation.
MARTIN: The Oscar-nominated film "Omar" is in theaters now. Director Hany Abu-Assad joined us. Thank you so much for making time to talk with us about the film.
ABU-ASSAD: Thank you, too.
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MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.