Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad has been nominated for an Academy Award once before, but this time is different. With this film, a thriller called “Omar,” the academy is recognising a Palestinian film, from Palestine, for the first time.
Let me explain the significance. All of the films in the best foreign feature category are listed by country of origin. Technically, Palestine is not a country. It is occupied territory.
The last time Abu-Assad was nominated (for “Paradise Now” in 2006) Israel objected to naming “Palestine” as the country of origin and the academy caved in. They described the film as coming from the “Palestinian Territories.”
It may seem like a semantic distinction but for Abu-Assad, an Arab-Israeli citizen from Nazareth, it is an important one.
“Oscar is seeing that, even if we don’t have an independent country, still we have the right to submit our movies as an independent culture. And this is a step forward,” he told me on a recent visit to New York to promote the movie.
This time around there hasn’t been the controversy, perhaps because “Omar” is Palestinian through and through. Not only was a big chunk of it shot in the occupied West Bank. All of the cast and almost all of the crew is Palestinian. That was possible because 95 percent of the funding came from the Palestinian diaspora.
Palestinian-American Walid Zuiter, the only actor in the film with significant professional experience, helped raise the money. He’s played a terrorist in US television series like “Homeland” and the “Good Wife” as well as acting alongside George Clooney in ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats.”
In “Omar,” he is an Israeli agent who convinces Omar to turn on his friends in order to protect his love, Nadia.
“I am very encouraged by the response we’ve gotten from within Hollywood and around the world. But I think everyone is so encouraged by the movie because it’s a great story and not necessarily because it is a Palestinian perspective.”
The themes in the movie are universal: love and friendship, trust and betrayal. But the challenges the characters face are 100 percent Palestinian, from the separation wall Omar must climb to visit Nadia, to the humiliation and abuse he experiences at the hands of Israeli soldiers.
Abu-Assad says he set out to make a good movie first and foremost, not necessarily a political statement.
“Movies are meant to entertain,” said Abu-Assad. “You can entertain and educate, what I try to do, but first of all you have to entertain.”
With “Omar” he has accomplished both, whether he takes home the Oscar or not.