by Esther CohenIn the middle of yesterday’s snowstorm on the East Coast, I had a conversation with the great Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Asad, director of Omar, who was on his way to the Academy Awards, where Omar is one of the five nominees for best foreign film. This is Abu-Asad’s second nomination. Omar has already won many prizes around the world. An unusual, moving story about love, politics, Palestinians, Israelis, and betrayal, Omar tells of a young Palestinian baker in love with beautiful young Nadia, his best friend’s sister. To visit her, he climbs over the large government wall that separates them both. It’s a film about love, deception, and impossible choices. To say too much would spoil the film, which is an absolute must-see. So is Abu-Asad’s last award winning film, Paradise Now, about two young suicide bombers. Abu-Asad, a tall warm man with a quick sense of humor, was an easy interview. Talking comes easily for him. We met in his hotel in midtown Manhattan.Jewish Currents: What would you most like to tell us as an award-winning filmmaker, as a Palestinian, and as an international artist?
Hany Abu-Asad: I am happiest talking about my movie. For sure I am a Palestinian director, and I take our situation and use it to tell a good story. This movie is an experiment for me. An experiment that is a mixture between a tragic love story and drama, but it’s also inside the genre of thriller where I tried to combine three traditions: American, French, and Egyptian. American thrillers are about being dynamic. All the time there’s movement. The French in contrast concentrate on the tension between close-ups and wide shots, the right angle and right cut explore the inner conflict. Egyptian films, like Al Karnayak and In Our House is a Stranger, Egyptian thrillers are the most humane.
Thrillers in general make archetypes of their characters. Characters aren’t real. They don’t eat, they don’t go to the bathroom, they don’t make jokes. Egyptians are able to keep high tension and still succeed in making jokes and maintaining the tension. Omar is a mixture of American, French, and Egyptian influences. I’ve learned from them all.
JC: Where does the enormous humanity come from in your films? People never lose their ability to be human, no matter what their circumstances.
HA: Humanity is a way of surviving. If you come from a difficult situation, you have to make light of it. If your life is already heavy, you have to make jokes to relieve your misery. Otherwise, you’ll die. You’ll find this is true all over the world.
JC: Where is your home?
HA: I have lived in Amsterdam, and in the States, in Los Angeles, and now I’m back in Palestine. I live in Nazareth again, my hometown. I’m really back home.
JC: Who are your favorite filmmakers?
HA: Historically I liked Bertolucci, Carlos Saura, Wim Wenders, Fassbinder, Coppola. Today I admire Iranian filmmakers Kiarostami and Farhadi, Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Todd Solondz, I like them all very much. And Alexander Payne. I loved Nebraska so much. It’s wonderful movie. It’s about people you don’t see very often in films. Real Americans. I don’t like films that tell me how and what to think. I like films that challenge your moral assumptions, or any kind of assumptions. I’m interested in challenging, and in being challenged too.
JC: In the American press, there’s recently been a lot of conversation about morality and art, what people do in their life and the work they produce. Is there a relationship between life and art and should there be? Woody Allen is a recent example. Can your work be the best part of who you are? What is the relationship between an artist’s private life and his or her work?
HA: I believe there’s a direct relationship between a person and his work. I am someone who tries to be consequential in the stories I try to tell. I don’t want to behave hypocritically against my own principles. We all have selfish tendencies, but our challenge is to become a better person, even in difficult situations. I don’t want to behave hypocritically against my own principles. If I think its morally wrong to steal, and then I steal, I won’t make a movie saying don’t steal. You have to restrain your immediate pleasures, your desire to have more and act on your principles.
Let me give you this example: Everyone told me that it would be easier for me if I didn’t criticize Israel. I’d have an easier time with my film. My agent, many people I deal with all the time, told me not to criticize Israel. But I can’t not be critical.
JC: Jews criticize Israel all the time.
HA: Yes but that’s very different. I am a Palestinian. It’s central to my identity.
JC: What advice to you have for young artists today?
HA: What matters is the human story. We forget that. I call our society one of the nouveau riche, where everything is measured in terms of money and power and success. We forget that what matters is humanity, and a good story.