Among the numerous facts and figures being bandied about as the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) celebrates its 10th anniversary, there’s one that will give Hany Abu-Assad cause for joy. When the festival kicks off on Friday night at the Madinat Arena with the screening of his film Omar, the Palestinian director will become the first filmmaker to have opened DIFF twice. And there’s good reason for him to be pleased. Shortly after his acclaimed Paradise Now opened the festival in 2005, the film – about two men preparing for a suicide attack – went on to win the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and became the first Palestinian film to be nominated for an Oscar, propelling Abu-Assad into a new league of international filmmakers.
“It was a great experience,” says Abu-Assad, from his home in Nazareth. “I felt this was the first time the film was opening a festival. I have good memories about the festival – it has a special place in my heart.”
DIFF could go on to claim a bigger space in Abu-Assad’s heart this year. Omar is Palestine’s entry to the next Academy Awards in the Foreign Language category and the signs are there that it could make it through to the final round once more. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, where it received a standing ovation and won the Un Certain Regard jury prize, going on to screen as a special presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival and embarking on a multi-nation tour. Two DIFF openings and two Oscar nods wouldn’t be a bad ratio. Another hat tip to Dubai? The film was part-financed by the festival’s very own Enjaaz post-production fund.
“It came in at a very early stage and was really crucial to the film,” says Abu-Assad. “Without Enjaaz, we couldn’t have closed the film’s financing. It helped get the movie made.”
Described as a “white-knuckle thriller”, Omar is a powerful love story set against the backdrop of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Played spectacularly by Adam Bakri, the titular character is a young, thoughtful baker who is in love with Nadia (Leem Lubany). When he agrees to cross the wall on a mission into the West Bank with Nadia’s militant brother and a mutual friend to kill an Israeli solder, it’s largely to gain enough respect to ask for her hand in marriage. But things spiral out of control following Omar’s capture and torture at the hands of the Israelis, forcing our protagonist to face the option of betraying his friends in exchange for freedom and the chance to save his love’s honour.
Filming took place within the West Bank and Israel. “All the West Bank is part of Palestine, and this is why we shot in Nablus and Nazareth, as well as a refugee camp between Jenin and Nablus – Far’a,” says Abu-Assad. “The crew was also mixed, from the West Bank and inside the 1948 Green Line.”
Recent political upheavals across the Arab world have seen an explosion in cultural expression from the region, but it’s still the relatively small Palestine Territories that are making perhaps the biggest noise in the film arena. Alongside Abu-Assad, there’s Annemarie Jacir, whose latest drama When I Saw You has been screening across the world in the past year, while Emad Burnat’s documentary 5 Broken Cameras has won numerous awards, narrowly missing out on an Oscar in February. This year’s DIFF features an entire panel discussion on Palestinian film, featuring Abu-Assad alongside his fellow festival returnee Cherien Dabis (May in the Summer, Amreeka), Rashid Masharawi (Palestine Stereo) and Mais Darwazah (My Love Awaits Me by the Sea). Abu-Assad will also be giving a keynote speech.
“The whole Palestinian issue has become part of the Middle East more clearly than in the past and this is a positive thing,” explains Abu-Assad. “We are Arabs and we are one nation, perhaps even more united than one nation. Europe united themselves with different languages, but we have one language, one culture, one dominant religion. When human beings are united, they can protect themselves better, divide their knowledge better, control themselves better and live in dignity better. It’s a threat to the West, which is why they’ve been promoting for 100 years the idea of us becoming states and tribes.”
Should Abu-Assad and Omar make it to Los Angeles in February remains to be seen, but it’s clear that the fame and glory that followed Paradise Now – acclaim that saw the director head off to Hollywood, only to be hit by a writers’ strike and then forced into directing the direct-to-video flop The Courier – are unlikely to have the same effect again. Having returned from California to his native Nazareth, he has no plans to leave. “I feel at home here.”