Hany Abu-Assad made history seven years ago when he became the first Palestinian director shortlisted for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. After some debate over whether it would be credited as representing “Palestine” or “The Palestinian Authority”, the Academy settled on “The Palestinian Territories” – and although the film, Paradise Now, didn’t scoop the prize, it did pick up a Golden Globe in the same category.
Now, Abu-Assad, who was born in Nazareth and has lived in the Netherlands since the 1980s, has a second shot at winning one of Hollywood’s most sought-after statuettes. Among the 76 films that were submitted to the longlist for the 2014 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, his latest movie, Omar, was chosen as Palestine’s contender. It had already won the Special Jury Prize in its category at Cannes and went on to pick up Best Film and Best Director at the Dubai International Film Festival’s Muhr Awards just a few weeks ago.
Omar tells the story of a young, loved-up Palestinian who plots with his two best friends to shoot an Israeli soldier and ends up being captured and convinced by an Israeli spy to inform on them. Strangely enough, Israel’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Bethlehem, directed and co-written by the first-timer Yuval Adler, also tracks the relationship between an Israeli military officer and a Palestinian informant.
Although it won Best Film in its category at Venice, Bethlehem didn’t make it through to the second stage of the Oscar race; Omar was among the nine films that did. After the announcement in late December, Abu-Assad told The Times of Israel that he was surprised that both weren’t chosen. “It’s a good movie,” he said of Bethlehem. “I’m not happy with it politically, but politics shouldn’t decide whether a movie is good or not.”
At this point, there’s good news and bad for Abu-Assad’s chances of coming out on top. The good is that – unlike last year, when Michael Haneke’s Amour was a clear front-runner, with dozens of film festival trophies already bestowed on it pre-Oscars – there’s no one film that’s dominating the conversation. (The acclaimed French movie Blue Is the Warmest Colour won’t be eligible until 2015, because of its late release date in France.)
The bad is that there are plenty of other strong contenders. Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (Italy) has been repeatedly compared with Federico Fellini’s best work by critics and won Best Film, Director, Actor and Editor at the European Film Awards. The Hunt (Denmark) by the Dogme 95 co-founder Thomas Vinterberg, has a weapon in the form of its lead actor, Mads Mikkelsen, whom panel judges will recognise as the eponymous anti-hero of the NBC TV show Hannibal. Mikkelsen has already won Best Actor for The Hunt at Cannes.
Then there’s The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium), which won Best Screenplay and Actress awards at Tribeca and features a charismatic, bluegrass-playing husband and wife; and The Grandmaster, by the Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai, who previously made the internationally adored Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love. Others on the list come from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Germany and Cambodia.
In a strong year for Middle Eastern film, what’s surprising is that Omar doesn’t have any competition from movies made closer to home. Two films that were expected to make it onto the preliminary shortlist were The Past (Iran) by Asghar Farhadi, who won an Academy Award for A Separation in 2012, and Wadjda (Saudi Arabia) by Haifaa Al Mansour, which has generated an extraordinary amount of buzz in the US for a foreign language film. Omar is the sole remaining Middle Eastern (and Arabic-language) nominee in a European-dominated shortlist.
This shortlist will be whittled down further by a panel, to five, on January 16, when it will be handed over to Academy members to vote on, with the winner announced at the Oscars ceremony on March 2. If Omar makes it through, it will be the first Palestinian entry to do so since Abu-Assad’s last film, Paradise Now.
In previous years, members of the Academy had to watch all five films in a theatre to cast a vote: this year, they are being sent screeners to watch at home, which is making some participants anxious. There’s nothing to stop a member watching only one or two of the films and ticking the ballot anyway. It’s a move that may skew the results towards films that are better publicised or that feature famous stars.
“I know it’s just one big casino,” Abu-Assad told The Times of Israel, admitting that he was already nervous about the result. “I wish I could close my eyes and just wake up and it’s finished.”