Recently at the Dubai Film Festival, we grabbed some time with the Oscar-nominated Palestinian writer-director Hany Abu-Assad to talk about Omar, his deeply personal film about love, friendship and betrayal set in the shadow of the Israeli Separation Wall...
Did you become a filmmaker at least partly to make Palestinian stories like this?
That was one of the reasons. Another reason is I thought it would give me better sex appeal than being an engineer; it's very chic to be a filmmaker (laughs). The reality is, most human beings need to express themselves, through writing poems or writing novels or through music. I always felt I could express myself through visuals. So sure, I became a filmmaker to tell these kinds of stories because they're part of my life.
Are there elements of Omar drawn from your own life?
Yes. I grew up in a paranoid society [Assad was born in Nazereth, Israel. He lived there till the age of 19]. My parents would tell me, 'Be careful. Don't say anything to this person or that person; you never know who is working for the Secret Service'. You become very paranoid, you always think someone is spying on you.
Is that paranoia justified?
Yes, and I tried to show that in the movie. There is one traitor in Omar, but they killed another man because they thought maybe he told [the Secret Service] something, maybe because he just wanted to stop being beaten. One traitor makes the whole society paranoid. And also, one of the rules in occupying others is creating that paranoia.
You're saying it's a deliberate tactic?
Yes, it's a tactic, but not just Israel, but any occupying force. Even in places like England where they have all these cameras everywhere. They want you to know, 'We're watching you.'
Do you think if you hadn't become a filmmaker you'd have become more involved politically?
To be honest, yes, but not in such a direct way. When I was young I wanted to be a freedom fighter, but I was too sensitive for that. I was too fragile to fight, not a strong man physically. But the reason I wanted to be a freedom fighter is the same reason I wanted to be a filmmaker: I see injustice and I want to fight that injustice. People accept injustice because they think, 'Who am I to do anything? I'm too small.' Again, it's a tactic of an occupying force. Maybe I have a big ego and I think I can do something, or I'm just a brave man. I don't know, maybe both (laughs).
Do you feel Omar is a brave movie in its depiction of the Israeli security forces? It's uncompromisingly brutal, which is not something a lot of Western filmgoers are used to seeing.
That's actually not true. I treated my Israeli characters as human beings. It's the system that is evil, and there is no compromise on that. The system of occupation is evil and I don't need to make a movie in order to condemn that. Occupying other people is condemned with or without my movie. But if I made my Israeli characters evil, you could say, 'Okay, the system may be good; it's the people who are evil.' No. They are human beings. They have doubts and they have feelings, but they work for an evil system. I'm uncompromising on that, and I don't think the West wants to see that. Israel is a creation of the West and people still want to feel there is some justification for it; they don't condemn the occupation and the injustice of it. One of the most difficult things in life is to admit you made a huge mistake. The intellectual leaders of Israel are not stupid, they know what they are doing is a huge mistake, but it is so difficult to admit it. It's difficult for the West to admit that they thought they would have better interests in the Middle East with Israel, and now they are paying such a high price for it. They cannot accept that it has been a huge mistake.
What would you say is the biggest stumbling block to peace in the region?
Washington. Everybody thinks it rests with Israel or with the Palestinians. I think they are wrong. Real and lasting peace means dismantling the differences between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In Europe they fought two wars, and the end was in dismantling the differences. I didn't invent that. But who decides that is Washington. You really think the Zionist lobby is so strong. It's strong, but strong enough to go against the interests of the United States. If the United States decides that it's in their interests to dismantle the differences, they would do it over the phone.
Interview by Simon Braund