Thursday, January 16, 2014

PSIFF 2014: OMAR (2013)—The Evening Class Conversation With Actors Adam Bakri and Waleed Zuaiter

Hany Abu-Assad's Omar (2013) [site]—shortlisted for the foreign language category at the Academy Awards®—and Yuval Adler's Bethlehem (2013) [site]—Israel's official submission—are, essentially, bookend collaborationist narratives situated on either side of the Separation Wall, with forays back and forth to complicate matters. Both films excel at drawing attention to the increasingly commonplace practice of Israeli secret agents manipulating Palestinians into collaboration. It's interesting to note that both Israeli agents—Waleed Zuaiter as Agent Rami in Omar, and Tsahi Halevi as Agent Razi in Bethlehem—are depicted as seductive, handsome, irresistible men, a new kind of sleek evil in authoritative garb in service to the nation-state; whereas, the manipulated Palestinians are depicted as emotionally troubled and fractioned in the Israeli film, but heroic, lithe and crafty in the Palestinian film. Both narratives, however, soberly demonstrate the damage caused to both sides by collaborationist tactics.

Bethlehem plays its political angles by the numbers yet offers insight into how feuding Palestinian factions have complicated the peacekeeping mission. A raid by Israeli soldiers into Palestinian Bethlehem makes for a particularly exciting sequence, brilliantly choreographed, where a riot all but foils an assassination plot. For my money, however, Omar is the more interesting film for skillfully conflating its political agendas into a poignant love story where suspense mounts not from expected political tensions, but from the suspected betrayals of loved ones. Is the central romance between Omar and his beloved Nadja (Leem Lubani) traitorous? Up to its final explosive scene, the audience is never quite sure. Newcomer Adam Bakri is stunning in the titular role, with a character arc that leaps from charmingly defiant—scaling up and over the Separation Wall by rope—to a deeply wounded man devastated by fate and betrayed into believing the unbelievable.

Both films are highly recommended; but, it's clear to me why Omar is among the final five, already winner of a Special Jury Prize at Un Certain Regard, Cannes Film Festival (where the film received a standing ovation). At Fandor's Keyframe Daily, David Hudson has crafted a critical aggregate of reviews from last Fall's New York Film Festival screening. What follows is a conversation cobbled from the film's Q&A at the 2014 edition of the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) and sit-down conversations with both actors in the festival's press lounge. All photos courtesy of Adopt Films, except where noted.

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Photo: Irene Cho
Michael Guillén: I'm aware writer-director Hany Abu-Assad was unable to attend PSIFF because he's attending the premiere of Omar in Tel Aviv, but can you speak for him as to the origins of this project?

Waleed Zuaiter: Basically, it was inspired by true events and the story of someone who Hany became friends with who had a secret: that Israeli authorities had pressured him into being a collaborator. Hany had also read in Israeli newspapers accounts of a collaborator killing an Israeli officer with the same weapon he was given to protect himself from his own neighborhood. Although that murder didn't happen in the exact same way as the film, Hany felt that dramatically it would play better if it happened at the same moment the collaborator was handed the gun. So Hany already knew the ending when he started to write the script. He wrote the structure for the movie in four hours. Four days later he wrote the whole script.

Guillén: I was struck by the footage of Omar scaling the Separation Wall. Were there any difficulties with authorities filming on either side of the wall?

Zuaiter: Luckily, we didn't have any problems with authorities on both sides. We were able to get permits easily. Hany joked about it because he had all kinds of problems filming Paradise Now (2005)—one of the crew members was kidnapped—it was just crazy and ugly; but with Omar, we had no issues. The only issues we faced were ones common to independent filmmaking: securing the funds, getting the right locations, etc. We had all of those problems on a daily basis.

Guillén: Is there really a rope to scale over the wall?

Zuaiter: Yeah. This is something I learned: there are actually people that make a living by helping people to scale the wall. They're in different places along the Separation Wall.

Guillén: Help me understand this, Omar scales the wall from the West Bank into Palestine, right? Why is there a wall between the West Bank and Palestine?

Zuaiter: That's a question we often get asked at Q&As. We purposely didn't put any titles saying where you were in the movie. That was a way to make the story as accessible as possible to a universal audience: this could happen anywhere. But the reality is that the Separation Wall in many cases separates Palestinian villages within its own village. Someone who was once your neighbor, who you could walk to them, you now have to travel to get to them. It's prevented people from getting to their jobs or to family members. What it did for us was to open up a discussion where we can discuss this topic in a forum like this.

Guillén: It's my understanding,Waleed, that along with starring in the film, you were also one of the film's producers? Can you speak to casting, particularly Adam Bakri's breakout performance as Omar?

Zuaiter: I'll let Adam speak to his own background, but he was such a true find. He's a brilliant actor. We had a very long casting process of about four months and Hany was extremely picky about who he wanted in the cast. For almost everyone in the cast, this was their first true acting job. I'm the only experienced actor in the cast with other credits. Leem Lubani, who plays Omar's girlfriend Nadja, was 16 years old when we filmed the movie. She's 17 now and studying to be an actress. Samer Bisharat, who plays Amjad, has done a couple of short films. The actor who plays Tarek, Iyad Hoorani, does a lot of theater in Ramallah in the West Bank.

Guillén: So, Adam, what can you tell me about yourself?

Adam Bakri: I was born in Israel and raised in the north but traveled back and forth between Israel and the States. I studied at Tel Aviv University with a double major in English literature and theater arts. Right after I moved to New York, I trained at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute for two years, and a week after my graduation I flew back to Israel to shoot Omar.

Guillén: So your career is nearly anomalous for being immediately on fast track. For your first starring role you're in a well-scripted, international favorite and will be, no doubt, attending the Academy Awards®, straight out of the gate. Did you ever anticipate your dreams would be achieved so quickly?

Bakri: I remember dreaming that Hany would write a story just for me, a character for me, and my dream came true. I hadn't met him but I knew his work.

Guillén: You confirm the value of dreaming in detail. What impressed me with your performance as the script was written was that Omar had the most pronounced character arc. In the beginning you're almost mirthfully defiant and of course narrative circumstances lead you to a tragic betrayal. Can you talk a bit about how you worked with Hany to develop that character arc?

Bakri: Before shooting, Hany and I worked on the script together. I had probably a million questions for him about every little detail in the script. But on the set he gave me total freedom to do what I needed. Of course, it was collaborative between me and him, and after every scene we would share a look to confirm that we were getting what we were aiming for. On my own, I connected with the material. I felt I knew what my character was feeling and what was important for me was to authentically convey to the audience his inner conflict. His was a tragic story. Throughout the movie he doesn't talk a lot and this conflict is all in his head. When I read the script, Omar reminded me of Ryan Gosling's character in Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive (2011). I saw a lot of connections. For me it was important to have the audience read Omar's mind; to read how conflicted he was.

Guillén: Let's discuss the craft of that. You're absolutely right. Omar's internal conflict telegraphs through his eyes and facial expressions. The scene where he is ultimately betrayed and his eyes well up with tears was painful to watch. How do you do that? Do you practice in front of a mirror?


Bakri: [Laughs] No. Like I said, the role came to me right after graduating from school. I'd been training for five years, but only in classes, working with a partner, but primarily with myself and the imaginary world. What we did in theater, at least specifically at Lee Strasberg's, is we worked with our inner lives, our past experiences. Only you know what's going on inside you. Getting the role of Omar meant I could put my years of training into practice fresh out of school. I needed it because, towards the end of my training, I was dying to get out of that school and into something professional. So when Hany cast me the role, I thought, "Now I'm going to put everything I've learned into this kid." That's what I hope came across.

Guillén: You needn't have any doubts about the strength and success of your performance. How did both of you research for your roles? Did you talk to or interview the real-life individuals on whom the story is based?


Zuaiter: For my character as the Israeli agent Rami, we tried to speak to the Shabak or Shin Bet, but that wasn't allowed for obvious security purposes. I did get to speak to a lot of crew members in the cast who had been interrogated by Israeli authorities and got a lot of information from them. I also got to talk to several Israelis who knew people like Rami. Even our production manager was telling me about the mannerisms of Israeli agents and such. The rest I worked from the script with Hany to find the essence of this guy. We visited some refugee camps and filmed a lot in the refugee camp al-Fari'ah. We went to an Israeli jail as well. I know that Leem and Adam spent some time in a refugee camp during pre-production when we were in rehearsal. We got to speak to a lot of people there. Iyad, who plays Tarek, actually lives in the West Bank and a lot of this story was very close to his heart because he's actually tried to scale the wall.

Bakri: It was important for me to go to a refugee camp and at least stay there for a couple of days. Coming straight from New York, I couldn't even compare it. I didn't really talk to anyone because we didn't have access to collaborators; but, Hany based the whole movie on different events that really happened. He put it all into the character of Omar but it came from different characters. My connection to the character of Omar was completely artistic. I wasn't motivated by a political agenda or whatever.

Guillén: Did you do all your own stunts?


Bakri: I ran a lot and I jumped a lot, but I had a stunt double as well. I did a lot of training for it, about a month and a half of running and working out. I was ready.

Guillén: Has the film received any political feedback from either side, Israeli or Palestinian?

Zuaiter: Omar premiered in Ramallah in September. Palestinians loved the movie. It's a subject close to their hearts. It's a common story that they've seen. They feel Omar accurately represents the true circumstances there. Hany told me that—at a recent screening in Jerusalem just a couple of days ago—people applauded after the movie and, during the Q&A, an Israeli Jew was saying that Omar was such an amazing story and very true to life and then other people in the audience started shouting at the person who was complimenting the movie. It's a sensitive topic. It's close to a lot of people's own personal experiences; but, there's obviously another perspective. We're getting mostly positive response from the movie.

Guillén: Waleed, I was delighted to discover that you're appearing in several episodes of the sci-fi television drama Revolution. What about you, Adam? What does your agent have lined up for you?

Bakri: She wants me to stay here in the United States but I'm actually doing something back in the Mideast. It's an offer I can't really talk too much about, but it's a historical TV series.

Guillén: Whether here or there, you are off to a running start. I want to congratulate both of you and wish you the best with the film. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me this afternoon.

1 comment:

Julia said...

O melhor filme que assisti! The best movie ever!