By Ruth Conniff
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On Valentine's Day I was part of a panel discussion about Hollywood's global influence for the Al Jazeera TV program "Empire" with filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad. The Palestinian director had flown from Nazareth to Los Angeles because his latest movie, "Omar," is nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. This is not the first time Abu-Assad has been up for an Oscar -- his 2005 film "Paradise Now" was also nominated in the same category.
On the Al Jazeera set, Abu-Assad gushed. "It's a big honor," he said. "I feel like I'm privileged to be second time nominated and I hope I will always get a nomination. I must tell you I love it."
There's a lot to love, too: The 98-minute feature has already won the Jury Prize Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, and received special recognition from the New York and Toronto International Film Festivals.
In many Soviet and Chinese agitprop pictures, brawny proletarian protagonists are typically portrayed as gallant and courageous heroes. This is not the case with Abu-Assad's "Paradise Now," which portrays Palestinian would-be suicide bombers as mere mortals, putting their foibles on display even as they prepare for a deadly mission in Tel Aviv. Nor is this the case with "Omar," which focused on flawed Palestinian activists who belong to a cell of an unspecified, fictionalized underground network. These complicated, conflicted characters are beset by deception, treachery and a love triangle. Even as they resist Israeli occupation, Abu-Assad's West Bank militants are all-too-human.
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"This tackles a very interesting point," he told me. "It's true, I am showing the freedom fighters as ambiguous or normal people -- they are not superheroes, but they are very close to reality. I see the Palestinians as real, as more complex than a superhero who is noble all the way through. Why then in Western movies the superhero is clear noble from 'A' through zed? Because in reality there is no superhero -- in real life in the United States, no one is really ready to offer himself for others, to society for a higher goal. Most people are selfish. You can't find heroes as they are defined by movies. Most people will not do what heroes do. It's just your alter ego -- you'd like to do that, but in reality you don't do that."
It's quite different in the West Bank, Abu-Assad explained. "Actually, in Palestine, a lot of people do that," he said. "There's a lot of freedom fighters or people ready to sacrifice themselves. 'Cause lots of young guys died in the Intifada or struggle -- there's almost 11,000 people in jail for being part of the resistance. When you have a reality where there is a lot of heroes, you don't make them superheroes. You make them real, because there's a lot of them in reality."
"In order to make an interesting movie, you either have a superhero caught up in an ordinary situation or a normal person caught up in an extreme situation," he added. "And I prefer the second, because I feel this is more true to reality. We're all normal people but sometimes have to face things that are bigger than us or are caught in a very complicated situation. Take anybody in this life. Who is a superhero among us? Nobody. We are all like ordinary people but we have to deal with very complicated things -- politics, society, economy, and in our case, for Palestinians, freedom fighting. It's all extreme situations and this resembles more reality than the opposite concept of superheroes caught up in an ordinary conversation."
Abu-Assad was born in 1961 in Nazareth, currently the largest Arab city in the north of what is now Israel, where the director resides today. A Muslim, Abu-Assad said he does not identify himself as an "Arab-Israeli," but as a "Palestinian." He also insists this should be his choice as to what he is called and identified as -- a literal form of self determination.
"I was never a member of a political party but I sympathized with the true liberal parties," he said, adding that he's always felt kinship with those who advocate for freedom and civil rights. Abu-Assad studied airplane engineering for six years in Holland, but found out that wasn't for him.
"When I was a kid I watched lots of movies and was intrigued by this medium and exposed to it when I was very young," he said. "When I worked as an engineer, I knew I didn't want to spend my life engineering. I went back to Nazareth and by accident I met a Palestinian director called Rashid Masharawi, and he offered me the first job as an assistant. After one year I produced for him his first feature film ["Hatta Ishaar Akhar," released in 1994]. And later I started to make my own movies. In 1992 I made my first short, 'Paper House.'"
He estimated that there are currently around 10 Palestinians directing feature films.
For centuries in Eastern Europe, the ancestors of modern Israelis were forced to live in walled-off ghettos that segregated them from Christians. It's ironic then, that Israel is building walls of its own, creating Palestinian ghettos. That analogy isn't an easy one for Abu-Assad.
"I don't like to make comparisons, especially with Europe," he said. "In every religion, race or color you will find good people and bad people. We learn from research that most people who were hit by their parents will hit their kids; it's a normal thing. The way you were treated is the way you will treat others."
Regarding the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli impasse, Abu-Assad mused: "Sure, we are all Semitic people. But still we have different interests. I don't believe our conflict is a conflict of race or religion... but of interests. I think some of the survivors of the Holocaust, after they were so disappointed in the West, and in humanity, actually, they came with the idea that in order to survive you need to have a state. And they make a link between the state and surviving. And in order for their state to survive they have to protect the interests of the West in the Middle East... I truly believe this is the true conflict -- not a conflict between Jews and Muslims or Arabs and Israelis."
Ed Rampell is The Progressive's man in Hollywood and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book."