Sun Feb 23,2014
by E. Nina Rothe
Remember the saying "It doesn't matter if you win or lose, it's how you play the game"? Well, in the case of Omar, the first film "from Palestine" to be officially announced as such during the Academy Awards nominations broadcast, competing in this year's race along with four other top class contenders for the Foreign Language Oscar, that old adage is spot on.
Never mind what happens on March 2nd, it’s clear that filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad, his producers, his actors, including talented co-producer Waleed Zuaiter and new star Adam Bakri, and the entire Omar team have already won. They have won much more than anyone could have ever imagined, or dared to dream, before this past January 16th when the film’s name was read out as a nominee to audiences around the world, by Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, live from the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.
But perhaps, and more importantly, all of us who believe in the power of cinema to change the world have also won. Apart from cinematic organizations like DIFF, who supported Omar pretty much from the beginning with their Enjaaz fund, and audiences who filled the theaters at screenings in festivals around the world and now in the U.S. during the film's vibrant opening weekend there, the world as a whole has managed a win. Victory one for the human race.
Omar has, along the way, garnered famous fans, from actor Matt Dillon, who called it "My film of the year" to Madonna, who talked about it on CNN and recently took to Twitter to rave about it.
Video of Matt Dillon praising Omar: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vROPTprjJ5s
Madonna Tweet on Omar:
It has gathered glowing reviews, from major publications like the New York Times and indie blogs with a massive following like Indiewire, whose Eric Kohn has gone as far as to write “Nothing in the Oscar race this year addresses a contemporary issue with the same degree of immediacy”. Of course, on March 2nd, we are all rooting for a golden statuette, but most of us know, deep in our hearts, we've already reached the top. Arab cinema is here to stay.
The journey of Omar has been anything but easy. Cannes offered a great kick off for the film, particularly after it won the Jury Prize in the “Un Certain Regard” category. Yet coverage of the film seemed scarce at best and prestigious sales-agent Match Factory couldn't secure major markets other than France. When I met Abu-Assad to interview him at his home in Nazareth earlier this summer, he was depressed and demoralized. And, he admitted, nearly broke. Omar had yet to find U.S. distribution, an Oscar nomination would be just another dream unless the filmmaker found venues within Palestine where the film could be screened for a week - to fulfill the Academy's strict rules and requirements - and he had been told by some insiders at Cannes that most major U.S. critics hated Omar and were ready to tear it apart if it was ever released there.
The story behind the scenes seemed almost as intricate and full of betrayals as the plot of his film. During a Skype call with DIFF's directors who offered the filmmaker some welcomed words of encouragement, Abu-Assad, at the end of his rope as the saying goes, broke down in tears.
For his co-producer Waleed Zuaiter, the journey hasn't been a bed of roses either. He explained via email from Los Angeles, "Nothing has been easy or smooth on this film! Almost every single step of the process has been a fight. It's been the most painful experience of my life, as well as the most rewarding. I had to fight to raise the money, fight to keep the money, fight to get it made, then fight to sell it...” He continued, “I've made mistakes on almost every single phase of production, up until this day, and because of the mistakes I've learned a great deal. In some cases, more than I cared to learn!"
Just as things seemed desperate for Omar, despite its undeniably important messages of mistrust and betrayal caused by an occupation and the impossible choices human beings sometimes make in the name of love, along came the film's second wind. First at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, then at the NY Film Festival in October but finally - and most crucially - at this year's DIFF.
Opening the sensational tenth anniversary edition of the festival in December, the Omar team found themselves enveloped in those nurturing arms of familiarity, with sold-out screenings, audiences raving about the film and critics gushing. Dubai couldn’t get enough of Omar.
And by then, Adopt Films, a smaller company with some impressive releases, had bought the distribution rights for the U.S., so things were looking up. Members of the Academy voting committee attended the festival and had a chance to watch the film on its own terms, discovering that within its impressive story and important themes there also stood a message of world balance. As long as stories such as Omar's continued to occur in the West Bank, Gaza and across Palestine, the world as a whole could never find peace.
So by January 16th, the Academy had voted for Omar to be included as the first truly Palestinian entry in the prestigious Foreign Language race. Past world cinema nominees who did not walk away with the statuette, but ended up in our hearts, include such unforgettable classics as Eat Drink Man Woman, Central Station, Amélie, A Prophet, Incendies and of course, Abu-Assad's previous oeuvre Paradise Now. When it comes to the Oscars it really is an honor just to be nominated.
Abu-Assad sees the Oscar nod as an important sign that his brand of "artistic resistance" is working, eroding at the prejudice and injustice. He said from NYC, taking time away from his busy schedule on the film's opening weekend, “As the years go by, more and more Arab films and Arab filmmakers, actually Arab artists in general, are finally being recognized for their talent.” Then added “We are very grateful that Omar has been nominated for an Oscar - this is an amazing recognition - and we see this as a sign that people’s minds are opening and hopefully times are changing.”
The opening weekend buzz around the film in the U.S. does not lie, Omar is a hit among viewing audiences, thus proving wrong everyone who thinks that independent Arab cinema could never flourish outside the MENA region. And of course, proving right all of us who believe in the magic of the movies, its power to change the world.
Perhaps Omar star Adam Bakri summed it up best, when asked how it feels to be going to the Oscars. He said, "I'm proud to be part of a film that gives a voice to the unheard". Victory one for Arab cinema!