The Paradise Now director examines another heartfelt, tense situation with his latest drama.
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26 Jun 2013 - 3:41 PM  UPDATED 26 Jun 2013 - 3:41 PM

When I arrived in Cannes this year, an Israeli colleague pointed out that there were two handsome talented Palestinian brothers, Saleh Bakri, 35, and Adam Bakri, 25, starring in films away from the competition that could be interesting. In a festival where heartthrob Ryan Gosling's usually gorgeous moosh exuded little expression and was ultimately disfigured in Only God Forgives, these tall, athletic Palestinians with chiselled cheekbones and piercing eyes emerged for me as the discoveries of the festival. It helped that they were in good films, which were both awarded significant prizes in their respective sections.

Our movie is a mix of a love story and political thriller

The Italian mafia movie Salvo, starring Saleh Bakri, took out the top prize in Critic's Week, while the Palestinian movie Omar, starring Adam Bakri, won the Jury prize in Un Certain Regard. The brothers are the sons of leading Palestinian actor Mohammad Bakri, with whom his elder, more famous son has often appeared. While Salvo, which has been bought for Australia by Palace films, looks set for the Italian Film festival, Omar, Adam Bakri's first feature film, has been picked up by Madman and is part of the Melbourne Film Festival program.

When the major Cannes awards were ultimately announced at the closing ceremony, I sat with a US critic whose 20-ish film savvy daughter hadn't been so impressed by many of the prizewinners, yet, like her dad, she had adored Omar. “It's such a good film and the actor is so cute and incredible,” she said.

When I had met the two brothers they seemed like chalk and cheese. The taller Saleh was half as big as he was in Salvo, where he had put on extraordinary amounts of muscle to play a hardened killer. In real life, he more resembled the love interest he had played in The Band's Visit. He also had a leading role amongst the women in 2011's The Source. New York-based Adam, who speaks perfect American and has trained for three years at The Lee Strasbourg Institute, seems ripe for Hollywood's picking, even if his personal inclinations are leaning more towards the edgy cinema of Nicolas Winding Refn and his favourite actor Ryan Gosling.

Omar is Hany Abu-Assad's first Palestinian feature since his Oscar-nominated 2005 movie Paradise Now, which told the controversial story of two would-be suicide bombers. A Muslim Arab from Nazareth, Abu-Assad, 51, had moved to Holland at the age of 19, and has spent considerable time in Los Angeles. When he returned with a largely European crew to make Paradise Now, the shoot had almost killed him, literally, as he constantly received death threats. Following the international success of the film, he made an attempt at commercial filmmaking with The Courier, starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Mickey Rourke. The disappointing action flick went straight to DVD almost everywhere.

“I put all my energy on the wrong projects,” Abu-Assad admits. “This is why I feel now I have something to say.” He keenly realises that returning to his homeland to make the first all-Palestinian movie was the way to go, even if he hasn't relinquished his desire to reach a wider audience.

He'd been speaking about the political situation in Palestine with a group of journalists before our interview and when he came over to me, I joked how I really wanted to talk about the hot Bakri brothers, just as Adam was being photographed behind a twinkling mirror surrounded by lights.

“Gorgeous, aren't they?” responds the outgoing writer-director, emitting one of his resounding raspy laughs. “They're good actors and I want to work with Saleh too. But I think Adam can become a bigger star. He is ready to work harder. I know Saleh and I love him, but he's aware of his beauty. Adam isn't aware of his beauty. This is why he uses his inner energy to become a better actor. I guess you could say that Saleh is more like a young Clint Eastwood and Adam is like Johnny Depp.”

The younger Bakri greatly impressed his director by immersing himself in the physical and mental sides of his Omar character. “Adam worked in a bakery for two months so he knew exactly how to do everything. How he prepared himself emotionally and physically was amazing.”

“It wasn't easy; there were days where I had to run the whole time,” recalls Bakri. “'Action', 'Run', 'Cut', 'Run' and 'Action!' I had four people massaging my legs all day long. It was so tough but I gave it all my energy because this is my action time and I love doing it.”

He didn't, however, scale the (specially built) partitioning concrete wall, which in the film separates Omar from his girlfriend Nadia (Leem Lubany).

“That was my stunt double. He's a circus man so he has been doing that for years. You can't possibly climb this wall with a rope; it's huge! The maximum I could do was four metres.”

In the story, Nadia's brother Tarek (Eyad Hourani) and neighbour Amjad (Bisharat) are Omar's best friends and they too live on the other side of the Israeli-built wall. When Omar tags along as they attack an Israeli garrison, Omar is the one who gets caught and is thrown in jail. Israeli secret service agent Rami (Waleed F. Zuaiter, one of the film's producers) assumes a nice-guy quality to try and coerce Omar into revealing the names of the real culprits. Otherwise, Omar faces a life sentence in prison.

“A friend told me years ago about an Israeli secret service agent who tried to collaborate with him,” Abu-Assad explains. “At first, he agreed to do it, but he didn't in the end as he feared it would destroy his family. He told me the story after I asked him why he'd been divorced. We've changed a lot of things but it was the basis for a good story. Our movie is a mix of a love story and political thriller, a kind of homage to Sydney Pollack's political thrillers.” Though, he is quick to point out that he believes that political discussions should be kept out of movies, as they can be “very boring”.

Omar was shot in the West Bank and Nazareth last year. This time, Abu-Assad says, the shoot was surprisingly easy. “The Israelis knew in the end I was gong to do the movie and that it's better not to interfere.” He explains that 5 percent of the film's $2 million financing came from Dubai and 95 percent from Palestinian businessmen. “Amazing!” he smiles.

Zuaiter, a Hollywood actor born in California and raised in Kuwait by Palestinian parents, told Variety, “We reached out to everyone. Like, if you were one-eighth Palestinian, we came to you. For us [with the financing], there were no borders.”

Zuaiter was the only professional actor in the cast while the majority of the crew was inexperienced.

Abu-Assad: “I made Paradise Now with a German, French and Dutch crew, and to give all those people hotels and podiums took a big chunk of the budget. This is why independence allows us to be freer. The cost of hiring Israelis would have been similar though we still had some Israelis in minor roles on the crew and one Israeli actor, Eyad Hourani, who plays Tarek.

“I'll always work with Israelis; I have no problems with individuals. I have a problem with a State that is not considering Palestinians as equals,” he says. Given Omar's success, he hopes to make his next film entirely Palestinian.

Inevitably, any Palestinian film is going to have political intent. One of the messages with Omar, he notes, is regarding the vulnerability of youth.

“You think you're adult and can stand alone and actually you don't have the experience of life to avoid the traps and make fatal mistakes. The struggle for freedom should be led by adults, but now the adults have gone back home and have left the struggle for the youth. This is actually my political statement. If you leave the youth to make such difficult decisions, they will fail. The adults should choose to go back and lead the struggle.”

Omar screens at the 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival. Visit the official website for more information.