Hany Abu-Assad should be used to the tension by now. The Palestinian director has shot most of his films ("Paradise Now," "Rana's Wedding") in a region known far more for its conflict than its cinema, and his story lines often take place in between tangles of barbed wire and crowded checkpoints.
But filming "Omar" on the West Bank and in his hometown of Nazareth almost proved too much — even for Abu-Assad.
"At the end of the shoot, I told everybody, 'I'm not going to make another movie,'" said the director. "The financing, the crew, the locations, problems with the authorities. I was done. It was that stressful."
During production, investors dropped out, refugee camp mobs sabotaged the shoot and Abu-Assad, 52, battled his own insecurity as his first Hollywood film, "The Courier," went straight to DVD.
Still, Abu-Assad and his all-Palestinian cast and crew stuck it out, and "Omar" made it all the way to the Oscars.
The film, completed for just under $2 million, was nominated for the foreign language film Oscar after winning a jury prize at Cannes and being selected to show at the Toronto and New York film festivals. It opened in late February in a surprisingly wide 70-plus cities across the U.S. and is scheduled to land in nearly two dozen more this month.
The Arabic- and Hebrew-language thriller follows young adult Omar (Adam Bakri) and three friends as their loyalty and trust is tested by the oppressive world in which they live. In typical Abu-Assad fashion, the characters feel familiar: They do Brando impressions, blow punch lines of jokes, dream of honeymooning in Paris.
But they are cut off from the rest of the world — and in some cases one another — by a towering wall that cuts through hundreds of miles of Palestinian and Israeli towns. They dodge rubber bullets and join armed resistance groups. When an Israeli soldier is shot, Omar is thrown in prison. He's given a choice: stay locked up for the rest of his life or gain his freedom by becoming a spy for Israeli forces.
The story is propelled by nail-biting chase scenes over decaying rooftops and winding alleyways and punctuated with jarring plot twists. Abu-Assad said he learned how to craft this kind of high-tension suspense from studying American, French and Egyptian thrillers during his days as a film student in the Netherlands.
"In 'Omar,' the occupation is a backdrop to love, paranoia and betrayal," Abu-Assad said recently in a downtown L.A. restaurant. A formidable presence, his dark eyebrows often knit, he spoke in a gravelly monotone and his smiles did not come easily. "Everyone knows we do not need another movie about the occupation. What's important is, under extreme circumstances, what does life look like underneath it? What does love look like?"
With the exception of Palestinian American Waleed Zuaiter, "Omar's" main characters are played by actors who are from the region. The only experienced one of the bunch ("Sex and the City 2," "The Men Who Stare at Goats"), Zuaiter was raised in Kuwait and the U.S. and is now based in Southern California.
"When I first read the script, to me it was a Shakespearean tragedy," said Zuaiter, 43, who plays Israeli agent Rami in the film. In contrast with his intense lunch companion Abu-Assad, Zuaiter is easy and affable. "It was a very timeless, universal story. I read scripts about Palestine, but this was different. It was a story that could happen anywhere."
Zuaiter also became the film's producer when investors pulled out a month into shooting. He turned to his brothers, professional investors, to help fund the project and find backers.
"It was a good and a bad thing," Zuaiter said of the pullout of their first investor. "It was bad because we lost a huge chunk of financing and delayed production for a good month and a half. We loaned out a good portion of our salaries. Hany took a loan himself. The good part? It's the first film to be 95% privately Palestinian funded." The other 5% came from a post-production fund provided by the Dubai International Film Fest.
Abu-Assad's first foreign language Oscar nomination was for 2005's "Paradise Now," a drama about the friendship and motivations of two would-be suicide bombers. The picture lost the Oscar, but its nomination was considered a breakthrough, given the film academy's previous refusals to nominate Palestinian movies in the category because the region was not considered a sovereign state. It became the subject of intense lobbying campaigns from both sides of the conflict. Finally, it was identified as representing the Palestinian territories.
This time around, the academy listed "Omar" as coming from Palestine. The decision followed a 2012 U.N. General Assembly vote that upgraded the territories from an observer entity to a nonmember observer state. Though the film represented another first for Palestine at the Oscars, "Omar" did not become the center of a political debate in the same way that Abu-Assad's last nomination had.
"The people who are still unhappy with our movies are beginning to realize by fighting it, it will get more attention," said Abu-Assad, whose film opened last month across Israel and in the West Bank to predictably mixed reviews. "The best thing for them is to ignore it. I am thankful for that. I'd much rather be acknowledged as a filmmaker who made a good movie than someone who gets attention by fighting over politics."
It's that very expectation — to turn out good art — that made his first Hollywood film, "The Courier," such a painful experience. An action thriller set in a nefarious underworld, it opened to lukewarm reviews and then went straight to DVD. "I learn from my mistakes more than I learn from all my successes," said Abu Assad. "It was such a lesson to me. When I think back, argh ..."
"Omar" was his reaction to hard lessons learned in Hollywood. Abu-Assad wrote the outline for his new film in four hours. He shot it in 41 days. But casting was another matter. It took more than six months to find talented unknowns like Bakri.
Abu-Assad knew Zuaiter from his previous work. The actor looked forward to shooting in his parents' homeland, as he had never been to the region. But once there, he was moved and frustrated by what he witnessed — especially when filming in the West Bank's Al Far'a refugee camp.
The crowd there was disruptive, said Zuaiter, shouting and throwing firecrackers, and the Palestinian forces couldn't control it. His production designer then stepped in. "He got the kids to understand, we're telling your story," said Zuaiter. "This is for you. One of the images in my mind was before we left, one of the kids sitting in Hany's director's chair, looking at the monitor. He felt so important. I could tell. The next day, we left and they stayed behind."
Abu-Assad knows the terrain — and the emotions it elicits — all too well. That's why he wants his film to be bigger than the circumstances that spawned it. "Everything ends, and the occupation will too," said Abu-Assad. "Maybe another 60 years, maybe one year, I don't know, but it will end. You don't want to make a movie that will die with the occupation. You want to make a movie that will outlive it."
[Updated March 7, 2:56 PM: Waleed Zuaiter lives in Southern California, not Northern California as originally stated in this post.]