When the Academy of Motion Pictures last week nominated Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar for Best Foreign Film and declared the movie a product of Palestine, they joined the slew of international organizations granting the nation de facto recognition, despite the fact that it has yet to be legally born.
It was a move that came as little surprise to the film’s supporters, who have, since its inception, launched a deep-trenched grassroots campaign to make Omar the first truly Palestinian movie. Abu-Assad, a child of Nazareth who carries an Israeli passport but left the Middle East for the Netherlands (where he also holds a passport) at the age of 19, is a fervent supporter of Palestinian nationhood. He was furious in 2006 when his earlier film Paradise Now, the first-ever Palestinian movie to receive an Academy Award nomination, was billed as a product of “The Palestinian Territories” rather than “Palestine” after a steamrolling campaign by a slew of Israeli officials.
Then-consul general Ehud Danoch and then-consul for media and public affairs Gilad Millo started putting pressure on the Academy following that year’s Golden Globes ceremony, where Paradise Now won Best Foreign Film and was billed as a movie from Palestine. They succeeded, partly by invoking the formality that a film’s nation of origin is determined in part by where its funding originates. Paradise Now, like many films from the region, was co-produced with funds from several European nations.
So this time around, the producers of Omar weren’t taking any chances. From the moment Abu-Assad completed his script — about a young Palestinian baker forced into becoming a collaborator for Israel — his team launched a grassroots effort throughout the Palestinian diaspora to make the movie the first-ever, full-length feature film funded entirely by Palestinian dollars.
They weren’t completely successful. A chunk of the change for the production came from the Dubai International Film Festival’s Enjaaz Fund. But with Palestinian-American actor Waleed Zuaiter at the movement’s helm, they raised nearly $2 million, enough to finance the production, through a network of micro-donations from Palestinians around the world.
“We reached out to everyone (for funding),” Zuaiter told Variety last year. “Like, if you were one-eighth Palestinian, we came to you; for us, there were no borders.”
Their strategy appears to have worked — not a single Israeli official has raised an issue with the Academy’s wording this year. “It’s a Palestinian-Israeli movie, but he would like to define it,” said Ofra Ben Yaakov, an official in the Foreign Ministry’s cultural affairs department, about Abu-Assad. “It’s not my job to declare it for him.”
Omar was filmed in both the Israeli city of Nazareth and the Palestinian West Bank, with some Israeli Arabs among its cast; the nationality of its locations is as complex and mired in global politics as that of its critically acclaimed director.
But the Academy Awards are a celebration of motion pictures, not of politics, so don’t expect any Palestinian flags or slogans attached to this year’s event. Aside from the name coming out of some shimmering presenters’ lips, very little will be different from the 2006 awards, when Abu-Assad also walked the red carpet in hopes of a trophy.
When it comes to award ceremonies and the tricky issue of nailing down a nation for a film with several producing partners, money does talk. That’s why 5 Broken Cameras, the 2012 Academy Award-nominated documentary with an Israeli-Palestinian duo of directors, was billed as Israeli at last year’s awards, despite complaints to the contrary.
The Academy, for its part, says there is no political motive behind its decision to declare Palestine a state for the purposes of the nomination, but rather that it is simply following the direction of the United Nations, which in 2012 voted to recognize Palestine as a nonmember observer state, irregardless of the status of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
“We follow United Nations protocol. This is not a political situation at all,” Academy spokeswoman Teni Melidonian told the AP.
The Israeli consulate general in Israel has refused to comment on the topic.
The American Jewish Committee-sponsored Atlanta Jewish Film Festival will be screening Omar at its multi-week event later this month in tandem with Bethlehem, Israel’s submission for Best Foreign Film this year, which failed to win an Oscar nomination. Both films explore the issue of Palestinian and Israeli loyalty in the context of a Shin Bet collaborator, and as they represent two sides of perhaps the world’s thorniest issue, they are best viewed in tandem, says Dov Wilker, Atlanta executive director of the AJC.
“This film is clearly about an Israeli issue and there’s a lot of Jewish content to it as well,” Wilker says.
In Atlanta, Omar will be listed as a film from the Palestinian Territories — unlike at the March 2 Oscar ceremonies.