Oscars recognize film from ‘Palestine’ for first time

‘Territories’ dropped from description of nominee ‘Omar,’ signaling a change in Academy policy

Palestinian actors Leem Lebany as Nadja and Adam Bakri as Omar (photo credit: Courtesy 'Omar')
Palestinian actors Leem Lebany as Nadja and Adam Bakri as Omar (photo credit: Courtesy 'Omar')

BEVERLY HILLS, California (AP) — Thursday’s Oscar nominations had some new language in the foreign language category: Nominee “Omar” was described as being from “Palestine,” a reference the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has carefully avoided in the past.

“Omar,” a romantic thriller filmed in Nazareth and the West Bank, was directed by Hany Abu-Assad, whose 2005 thriller “Paradise Now” was also nominated in the foreign language category. But after a tussle with the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles, the academy chose then to refer to “Paradise Now” as a product of the “Palestinian Territories” or “Palestinian Authority,” rather than simply “Palestine.”

After hearing the news of his latest nomination and how it was identified, Abu-Assad said Thursday that having the academy refer to his entry as being from Palestine was a step in the right direction.

“The world starts to recognize that without giving the Palestinians a just solution, there will always be problems, there will always be something wrong,” he said in a phone interview.

“I’m happy to get recognition from people in this business and to represent Palestine,” he added. “It’s not a country yet, it’s not a state, it’s a nation fighting for equality and freedom and justice and to represent that is an honor.”

The Nazareth-born filmmaker carries Israeli citizenship but identifies himself as a Palestinian. “Omar” was partly filmed in Nazareth, and some of the actors are Israeli Arabs.

Assad said he’s received positive reviews for “Omar” in Israel, whose own Oscar entry, “Bethlehem,” focusing on the relationship between an Israeli agent and his Palestinian informant, did not receive a nomination on Thursday.

Regarding its apparent change in policy about describing Palestine, academy spokeswoman Teni Melidonian said, “We follow United Nations protocol. This is not a political situation at all. We are just in the business of honoring filmmaking.”

Israel’s culture and foreign ministries and the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles declined to comment.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, had more to say: “Getting the academy’s recognition may be nice for the Palestinians, but the only recognition that really counts is the recognition that will come when they reach an agreement with the people of Israel.” Hier, a member of the motion picture academy, noted that “legally, there is no such country as Palestine until there will be a settlement of the Palestine-Israeli conflict.”

“Omar” earned considerable buzz since its debut at Cannes last year and was widely tipped to make it all the way to the Academy Awards. The film is notable in that it was made with an all-Palestinian crew and almost entirely with Palestinian funds (raised from a global network of local Palestinians and expats), making it the first-ever truly Palestinian film to see wide success.

Abu-Assad told The Times of Israel that he didn’t want to compromise on any aspect of “Omar,” a West Bank love story about a Palestinian youth forced to become a collaborator to the Israelis.

Jessica Steinberg and Debra Kamin contributed to this report. 

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