The Insult/Ziad Doueiri

When a Palestinian refugee insults a Lebanese Christian in Beirut, the Palestinian’s refusal to apologize sparks a national crisis. With director Ziad Doueiri’s ubiquitous honesty and intelligence, this Academy Award hopeful examines the excesses of hate, the Middle East’s addiction to words, and paths to reconciliation. Availability: Opens New York City, January 12, Lincoln Plaza Cinema, with national rollout to follow. Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.

DT: Ziad, in your last film, The Attack, Israelis and Palestinians are each other’s enemies.  When I interviewed you for that film, you said, “I went to Israel and met these Israeli actors and they’re fantastic. The whole image of the ultimate enemy became demystified. I’m facing the enemy and I’m liking him.” Is it the same with the characters in The Insult?

ZD: It’s the same. The Insult is my reexamination of the Christian  narrative, which I grew up hating all my life. I guess I spent all my life hating people and then saying, Let me think about it. We grew up thinking that the Christian political thinking was associated with a betrayal of the country. We thought that the Christians in Lebanon—and I’m talking about the Christians not in terms of religion but in terms of political parties: Bashir Gemayel, the Lebanese forces, the Christian parties—were betraying Lebanon. Those people were associating themselves with the enemies of Lebanon, etc., etc., so their narrative for me as a child did not exist.

As time passes, you sit down and say, Let’s see, did they really not suffer as much? We always believed that the Muslims and the left wing are the people who suffered and the Christians did not suffer, they did not go through dilemmas. And then you start understanding their point of view, and you slowly demystify this thing. This film is about demystifying things, actually. I made a film because I had to go through my own thinking.


DT: Making a film is a huge project. It takes a lot of money and time and effort. People make them for different reasons. Guillermo Del Toro made Shape of Water for one reason, Quentin Tarantino made Pulp Fiction for another reason. Considering your background and the family you grew up in—very intellectual, very political, very left wing—I feel like your reason for making films is catharsis.

ZD: It’s telling the truth. I want to tell the truth. It’s so important that I don’t give the impression that I’m an idealist and want a larger-than-life figure. I hate those things. I want to tell you something: after The Insult came out in Lebanon and all these festivals, Venice, Valladolid, Telluride, a lot of journalists started asking me questions. At the beginning I did not know how to answer that fundamental question, Why are you making this movie? What inspired this movie? It’s not that I didn’t know the answer, I just had to figure it out, because it was so subconscious. And I started thinking in very practical terms in order to answer the journalists and give them the answers they were looking for, which consequently made me think about what voice was behind the writing of the film. It’s not insignificant. It’s significant, it’s just so buried in me.

It’s about being fair. Let me elaborate—what I’m telling you is very real. It’s not at all intellectual, and it’s not at all analytical. It’s very real. When I grew up in 1975, the war started, and all I can remember—I was twelve years old—is a lot of things that were happening in my daily life that were not fair. For example—it’s so banal—we got stopped at checkpoints day in, day out.

DT: That’s not banal.

ZD: No, but at that time it looked like just another event. Then Lebanon was invaded by armies. That’s a big theory, but Ziad growing up saw those invasions, because I had to run with my family into the shelters. I played with a rock band as a teenager. One day the left-wing militia came inside the basement and took all of my instruments, my bass guitar and everything. My dad came down and we tried to argue with them, but they were stronger than us because they had weapons. I looked at my dad and said, as I’d said all throughout my years, “This is unfair.” When you’re young, you don’t react intellectually—you say, “Why are they taking my instruments?” In 1977 I wanted to go visit my cousins who lived in Holland. We went to the Dutch embassy, and they did not give us a visa because there were restrictions on Lebanese citizens back then. I thought it was unfair. I thought it was unfair that I could not go on vacation. So many of these events happened day in, day out, not just one every six months. It was all the time, so you grow up and you say, “It’s not fair.”

The word fairness is something I hold onto. I’m still in the process of analyzing why I did The Insult, of understanding the woodpecker behind my brain. It’s fairness. I fucked up a lot in my life, I have a lot of immoral stuff in my life, but fairness is something I hold onto. I am so fair. The idea of The Insult is about a man to whom injustice was done, and he believes that he has to get it back. That’s what Toni Hanna’s character is. I don’t want to give an intellectual feeling to my explanation, because I’m really trying to answer from my gut. Being arrested, and being stopped, and being insulted and all these things have been buried since my childhood.

DT: That’s why I say it’s cathartic.

ZD: Yes. Yes.


DT: The film is very multilayered, but the particular juxtaposition between the private apology and the public insult was especially meaningful.

ZD: We did that on purpose, after having thought a lot about it. When Toni tells Yasser, “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out,” there was a very big reason we made it on a Sunday. In the preceding scene, the boss tells the Palestinian [Yasser], “I want you to apologize.” The Palestinian is trying to avoid it, and he says, “He’s closed on Sunday,” to which the boss replies, “He’s open seven days a week.” It was not accidental that we picked Sunday, because we wanted the insult to be in private. On Sunday nobody goes to work—it’s only Toni and the mechanic. When he insulted him—it’s true, he insulted him during the day, but there were no workers, no Syrians around, no construction workers—we wanted to make it just in a private way in order to balance it in the end, when the Palestinian comes at night and the apology has to be private. It was not actually public. That’s what we wanted. We thought about all these things.


DT: Early in the film, I had a rather banal, but total, revelation. Because I wasn’t attuned to all of the social and cultural nuances, I only had a general understanding of the nature of Yasser’s insult. And I’m watching Toni and  wondering, Why is Toni so full of hate? All he has to do to rid himself of this situation is get rid of his hate. Then I remembered how I—a Jew—felt watching The Attack, and I realized there’s a complete difference when you’re looking at hate—

ZD: —from the outside. That’s right.

DT: It’s not going to get solved until we get rid of the hate.

ZD: It’s not going to be solved until you meet your enemy face-to-face. I’m saying this on a very personal level: When you don’t know your enemy, your hiding in fear becomes multiplied. If you think he’s scary and you don’t see him, you think he’s ten times more scary. When you meet him, it becomes demystified. I’m telling you, I sat down with Israelis just as much as I sat down with Christians from the right-wing party, and during the first interaction, something that holds you breaks down. And suddenly you start reaching behind him, and you start finding more similarity than difference.

But that doesn’t apply to everyone. I am like this. There are people who live through their hate no matter what you do. You put them in therapy for ten years and they can’t get over it. I’m the kind who has a tendency to be curious about the other side. In The Attack, I’ve been curious about understanding the Israeli perspective, and in The Insult and West Beirut I’ve been curious about understanding the Christian perspective. I’m curious, that’s it. It’s not more than that. For me there are no taboos that are not to be broken. I’m willing to go wherever…it’s the idea of fairness.


DT: You wrote the script with Joelle Touma, who’s Christian.

ZD: My ex-wife. She’s not a believer. We’re both very secular, but she grew up in a family that had sympathy for right-wing politics. They had their reasons, of course, but right wing, left wing doesn’t mean anything today. It’s all over the place.


DT: In a way the story is absurd, with a simple insult escalating into this national crisis. But you shot it in a hyperreal manner, so real that I wondered whether the film was based on an actual incident. Is it absurd? Is it real? Or is it both?

ZD: It’s not absurd. It happens. The whole screenwriting process started because of a very similar incident that actually happened to me. I was living in Beirut a few years ago, and I was watering my plants, when the water fell on one of the workers. We had an exchange; we insulted each other. He said, “You motherfucker,” and I said, “No, you’re the motherfucker.” We started yelling at each other, and I noticed that he had a Palestinian accent, and I just said that phrase: “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.” This is how it started. So it is not unreal. This is how it happened.

The question to ask is, In Lebanon, in the Arab world, could a simple insult develop into a national crisis? It can. It did happen. Several times. In writing the script, I took it to where it could have happened, but it didn’t happen with me because the Palestinian didn’t make a big deal of it. He was hurt and that was it. But in Lebanon words weigh heavy. They’re loaded. I could insult your mom, your dad, I could say, Screw your mom, and it wouldn’t matter. But there are certain subjects, like religion, that are loaded. If I say, I’m going to screw your religion, this is likely to create a huge problem. This is how it is in the Middle East. It’s very, very sensitive. People give too much attention to words. They don’t take it in a slight manner. It’s very, very heavy.


DT:  I’ve never been to Lebanon, but my impression is that it’s a very cosmopolitan, very secular country. Perhaps it’s not that way anymore.

ZD: It’s very secular and it’s very cosmopolitan and it’s very religious and it’s very chauvinistic, and it’s very provincial. It has everything. This is what is so interesting about Lebanon. It’s why I keep going back there in writing my stories, because it’s a melting pot of not just all cultures but all religions, all classes, all political affiliations. It has everything within a very confined space. Lebanon is the country of paradox. Such paradox. And it’s so dynamic. This is what I like about it, while sometimes I hate it.

The Insult created a lot of problems. The Attack created a lot of problems—that’s why it was banned. I want to say, Guys, get over yourselves, we’re just making movies. But the Arab population has not reconciled with itself yet, and as long as you don’t reconcile, you’re going to jump on that caravan, jump against that camp. I’m being very pragmatic. I’m not being analytical here; this is how it is. When Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses, there was a price on his head that lasted twenty years. The queen of England literally put him under protection for twenty years. People take these things very, very seriously, so when we wrote The Insult, we did not walk a tightrope. We did not censor ourselves. We said things very bluntly, the way it is. But we knew it was going to touch on certain sensibilities. We knew it, even though that was not the purpose. Our purpose in writing this film, Joelle and I, was not to provoke, or accuse, or demonize. Not at all—otherwise you will screw up your film. We just wanted to tell a story about a man who has something very deeply buried in him and how he seeks to resolve it at the end. This is the Middle East; what can you do?


DT: At this point, your films are shown not just in the Middle East—they’re shown all over the world. While you’re writing or filming, do you make concessions to Western audiences?

ZD: Not at all. I can assure you we did not make any concessions. Look, I lived in the States for eighteen years. I worked in America [e.g., as Quentin Tarantino’s camera assistant on Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction,  From Dusk Til Dawn, Jackie Brown]. I worked with the people. I didn’t come here as a tourist. The best way to learn about a culture is to work with its people. For eighteen years I learned Americanisms, the way of working on a film set, this society. It’s not insignificant.

Therefore when you learn the language and you learn the mentality and you learn what’s behind the psychology—there’s my rapport with you, and there’s my rapport with our subconscious—it’s going to affect the way you write. There are certain phrases I use when I write. I wrote this film in English, through the final draft, and then I translated it to Arabic.

So to answer your question, Did I make any concessions? Not at all. I managed—not because I’m smart, but because I lived in America as long as I lived in Lebanon—to find the phrases, how to build dialogue, and how to build story in a way that both cultures could understand, without confusing one or the other. Where I sometimes missed the point is some of the humorous phrases. There are certain phrases that made the Americans laugh when the Lebanese didn’t. For example, when the president says, “If I want to choose between stability and integrity, I’ll choose stability.” This is an American way of being humorous. In Lebanon, they didn’t get it. They don’t think that way. It’s not part of our colloquial language to say “If I want to choose between stability and integrity, I’ll choose stability.” This is an American idiom. An American way of thinking. Another example: When Tony takes the disc and says, “BOC, it’s missing the S” [i.e., to indicate that the disc brake in question was a Chinese knock-off rather than a German original].  The Americans smiled at this, but the Lebanese didn’t get it. When Tony says, “If I have to choose between secondhand German or brand-new Chinese, I choose secondhand German,” this is an American form of humor that the Lebanese didn’t understand. The Americans laughed even though it’s in Arabic.

This is the way your brain gets wired; sometime you blend what works for two cultures and sometimes you miss the point, especially with comedy or humorous lines. It’s very funny that the Lebanese didn’t get it. But to tell you the truth, in all modesty I felt myself well placed to be able to tell a completely Lebanese story and still have Americans relate to it. By the way, my film gets the most understood and appreciated in America and Lebanon and much less in France, because where is the French part of this psychology? Had I lived half my life in France, I would be doing a hybrid product, but my hybrid product as it is, is Lebanese American. The French financed the film, but Americans get it.


DT: Let me ask you one more question. You’re working on a project about the Camp David accords.

ZD: I don’t want to talk about it. It’s too early. I have to take a little break for just a couple of weeks.



Copyright © Director Talk 2018

A War/Tobias Lindholm

In 2003, NATO took command of the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. As a founding member of NATO, Denmark sent troops to protect civilian Afghans. During their ten-year engagement in Afghanistan, the Danes lost more soldiers per capita than any other European army did. An Oscar contender for Best Foreign Film, A War explores the painful complexity of combat:  a company commander is tried as a war criminal after his decision to protect his men in battle inadvertently results in the deaths of a civilian family. •Availability: Now in theaters nationwide. Click here for the trailer and theater listings near you. Thanks to Susan Norget and Keaton Kail, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.


DT:  During the Afghan engagement, Denmark lost more soldiers per capita than any other European army. What effect did that have on the national consciousness regarding the war in Afghanistan?


TL:  We hadn’t fought a war since WWII. We fought for five hours, and then we gave up. That defined my generation more than anything else. We didn’t really know what we were getting into in Afghanistan, but when the dead soldiers started to come home and we started to see the footage of the civilian population down there, that totally changed the Danish approach. We became very judgmental toward the soldiers, which, in my mind, was a mistake; we needed to hold politicians and lawmakers accountable. That didn’t happen, and suddenly we understood the danger and what we had gotten ourselves into as a nation. That confused the political environment for a while; nobody wanted to have an opinion, because everybody was afraid of the result. So instead of it inviting a conversation and a debate about what was going on, everybody talked even less about it when the dead bodies started to come back. It was almost ten years by that time, and we had forgotten why we were there. We were, on a small scale, in a post-Vietnam phase, where we as a nation tried to figure out what we were doing.


DT:  In A War, you juxtapose the war in Afghanistan against the trial in Denmark. In A Hijacking, you juxtapose a hijacking by Somali pirates against the hostage negotiations, again in Denmark. In both films, you’re juxtaposing Danish interaction with a foreign agent against Denmark’s internal social logic. Is the similarity coincidental, or is this an area of personal interest for you?

TL:  It’s definitely an area of personal interest. I like the complexity of human life. Being human in the Western world, in the industrialized world, is being both a professional citizen and a private person. I’m not sure we can separate those and just look at private life without mentioning the other aspects of life. We are part of a democracy, we live under our law that is equal for all—at least in our nations—and we have professions that define our lives. All these areas rub off on each other, and I like the idea of trying to describe human life as complex as it is. Often in European cinema we have a tendency to be obsessed with psychology and forget other aspects of life, while in American films there’s a tendency to be overobsessed with profession. You have a police officer and the film is all about that. Real life is a mixture of it all, so that’s what I try to do.


DT:  Speaking of realism: I’ve never been to war, but the battle scenes felt particularly realistic. How did you achieve that?

TL:  I found it extremely hard to understand, because I hadn’t seen that much. I started to watch a lot of boot camp footage and documentaries, but it wasn’t until I saw the American documentary Restrepo that I totally understood what we needed to do. The fantastic thing about that film is that the photographer is out there, really in danger with the soldiers. This means that the camera can’t show you stuff that the soldiers can’t see, because the photographer would get shot. That’s the logic of it. In a lot of war films you’ll see the camera in cross fire between enemies; that’s already admitting to the audience that it’s not really dangerous, it’s just a film. I decided to just pretend that we were shooting a documentary and ask the cinematographer to be as aware and alert as if it had been a documentary.

It’s not that obvious, but we did a huge amount of work to make it sound real. Explosions are not that loud in real life—they always sound louder in films. In films, there’s more fire in the explosions than there are in real life. In real life it’s all dust and dirt thrown in the air. Instead of making references to other war films, we decided to make a reference to reality even though it didn’t feel as dramatic. I guess the good thing is that people feel it’s even more dramatic because it feels real.


DT:  I read that you consulted with veterans who had been in Afghanistan and that you actually cast real soldiers in the war scenes.

TL:  I knew I couldn’t pull off asking actors to become soldiers in three months of training. To make it possible for the actors to do that, I would have had to simplify the work of the soldiers. Instead, I used the actors as the dramatic engine and the carrier of emotion, and then surrounded them with professional soldiers who had served in Afghanistan and who knew this reality that we were portraying. In  that way we could make sure that we got it right and didn’t make false choices. We didn’t simplify but maintained the complexity of the situation, because we knew what was going on and how to handle stuff.

DT:  That’s brilliant.

TL:  The same thing happened in the courtroom. The judge is a real judge. She retired two weeks before we started to shoot. She took control of that courtroom, and I didn’t need to direct that much. She did it pretty much for me.

DT:  Like the real-life hostage negotiator you used in A Hijacking.

TL: Exactly. The gifts you get from these real people, the understanding they have of their own lives and their own jobs, is amazing. They share a lot, and they are proud professionals. I don’t ask them to be emotional. I don’t ask them to lie. I don’t ask them to act. I just ask them to react in a professional way, to see situations that they know. That makes them come off brilliant and authentic, if you ask me.

DT:  How was it working with the soldiers?

TL:  They do what they’re told. They show up on time. It’s not the same with actors, so in that way, it’s brilliant. Even if I only had two on a call sheet for the day, the whole platoon would show up and help us carry the lights. They came in and worked very, very hard to do the film with us. And it was a pleasure. It was a pleasure to feel how honest they were, to each other and to me about life in Afghanistan, and in that way I built up a very close friendship with them all. They’re all going to fly out to L.A. and celebrate the Oscars with us.

DT: I imagine making the film was important for them.

TL:  It turned out to be. I never ask questions when I start to work with people like this. I just wait for them to start telling. If I start to ask, it’s because I know what I’m looking for, and I don’t. So I would not ask too many questions, I would just listen, and suddenly all the stuff that you didn’t know you want to know becomes extremely interesting. It was small stuff, like the phone calls home to your wife with a broken phone line, and how do you manage to maintain an emotional connection to your family when you’re in the desert and they’re far, far away at home, scared, and afraid for your life? That whole complexity came from conversations with the soldiers. But not only the soldiers and the judge; the Afghans in this film are refugees from Helmand Province, so they all knew the reality as well and added the Afghan reality to this film. The Afghan family who we get to know really well escaped the war in Helmand on the back of a donkey. They would help me make sure that the village looked correct. I’m not amused by my own imagination. I love to get it right and understand the world around me, and these professionals and these real people help me do that.


DT: One of your inspirations, actually, is the documentarian Jorgen Leth, who is famous for his anthropological studies of people. How has he affected your filmmaking?

TL: Just watching his film I learned that you can get a lot of story told without being judgmental and without going into melodrama but just by looking at people. I think that’s fascinating. He taught me a very simple thing, which is that we are all trained throughout our lives to walk into rooms that we haven’t been in before, meet people that we haven’t met before, and still understand them, connect with them on a human level. What we often see in cinema is that we’re forgetting the audience has this talent. We’re almost asking them to leave that talent outside the theater and come in blank, like a page, and then we fill in all the blanks with all this kind of information that I’m not sure we need. I learned from Jorgen Leth that the cynical, honest, and nonjudgmental camera will be able to capture humanity and therefore, without being sentimental, will help you through situations you didn’t know of before.


DT:  You wrote the screenplay for Hunt, in addition to writing and directing A Hijacking and A War. In all three of these films, there’s a sort of hero character who becomes isolated from the group. Can you talk about that dynamic in your films?

TL:  When I was nineteen years old, I sold what I had, bought a train ticket, and traveled around Europe alone for a year. I remember being alone, and I remember being confronted with who I was. When you’re around other people, you pretend to be somebody, to fit in. Then, when you’re isolated and you’re suddenly all by yourself, you become the honest you in some way. I always found that it’s interesting to look at who we are when we’re part of the group and who we are when we’re left outside.

I don’t think there’s anything more challenging to human life than isolation. Basically that’s what I’m looking for in these dramas, to challenge our heroes as much as possible. Everybody knows that you can feel all right when you have your friends at your house and everything is great, then everybody leaves and suddenly you’re caught in that emptiness where it’s just you and all your thoughts. That can be a very scary place to be. I talked to a psychiatrist the other day about his work, and he said something really interesting: “I’ve started to keep my phone open for my clients after five o’clock in the afternoon because it’s not until the darkness arrives and people start to get isolated that the demons come.” I think there’s a very, very human truth to that, and that’s one of the things I’m looking for.

I view Scandinavians as a group of penguins. When it’s really, really cold, we get together and stand and turn our backs to the cold, looking in the same direction and trying to help each other keep warm. But if, by mistake or coincidence, you get pushed out of that circle and you’re left out in the cold, nobody sees it because everybody has their eyes turned away. And then you freeze to death. And that’s very brutal, of course, but nevertheless it’s a very precise way of talking about Scandinavians.


DT:  That’s an amazing analogy. Your philosophy in filmmaking, I think, seems to be best described as better too little than too much. How would you say that applies to this film?

TL: There are so many scenes that you would like to see about a wife being afraid of her husband dying, so many melodramatic scenes that could come in there, but they would remove the movie from reality. We never talk about what we feel. We always talk about other stuff, and through that we understand how each other feels. We don’t wait for a plot to begin. We live our lives and then stuff happens, and it’s not until years later that we even look back and say, “Wow, there was a connection between that choice and that choice.” We just do stuff, and the connection is created later. I feel that that’s a simple, simple way of understanding life; it’s a great way to try to understand storytelling as well. Often we don’t need that many setups and that many recalls and structural scenes that will make sure the audience understands what’s going on. People are very good at living, so they can watch a film for two hours—understanding a movie is not as hard as living, anyway, and that’s why I don’t need all that information in the stuff that I do.


DT:  You wrote and directed A Hijacking before doing the same with A War. On A Hijacking, did you ever find yourself as director looking at the script and saying, I’ve got to get rid of this scene or change this line of dialogue? If so, did that experience change the way you wrote the screenplay for A War?

TL:  When I write a screenplay for me as the director, I allow myself to be a little lazy and sloppy because I know I can fix it when we’re on set. When I write for Thomas Vinterberg, for example, my greatest job is to make sure the screenplay is fully proofed and that everybody who reads  it understands what the vision is. When it’s for me, I’m there to explain it anyway, so I can be a little looser about it. I always try to create situations that feel so natural that the actors really don’t need the lines I’ve written because it’s logical what they’re going to say and how they’re going to respond.

We try not to bring too many copies of the screenplay to the set. I rather want us to have a conversation about the scenes. I know what the scene is going to be about anyway, so we have people try it on, and then we have the screenplay as a secure place to go back to if it doesn’t work. So basically there’s a lot of guys who’ve never read the screenplay, and you’d be surprised how many of them actually say lines that I’ve written without ever reading them.

DT:  So you don’t distribute the script in advance?

TL: Not to everybody, and not all scenes. Some of the scenes you don’t need to know, because you don’t know what’s going to happen in real life, so if you know because you’ve read the story already, you’re not going to be surprised. And I need people’s surprise.


I never gave the actors the last five pages of the script, which means they didn’t know whether Pedersen was going to jail or not. The first take we did in the courtroom, I actually sent him to jail for six years. Everybody went mad and started to cry; they were angry with me because I did this dark tragedy, and they didn’t understand it. Then I said, Let’s do it again, and I ended up changing it for the second take, so now the judge came out and she let him go. Everybody was extremely relieved, and I do believe that the authentic relief we see in that scene comes from that.



DT:  Let me ask you about the testimony given at the trial by the different members of the platoon. Almost none of them came to the aid of their commander. Was there a sort of racial/ethnic divide in their testimony? I don’t know if I was picking up on something that wasn’t there…

TL: If you picked it up, then it was there, but it was not my intention. This can sound pretty naïve, but I just took the actors and the guys I thought were best for the part. I really didn’t think about ethnicity. It’s not part of my toolbox. I don’t want to control that. It’s part of life. I have Muslim friends, I have friends from everywhere in the world. They populate my world, and therefore they populate my films. It’s not a conscious choice of ethnicity and race, it’s all about who I found was good for the part.


DT: In the press notes, you’re quoted as saying, “I was never in a war, so I thought I’d start with something my sweet leftist mother taught me: ‘War is evil, and so people at war are evil, too.’  I wanted to challenge that inference.” Why did you want to challenge that inference, and how did that perspective influence the making of the film?

TL:  I wanted to challenge it because I believe that the world is extremely complex, and it’s extremely easy to sit on my couch at home and be judgmental when I watch the news and look at soldiers who have killed civilians and say, Well, they are evil and violent. I thought, Let me challenge that. I want to challenge stuff to become smarter and understand the world even better. I was brought up in the ’80s in Denmark, where the world was blue and red: in the cold war you were either a capitalist or a communist. That world disappeared in ’89 when the wall went down and the world changed.

I’m not a big celebrator of fixed ideas. I think that as soon as you think you know the truth, you can always find its antithesis. That’s a beautiful thing, and that’s part of evolution. And therefore I was a little provoked.

I love my mother. She’s great. And she’s a product of her time, as I am a product of my time. She brought me up believing that rich people stole their money from poor people. Maybe that’s partly true, but I realized it wasn’t the full truth. And I thought to myself, if I want to prove the complexity of war, I have to tell a story where I can get my mother to sympathize with a war criminal. If I can do that, then I’m getting close to the complexity of it all. That became a goal for me—to make sure that I could make a story where everybody could identify with a guy who ended up being a war criminal. I think the prosecutor at the trial is right when she says, “We cannot accept this” [i.e., his decision to save his comrades at the expense of the lives of Afghan civilians].

Even if we can understand it, we can’t accept it. But then again, having an emotional connection to his children and his wife, I’m not sure that I would want to send him to jail. To be able to admit that—if we can admit the complexity of our own emotions and the world around us like that, then I think that we have opened up to have a really important conversation instead of just standing in each corner and screaming, I am for or against the war.


Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Omar/Hany Abu-Assad

In Hany Abu-Assad‘s Omar, a young Palestinian informant is trapped between his Israeli handler and his love for a woman who lives on the other side of the separation wall.  Palestine’s entry to the 2014 Academy Awards,Omar is poised to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck PR, for arranging this interview.


DT:  One of the things that surprised me most in Omar was the fact that people scale the wall to visit family and friends on the other side.  What other kinds of adjustments do people make to live under occupation?


HAA:  I don’t think the film is about that.  It’s about love, friendship, trust, betrayal, and paranoia, how connected they are to each other, and how important trust is to society and love and friendship.  In this instance, it’s a love story between Omar and Nadia.

In every love story you have obstacles—the outside obstacles and the inside obstacles.  The outside obstacle inRomeo and Juliet is the families that are fighting.  In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, it’s race. In West Side Storyit’s the social differences.  In Omar, it’s the occupation.  Usually the wall is a depressing thing for me, but when I realized how powerful a visualization of the obstacle it was, I was happy with the wall for a second, because I felt, My God, how can I get a better image for visualizing the obstacle than this wall?  Who on earth in the history of cinema could visualize the outside obstacle?  In Romeo and Juliet you need so many shots and so much introduction and dialogue to visualize the obstacle.  Here—just the wall.  An image, and a boy trying to climb.  Oh my God.  It’s the best visualization of an obstacle ever.


DT:  But people really do scale the wall.


HAA:   Sure.  The wall doesn’t come between Israel and the West Bank.  The wall comes between Palestinian and Palestinian to divide them from themselves.  It’s inside the West Bank.  It’s not on the border.  This is why it’s divided a lot of families, and a lot of life, and even a lot of animals from each other.   Wild animals used to go down in the winter and up in the summer, and now they can’t move because of the wall. But again, the main goal of the film is not showing how people live under occupation.  It’s showing how human beings have to deal with important issues like love and friendship under extreme circumstances, which is occupation.


DT:  You’ve described the setting for Omar as a “virtual Palestinian city.”  What do you mean by that?


HAA:  Because the wall does not divide Israel from Palestine but Palestinian from Palestinians, my idea was not to portray an actual city but a virtual city where a wall cut it in the middle.  It’s not an actual city.


DT:  It’s not Nablus or Ramallah, for example.


HAA:  It can be four or five places.  It can’t be Jenin, because there is no wall in Jenin.  There is no wall in Nazareth.  There is no wall in Jericho.  But I think it can be in Beit Jala, Bethlehem, for example, between al-Ram or Qalandia, between Tulkarm, between Qalqilya and itself.  I didn’t want people to say, Oh, it’s Bethlehem, or Beit Jala, for example.


DT:  Two things struck me at the Q&A after the New York Film Festival press screening.


HAA:  My answers.


DT:  First of all, you said the film is universal.  Then people got offended when you called Omar a hero.  Do you think the Palestinian narrative—and although you keep saying the film is not about the Palestinian narrative, the context is the Palestinian narrative—is universal, and why do you think Omar is a hero?


HAA:  Why did it strike you?  Is it illogical that it’s a universal issue?


DT:  I think that films about a terrorist are not comprehensible in the West the way they are in the Middle East.


HAA:  But why is Omar a terrorist?


DT:  Because he participated in a terrorist attack. Even though I’m against the occupation, I still saw his killing the soldier as a terrorist attack.


HAA:  This is your definition.  Even the most extreme right-wing definition of a terrorist attack is when you kill civilians or attack society for political reasons.  I think that for everybody on this earth, except you maybe, killing a soldier wouldn’t be called a terrorist attack.  But then everything is a terrorist attack.  What do you call war?  A terrorist attack?


DT:  Yes.


HAA:  I understand.  Any act of violence is already terror for you.


DT:  If it’s a political act of violence, yes.


HAA:  That’s interesting.  Could the Americans have freed themselves from the English without an armed struggle? Could Europe have freed itself from the Nazis?  If they were pacifists, as you want, the Nazis would rule the world.


DT:  Is this your answer to my question, or are we debating pacifism?


HAA:  How can I answer your question about Omar? I think it’s very universal.  Maybe not to you, but it’s universal to anyone I know in Europe and the United States.  They will fight against occupation.  The universal dividing line is this:  If it’s against soldiers, it’s not a terrorist attack.  If it’s against civilians, it’s a terrorist attack. This is why I think it’s universal.  But also the main themes are universal…falling in love, people under extreme circumstances having to make choices.  This is all universal.  Now the second thing that struck you:  Omar being a hero.



HAA:  He’s a tragic hero, but he’s still a hero. Let’s define a tragic hero.  A tragic hero means well but ends up destroying the one he’s trying to protect.  In The Godfather, Michael Corleone intends to protect his family and ends up killing them.  An anithero acts as a hero but doesn’t want to:  He does something he doesn’t want to do and ends up saving someone.  A hero is somebody who consciously knows that his act will result in heroism.  In our case, Omar is a tragic hero because he did everything to get his love but ended up destroying his love.  And this is why his redemption is to kill Rami, his Israeli handler, in order to protect Nadia, because Rami is still a threat and Omar will sacrifice himself for Nadia.  This is why, according to the definitions, he’s a tragic hero.



DT:  Can you talk about shooting in the territories, especially getting permission to shoot on the wall, using an all-Palestinian cast and crew, and the differences between when you shot Paradise Now and when you shot Omar?


HAA:  Wow, what a big difference, believe me.  2005 [shooting Paradise Now] was a traumatic experience.  I couldn’t go back to the West Bank for more than three years, it was so traumatic. I had so many troubles.


DT:  From the Israelis or Palestinians?


HAA:  From Israelis and some Palestinians, but from both.  It was too much.  It was the invasion at that time, it was curfews, no permission.  This time we had cooperation from everybody.


DT:  Why?


HAA:  Anybody knows that if they give me a problem, you, as a journalist, will ask me, “Did they give you any problems?”  And then I have to answer, “They did this to me.  They did that to me.” Now I don’t need to tell these stories.  They are happy that I’m not telling these stories, and I am more than happy that I’m doing my movies.  It’s good.  We even had permission to shoot on the wall up to a certain height.


DT:  Permission from the Israelis?


HAA:  Yes—til the last two meters from the top.  The last two meters we built somewhere else for all the closeup shots on top of the wall.  We used an all-Palestinian cast and crew in order to contribute to our community.  If your community is under occupation and seeking independence, you have to try to be less dependent on others by using your own resources.  It’s an act of good for the community.


DT:  Omar is your second film to compete for an Academy Award.  What’s the nominating procedure in Palestine?


HAA:  It’s a funny story.  The Ministry of Culture will form a commission from different disciplines.


DT:  Through the Palestinian Authority?


HAA:  Yes.  They have a Ministry of Culture, which has a cinema department. They appoint a commission of professionals from the field—producers, directors—and show them the films that are competing. Then the commission chooses one.  Now, in my case, there was no other film.  Mine was the only one being submitted, maybe because other directors thought they had no chance.  The head of the commission said, “What are we going to do?  We’re going to pretend?”  Everyone knew there was no other film, but when he called everybody, he said, “We choose Omar.  Do you agree?”  It was funny.   It was kind of like a joke.


DT:  You got into directing through producing.  How did being a producer affect your directing?


HAA:  As a director I always took the budget into consideration.  Even now I can’t get rid of that habit.  It’s not good sometimes.


DT:  What would you have done with Omar that you didn’t do?


HAA:  I would have spent more money on editing, and I think I needed more time on the fake wall.


DT:  Between Paradise Now and Omar, people think of you only as a director of Palestinian narratives, yet the first feature you directed was a comedy written by a Dutch Jew whose mother survived Auschwitz.  How do you want to be thought of as a director?


HAA:  As a Palestinian film director, because I have the most pain from that side.  Being a Palestinian is not easy;  simply being a Palestinian is already an accusation.  They say Omar is a controversial movie, for example.  I ask myself, if it were a Chinese movie, would it be controversial? Just being a Palestinian is already controversial.  It makes you angry.  Mad.  Because why is it that way?  It’s a painful situation to see that your family can’t visit each other, to see that if I want to go to the West Bank I have to go through checkpoints, through soldiers who have to control me.

You see we are living in ghettos.  The occupation is taking the land little by little.  It’s painful, and that’s why I give this identity as the biggest, because I want to get rid of this the most.  I want the Palestinians to be equal with Israelis.  Very simple.  To live equal.  Then I will feel better.  I am a selfish man.  I want to feel better because I want to be equal.  Anyhow, I’m partly European.  I’m Dutch, actually.


DT:  You have a Dutch passport?


HAA:  Not just a passport.  I’m Dutch.  I know the Dutch language very well.  Holland formed me culturally.  It’s an easy country.  I just got an invitation from the queen.


DT:  Mazel tov.


HAA:  Every year she invites several artists for lunch, and this year I’m one of them.  My Dutch identity is a lost identity because I have no problems from it.  I got a lot of pleasure working with Arnon Grunberg, the Jewish writer you referred to earlier.  He was very influential on me…I learned a lot of things about language from him.  He’s a great guy.


DT:  Is there anything you want to add?


HAA:  Judge the movie as a movie.  In terms of my politics, I am condemning the occupation.  Period.  I’m not apologetic about it, and I’m not going to do a movie in order to discuss whether there is an occupation or not.  From our point of view there is an occupation. Period. And I’m also not going to discuss whether there’s a good side to the occupation.  You want me to make a movie to show there is a good side to the occupation or that there are good people in Israel?  Why should I make a movie to tell you there are good people in Israel?  In all my films I condemn the occupation, and this time I didn’t even put Israel in it.  The word Israel doesn’t exist and the wordPalestinian doesn’t exist.  It’s just people under occupation.  But I really want people to judge me as a filmmaker.  If you don’t like what I have to say about politics, so what?  There are so many people saying what I’m saying about politics, but you don’t need to agree with me on politics.  Just go and watch Omar and judge it as a movie.  Don’t condemn it in advance because it’s Palestinian or taking the Palestinian side.  And yes, it’s taking the Palestinian side.  So what?  I’m Palestinian. Why shouldn’t I?  I should take the American side?


DT:  Let me ask you one more question:  What do you think of the nonviolent resistance movement in Bil’in?


HAA:  I am like you:  a pacifist in the sense that I’ve never harmed a person in my entire life.  Not only physicalIy; I don’t like to harm anybody.  Even my enemies.  I always try to forgive, because if you carry hate, it’s you who’s going to be paying.  I don’t carry hate.  I believe that violence—whether it’s an Arab struggle, which is legal, or any kind of violence that has its freedom fighters—will have its toll on society.  Violence will always take its toll. But I also understand from life that not everybody has the luxury to be nonviolent like me or the people who protest at Bil’in.


DT:  You think nonviolence is a luxury?


HAA:  You need to be morally superior to say to someone who’s hitting you, “You are wrong.”  Not everybody has this superior morality; most people don’t.  I can’t require them to act like me,  even if I’m a pacifist.  As a pacifist, you feel that even though a soldier will humiliate you, you are superior to him.  I feel superior to them.


DT:  In what way?


HAA:  I have more knowledge, I have more luck in life, I’m a talented guy…all these things make me feel that in general I take more from life than the soldiers do.  They have to stand at the checkpoints to kill people, so even if they have weapons, I’m luckier than them.  A soldier  once tried to shoot me, but I just stood there and said, “You can kill me, but you’re wrong.”  You need to be morally superior to lose your hate.  Not everybody can easily lose their hate like me, because I know that hate will destroy me.  This is why I don’t hate.  It will destroy me before it destroys my enemy.  This is why I feel, Let him live his life.  I will be more than happy to be far from my enemies.  But not everybody can, and I can’t demand that they be like me.  This is the only difference I have from other pacifists: I can’t demand that everybody be like me.  I can teach them and lecture them.  But I also understand that no one on earth wants to live in an inferior position—no one—and they will find their way to fight.  Some people will be very destructive in the fight, and I think that violence is sometimes destructive in the fight for freedom, but I understand them.

I hope you are satisfied.


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