130927-omar-hany-abu-assadOmar is a movie that toes the line between different genres and different directions in narrative. Nothing is as it seems; the same can be said of its director, Hany Abu-Assad, who strikes a modest figure but is a veritable fountain of knowledge on all things cinema. Similarly, Waleed Zuaiter, who plays Agent Rami – the ‘villain’, for want of a better word – is an unassuming character, speaking about his craft with much passion and with zero pretension.

Between the two, HeyUGuys got a glimpse inside what makes Omar such a fantastic thriller; we talk about its unwillingness to focus on more specific genre tropes, how the Cannes film festival affects films of such a scale, and how the complexities of human condition makes for endless storytelling possibilities.

I personally couldn’t decide whether Omar was a love story or a war story. Is that kind of the combination that you were aiming for with the film?

Hany: Yes – the idea started as a love story, and set in a thriller genre. And I love the combination of two genres; I love also the combination of two things that appear not to go together. Because I believe in art, the most surprising element is when you discover that tragedy is to combine with comedy, for example – tragicomedy for me is the highest level of art. And this is why I always try to make things that [are] not definable one way.

Do you think this is more tragedy as opposed to comedy?

Ha, yes. At the end, it’s tragedy. Again, if you combine things, it’s emphasised the tragedy, and the tragedy, because there is a comedy; you know, if you don’t do it just because you want to be doing better art. No, no, no; you do it because it will create a better understanding of yourself towards the problem. Because there is a comedy, the tragedy becomes big.

And Waleed, how do you feel about that subject? How was it playing with those kind of tones?

Waleed: Well, for me, that’s the secret to any really good emotional arc to a story. The comedy gets you to humanise the characters… because when you laugh, it’s such a universal, international thing. And then you can easily get into the characters, then your heart is with them, and then, the tragedy’s that much more powerful.

You’re one of the central actors who was the only one with previous experience in front of the camera. Is that correct?


So, how was that being the most experienced one? Did you pass on any tips toward the other actors?

It was a learning experience for me as well, actually, because one of those was for me the first time working with Hany. And I learned a tremendous amount from him. And he works in a different style from what I’m used to working with in the States. And also, just from the other actors, there was this certain rawness and freshness to the performances, where, when you sometimes work with other actors, people have either different habits that they’ve acquired over the years, or whatever, and in this case, the actors were very hungry, and very receptive to things. So, a lot of times when people came and ask me, do I have experience? I learned this from a previous film that I worked on where I would just tell them; I said, ask the director. And try to be there as, as supportive as I possibly can, but you know in film especially,  the director – the filmmaker – is the voice that you know is carrying the whole story. So I would always direct them to then.

And were there any particular moments during filming that you went to Hany, where you asked him for advice?

Oh absolutely, all the time (laughs). Part of my process is that I ask a lot of questions, and one of the great things that I learned from Hany is that he doesn’t always give me the answers. You get a better performance when the actor comes up with the answer on their own, because it’s coming from within. And you get that ownership. And you just reminded me, actually, one of the first things that I asked Hany; Iasked him a question – I can’t remember what the question was – but there were two different answers, and he would always say, ‘it’s both’. It’s not just one or the other, it’s both. And really it’s interesting, because most characters, you know, that’s what makes a conflicted character – is that there are sometimes, you know, one thing or the other, it’s both, and it’s the actor struggling between both choices.

Hany: And also, I like always to ask the questions to the actor. Like, in order to let them answer themselves. And they will understand better.

Do you prefer getting the actor to come up with pretty much their character all by themselves? Or do you have a large part?

Hany: I’m just the compass. I’m just the compass. All the time I’m correcting the direction, but I love actors to come up and to feel that they’ve become the character. And they have a kind of power, but, what do you call it, I guide the power, and the director guides this power to one direction. But it’s a power; it’s like, this power, it’s coming from the actor, not from the director. The power of believing in, really you become your whole character you are playing. And this has to come from inside, and you just guide it in one direction.

And on that note, Waleed, there’s a moment in the film where your character, Agent Rami, turns up at Omar’s bakery just by surprise, just as a regular person. So I was wondering, was there a challenge in conveying so many layers to who is essentially the villain of the piece?

Waleed: You know, that was the first scene I filmed. I was very nervous because of that. Because it comes later. And so you really kind of have to think of, you know, everything that’s happened before, and we hadn’t shot any of it. So, again, you have to as an actor, I love to totally surrender to the director. And Hany was just really great in guiding me, like he said. But you know, it’s like all these shades between, and you want to from all the different takes you want to just try things, and just take your time, whatever, and I think there’s the secret to Rami for me, was stillness and this calmness, which is also intimidating. So, I think that’s what that scene, for me, meant tying in everything else.

How do you feel big film festivals like Cannes help out a film like Omar?

Hany: Oh, tremendously. I have to say that I truly appreciate the French. Like the festival, Cannes, it’s so important for the alternative movies. Even English alternative movies are depending on Cannes; and depending also on the French audience, because at the end, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, for example, are as big in France as they are big in England, you know. And the audience, when they are going and supporting such a movie, the French audience… I truly think Cannes and the French culture, going to such alternative movies, that really go and see movies like this. And it’s tremendous support; because I think alternative movies would die without the French and Cannes. There are other festivals like Berlin, but let’s say the German audience – there is this important festival Berlin, but the Germans, as a public, not the selective Germans, but as a public, don’t go and watch alternative movies. Even alternative German movies do better in France than in Germany. It’s that crazy; the French are the only real – the French audience, not the select one – the French audience is the only audience in the world [that will] still go and support alternative movies.

What do you think, Waleed? Have you had any experience where that’s been the case? Has there been a film that you’ve starred in that an audience has latched onto?

Waleed: This for me was my first festival circuit with a film. So, it was very eye-opening and I’ve always been a fan of foreign-language films, you know, just being in the States most of my life. And I just realised that it’s just… it’s unfortunate that a lot of the bigger, more publically received films are these bigger, special-effects blockbuster-types of films. So for me, it’s just been an educational process where you get to see all these other amazing films, and it’s human stories, which have such an emotional arc, and I’m hoping that we can go back to doing that. Go back to basics. Because that’s really amazing storytelling.

Hany, you’re really interested in humanity, and that’s what keeps you going as a storyteller. So what was it about Omar and his conflict that got you making the film?

Hany: I mean, when somebody would pressure you to betray your friends, and you have two difficult choices – if you don’t betray your friends you’ll stay in jail forever. But if you betray your friends, you might go on and live your life with your lover. And it’s [a] really interesting conflict between your desire and your duty as a human being; I believe in the reality that nowadays, most of people would choose themselves. But it’s always interested in the process of doing that, or undoing that. And as humans on Earth, we can let go of our values through these kind of experiences. Without going through this kind of experience, it’s kind of a … without going and doing that in reality, you will be questioning yourself as a human being. What I would do if I was him, how I would behave? And by questioning this, you are questioning your moral values, you know. And this is very important in our human development (as humans). How can we become more and more understandable toward each other? Toward ourselves?

Is that something that resonates with you, Waleed? What got you onto the project in the first place?

Waleed: Absolutely. I mean, it was the fastest script I ever read. And a lot of that has to do with that you were immediately immersed in the characters, especially in Omar. And for me, the architecture of the script was just perfect for me, because I didn’t for a second need to rethink what was happening. I was always, the story always had me moving forward. And it was that emotional drive of Omar that really just, you know, I was just so engrossed in. I mean, Hany has a real eye for detail. You see that in his writing, and you see that in his directing. And so what it does is that acting is all about details. More details you have, the more human, the more real it becomes. And then the more you can get the audience to relate and connect emotionally. And I saw that in the writing, and I also saw it in the directing, and it inspired me for every scene that I came to, to bring other specific things, and it was exciting.

Omar is available to purchase on DVD now.