"Omar"

A network of proud expatriates is helping to build the region’s nascent film industry

Ahmed and Mohamed Abu Nasser were born in 1988 in Gaza, where there are no movie theaters. But the twins, who work under the names Tarzan and Arab, were determined to make movies, so they would run home from school to their computer, where they would watch six, seven films in a single run, and then dream up imaginary plots and titles and make posters for the pretend projects.

Today, the twins, each one big and burly, with long, unkempt hair and piercing eyes, are living in Amman, Jordan, where they won a joint scholarship to study filmmaking in October. And the days of make-believe are over: Their short film “Condom Lead” will appear in competition at Cannes, the first-ever Palestinian short to do so.

The brothers’ journey is indicative of the grassroots nature of the nascent Palestinian film industry, where a handful of creative helmers and scribes are being boosted by an extensive network of nationalistic expats with deep pockets and an intense desire to see the cinema of this not-yet-born country succeed.

The Abu Nassers made their 15-minute film for less than 5,000 Jordanian dinar ($7,057). It has zero dialogue and shows a married couple trying, and failing, for intimacy during the 2009 Israeli offensive, dubbed Operation Cast Lead. The pic was shot in a single day in an Amman house loaned by a friend, with cut-rate equipment and with producers doubling as actors.

The twins will be joined at Cannes by Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, whose feature “Omar” (pictured above) unspools in Un Certain Regard. Unlike Abu-Assad’s Oscar-nommed “Paradise Now,” which was co-produced with a smattering of European nations, “Omar” was made almost entirely with Palestinian money, sourced by a grassroots effort headed by Waleed Zuaiter, a Hollywood actor (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”) who served as both thesp and producer on the project.

“We reached out to everyone (for funding),” says Zuaiter, who was born in California and raised in Kuwait by Palestinian parents. “Like, if you were one-eighth Palestinian, we came to you; for us, there were no borders.” Together with his two brothers, businessmen with strong inroads to the Palestinian business community, Zuaiter and the “Omar” teamed drummed up the $2 million needed to finance the film, which was shot in the West Bank and the Israeli-Arab town of Nazareth late last year.

Abu-Assad is quick to point out, however, that the power of “Omar” lies in the pic’s universality: It is a love story set in the West Bank, and he believes its plot will resonate with audience members from across the globe.

“It’s first for Palestinians, but it’s not only for Palestinians,” he says. “It’s a drama with integrity, and it speaks a universal language.”

Zuaiter says the team did take a small amount of funding from Dubai (“about 5%,” he says), and that the vast majority of Palestinians who invested are living outside the region. But by creating a film about Palestine with home-sourced donors, he says, Abu-Assad has done something groundbreaking for Palestinian cinema.

“Hany and I had a vision to help boost the local Palestinian film industry and to create jobs,” Zuaiter says. “We wanted to create somewhat of an economy there, to generate something.”

While the process is just beginning, one day the Abu Nassers may be among its beneficiaries. The money for “Condom Lead” came out of their own pockets, and shooting in Jordan rather than the West Bank made the logistics much easier.

“It’s extremely, extremely hard to make films and to produce art in Gaza,” says producer Rashid Adbelhamid. “But we are representing Palestine and Gaza. The whole idea of doing what we are doing is to show a different side of Palestine.”

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