Comparisons to Romeo and Juliet are unfair. The Oscar-nominated foreign language film Omar has something much more complex than star-crossed lovers under its surface. Set in the dangerous West Bank, a territory cut in half by a humongous wall, the titular character scales said obstacle to meet the leader of a group of freedom fighters. And alright, to secretly flirt with the leader's sister. Love, loyalty, ideology, betrayal and an animosity between religious groups thousands of years old factor in to complicate any sort of affection.
It's quite a burden to portray on screen, especially for two actors appearing in their first feature. From Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, Omar is the director's second Oscar-nominated foreign language film. His first was 2005's acclaimed Paradise Now. Yet, Adam Bakri, who plays Omar, and Leem Lubany, who plays his love interest, Nadia, reveal a wry confidence that helped them dive into their rather tragic characters.
"I'm really shocked and overwhelmed," Lubany said about the Oscar nomination, "but, you know, we deserve it." Then the two laughed.
The Palestinian actors, who grew up in Israel, offer some telephone time ahead of their red carpet appearance at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, which will premiere *Omar in South Florida the following night, Friday.
"I actually agree," Bakri said, about earning the nod. "I think that it deserves the recognition it's been getting, and I'm really thrilled, of course. We didn't expect an Oscar nomination, but I'm thrilled, and I'm really happy for us and everyone that was involved with this whole process."
Bakri, who studied acting at the prestigious Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York, says he got the job after sending some audition tapes from fresh after graduation.
"I sent the tape, and like a week after, I flew to Israel for another series of auditions, and then eventually I got the part."
Lubany, on the other hand, admits to never having studied acting with the formality Bakri did, who double majored in theater acting and English literature at Tel Aviv University before moving to New York for Strasberg's school of method acting.
"Before the movie, I didn't even think that I liked acting," he admitted. "After I got in the audition and started rehearsing and was on set, I just understood. I love it."
Shooting in her hometown of Nazareth and Nablus in Palestine, not to mention the Far'a refugee camp, became an eye-opening experience for the young actors, who seem very proud of their Palestinian roots.
"We don't live in the West Bank, but we're Palestinians," says Bakri, "so we pretty much know a lot, but we're Palestinian-Israelis, but we did our research before the movie, of course."
For the method actor Bakri, that meant immersing himself in the character and living day-to-day life in the West Bank a week before shooting. Lubany joined her.
"For me, it was very important to not only do my research but actually be on the ground and see where Omar lived, like how he lived," Bakri said. "We did go to a refugee camp in the West Bank, and we had the tour, and I'd been there a couple of times before, so I know how people live in West Bank and under what circumstances."
"They taught us everything," Lubany noted, "the feel of everything, and I got a better feeling for [the West Bank]."
The Jewish population in Miami is certainly larger in South Florida than the Palestinian. Lubany hopes Jews bring an open mind to their movie, which features some intense chase and torture sequences with some extremely resourceful and relentless Israeli police officers.
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"I mean, it does show the Jew in a negative way, but it's just what's happening there," she said. "Some people want to see that, and some people don't. It's their choice, but I think everyone should see it and just kind of get away from everything and just watch it with an open mind."
Omar Premiere Friday, Feb. 21, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema (260 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables). A Q&A with the actors will follow the film along with open bar and Middle Eastern food. Opening reception at 7 p.m., and tickets cost $15 to $20 via movietickets.com. Call 786-385-9689 or visit gablescinema.com.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.