Increasingly over the past few years, films about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have made their way from the war-torn region to Hollywood. This year, however, there’s a notable precedent — for though the Palestinian territories are yet to be recognized as a state by the United Nations, Palestine already has an Oscar nomination to its name.
Omar, directed by acclaimed Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, was nominated for Best Picture in a Foreign Language Film by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, making it the first time a nominated film has had Palestine listed as its country of origin, according to Al Jazeera. The bold step on the part of the Academy to recognize Abu-Assad’s work as a Palestinian film rightly attests to the growing social and cultural legitimacy of the Palestinian people.
The film, set against the backdrop of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, follows its young protagonist, Omar, as he struggles under the pressure to work as an informant for the Israeli authorities. Receiving an overall rating of 90 percent “fresh” from Rotten Tomatoes, Omar is the second Palestinian film to be nominated in the best foreign language category. The first, Paradise Now, was listed as being from the Palestinian territories.
Though Omar managed to get the attention of the Academy, past works in the Palestinian film industry haven’t been as lucky. Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s 2003 film Divine Intervention was not considered by the Academy selection committee because the Palestinian territories, despite enjoying U.N. observer status and recognition by more than 115 countries at the time, was not formally recognized as a sovereign nation by the U.N. That changed, however, with the U.N. General Assembly’s 2012 recognition of Palestine as a non-member state, paving the way for the Academy to recognize Omar in time for this year’s Oscars.
Such recognition has been a long time coming. When Abu-Assad’s first Oscar-nominated film, Paradise Now, was being considered, it was controversially labeled as being from the “Palestinian Territories” due to the fact that Abu-Assad, despite identifying as a Palestinian, holds Israeli and Belgian citizenship. Last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary 5 Broken Cameras faced similar controversy about whether it should be identified as an Israeli or Palestinian film during the 2013 Oscars as it was co-directed by both Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi and Palestinian filmmaker Emad Burnat.
This nomination, however, is more than just recognition of a nearly 50-year-old military occupation. It’s also about a people who, despite the daily struggle of living under occupation, manage to create art that can tell their stories. Just as the film’s protagonist Omar struggles under the everyday life of having limited movement due to the security checkpoints both within Israel proper and between it and the Palestinian territories, the filmmakers faced similar travel restrictions while filming.
“When you are under occupation, it is dominating your life whether you like it or not,” Abu-Assad told Al Jazeera. “It’s part of your life. If you want to make a film in Palestine, you can’t avoid the occupation.”
The national identity of a film can be abstract, especially when it comes to contested land such as the Palestinian territories. Yet the recognition of Palestine by the Academy goes to make an important statement to both the film industry and the world. Much in the same way Palestinians crowded the streets in celebration when Gaza-born Mohammed Assaf claimed the title of Arab Idol’s first Palestinian winner, this nomination goes to affirm the legitimacy of the Palestinian people, both socially and culturally. As a nation readily associated with occupation and conflict, this move by the Academy to lend validity to the Palestinian film industry is a step in the right direction.
Yasmeen Serhan is a sophomore majoring in international relations. She is also the Editorial Director of the Daily Trojan.