CAIRO: Achieving recognition in Hollywood is simply nothing more than a dream for many. Except for a handful, most Arabs have always looked at that dream as unattainable, coupled with the added difficulty of coming from the Middle East. Omar Naim proved them wrong.
Naim, a Lebanese-born director/scriptwriter, made his cinematic debut with “The Final Cut, a film starring Robin Williams. The award winning cast includes Mira Sorvino and James Caviesel; Tak Fujimoto (Silence of the Lambs) is the cinematographer.
The story is science fiction, revolving around a chip implanted in people’s brains to record every thing they see and hear.When they die, the chip is given to a “cutter who edits the footage to form a film commemorating the deceased’s good deeds, regardless of the nature of his life path.
The film does not fit into the stereotype or comply with expectations regarding how an Arab should make, or what an Arab should include, in a Hollywood film. “[Artists] must represent themselves. To be a mouthpiece for your country, your religion or your ethnicity or culture, it is presumptuous to try and represent anybody but yourself. Our job is to represent who we are.
“As an individual, my Arab identity is all over the movie. It’s just not explicit. You can’t get rid of your finger prints. That’s who you are. I think I’d like to one day make films about the Middle East.
Naim was honored last Wednesday by the Cairo International Film festival for his accomplishments abroad; eight other Arab artists working abroad received the same honorary prizes. The event was held under the auspices of Omar El Sharif.
“[When] I started writing, I was an English-speaking person. By the time I wanted to become a filmmaker, English was my language of choice, which predisposes you to either go to England or the United States. They make more movies in the United States, so I went to the United States, said Naim.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen. One step at a time. For me, I chose [the U.S.] as place to study first. Many of the filmmakers I admire studied in the United States, he added.
Working within the United States’ entertainment industry for 10 years, the 28-year-old Naim said he faced no obstacles related to his Arab identity. He first studied film in Boston and directed a documentary about his hometown Beirut – “Grand Theater: Tale of Beirut. It got him a nomination for a student Oscar.
The film that surveyed Lebanon’s history and civil war through the story of an old theater in the capital brought Naim back to Lebanon – he was born there,but his family left to Jordan during the civil war and then to Cyprus. Hence, English was Naim’s first language.
After “Grand Theater, which was his graduation project, Naim worked in different film sets, doing all sorts of jobs.
His work, specifically documentaries, inspired the story behind “The Final Cut. Noticing how editing could change the actual meaning of stories, Naim penned the script. “I knew that if I wanted to be a director, I’d have to write something that someone will want to make badly enough to let me direct.
The script, a mix of science fiction and psychology, along with its story board gained the admiration of the participants of a France-based screen writing workshop Naim had submitted the script to. He met producer Nick Wechsler at the workshop and, after many discussions, they decided to collaborate and approached production houses.
Lions Gates Incorporated approved the script, on the condition of attracting a star.
The introvert lead character made Naim think of casting the lively Robin Williams to create a contrast. Naim noted that William’s dark drama, “One Hour Photo, featured him as a psycho,a role different from his in “The Final Cut.
He added that he didn’t see Williams as a star, but rather as an actor, a man with a job – Naim’s mother,Nedal Askhar is a famous Arab actress, and thus Naim grew up among the stars.
Williams agreed to star the film once he read the script.
Although the independent film didn’t fair well at the box office, its DVD and VHS sales and rentals have been remarkable. Arab and Egyptian critics expressed their admiration of the film when it was screened in the festival.
Naim is currently working on two scripts – one in English and one in Arabic, to be filmed in the Middle East.