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Lebanon's Naim on working in Hollywood

Achieving recognition in Hollywood is no more than a dream for many filmmakers. This is no less true for most Arabs in the craft. Omar Naim proved it can be done. Naim, a Lebanese-born director/scriptwriter, made his feature film debut in 2004 with "The Final Cut," starring Robin Williams.

The award-winning cast includes Mira Sorvino and James Caviesel. Tak Fujimoto, of "Silence of the Lambs" fame, oversaw the cinematography.

A science fiction yarn, it revolves around a chip implanted in people's brains to record everything 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 how good his or her life really was.

The film defies existing stereotypes concerning "Arabs" in Hollywood cinema. "[Artists] must represent themselves," said Naim. "To be a mouthpiece for your country, your religion or your ethnicity or culture, it is presumptuous to try and represent anybody but yourself.

"As an individual, my Arab identity is all over the movie. It's just not explicit. You can't get rid of your fingerprints."

Naim was among eight expatriate Arab artists honored last Wednesday by the Cairo International Film festival. The event was held under the auspices of veteran actor Omar Sharif.

"[When] I started writing, I was an English-speaking person," said Naim. "By the time I wanted to become a filmmaker, English was my language of choice ... They make more movies in the U.S., so I went there."

After a decade in the U.S. entertainment industry, the 28-year-old Naim said he faced no obstacles because of his Arab identity. He began studying film in Boston. His final project, the documentary "Grand Theater: A Tale of Beirut," earned him a Student Oscar nomination.

A Lebanese native, Naim's family migrated to Jordan during the Civil War, thence Cyprus. "Grand Theater," a survey of Lebanon's Civil War history from the perspective of the capital's eponymous cultural space, brought Naim back to Lebanon.

"The Final Cut" was inspired by his work with documentary - an in particular how editing can change the meaning of stories. "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."

Naim had submitted is psycho-science fiction script to a France-based screen-writing workshop and earned the admiration of the other participants. He met producer Nick Wechsler at the workshop and, after much discussion, they decided to collaborate in approaching production houses.

Lions Gate gave the script a green light on the condition that the filmmakers could attract a star.

Naim thought of casting Robin Williams in the role of his ambiguous, introverted lead Alan W. Hakman. Some audiences have seen parallels between this role and William's "Cy Parrish" in "One Hour Photo" but Naim says he regards the two characters to be quite different.

He added that he didn't see Williams as a star, but rather as an actor, a man with a job - Naim's mother, Lebanese actor and theater impresario Nidal Ashkar, belongs to this region's stage and screen aristocracy, so Naim grew up among the stars.

Williams read the script and immediately agreed to star in the film.

Although the independent film didn't fair well at the box office, its DVD and VHS sales and rentals have been more accomplished. Egyptian and other Arab critics admired the film when it was screened at the Cairo Festival.

Naim is currently working on two projects. One is in English. The other, in Arabic, will be filmed in the Middle East.

Beirut,12 12 2005
Sarah El Sirgany
The Daily Star
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