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Canuck producer hopes good timing boosts Oscar chances for 'Omar'

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TORONTO - The Canadian producer of the Oscar-nominated love story "Omar" says he's hoping a well-timed release boosts the film's chances of snagging the coveted best foreign-language film prize.

Toronto-bred David Gerson says it's an especially competitive year for the category, heaping praise on rivals from Belgium, Italy, Cambodia and Denmark.

"Omar" is the official submission from Palestine, and happens to hit theatres this Friday in the United States, and in Toronto and Vancouver on Feb. 28, just before the Oscars on March 2.

"All the other contenders in that category — which were all excellent films, by the way, and everybody should see all of them — they've already released in the U.S.," Gerson notes in a recent interview by phone from his adopted home in Berlin.

"We are releasing the film ... this Friday in about 55 screens in the U.S. and there will be the reviews and usual articles and so on, so people will either see the movie or not and we hope they see it and we hope they enjoy it."

The thriller is set in the occupied West Bank where the young Omar routinely scales a towering separation wall to hang out with childhood friends Tarek and Amjad, as well as visit his secret girlfriend Nadia, who is Tarek's younger sister.

Things turn ugly when Omar is arrested for his involvement in a deadly attack on an Israeli soldier, and forced to become an informant for an intelligence officer bent on snagging bigger fish.

Once released back onto the streets, Omar is suspicious of anyone who may have caused his detainment and torture, while his friends grow wary of where Omar's allegiances truly lie.

The political drama heads into the awards race already having won the jury prize in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes film festival last year.

But Gerson notes it faces stiff competition at the Oscars from lauded co-nominees including Belgium's bluegrass love story "The Broken Circle Breakdown," Italy's stylish "The Great Beauty," Denmark's unsettling drama "The Hunt" and Cambodia's claymation doc "The Missing Picture."

"This movie ('Omar') comes from such a small place, to make it to the big show is really quite a day," says Gerson, who studied philosophy at the University of Toronto before taking up film at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He notes that Palestine is not a region known for having the resources for ambitious filmmaking.

"I think it's a great example of what happens when people come together to make something work," he says of the $2-million venture, funded by a conglomerate of Palestinian backers. "We're all very proud of it."

Gerson says "Omar" is essentially a love story, albeit one that is politically charged.

"You can't order a bottle of wine in that region without having to get into politics. Where you park your car is a political determination."

Gerson says he was drawn to the project by writer/director Hany Abu-Assad, whose 2005 film "Paradise Now" earned an Academy Award nomination and won the Golden Globe Award in the same category.

"He's always said this is for him an 'amour fou' — about the madness of love and what it can do to change you and make you do things."

If the film wins, Abu-Assad would get the statue as director, while Gerson says he'll be content to revel in "the glory."

Abu-Assad expects to attend the bash with stars Adam Bakri, who plays Omar, and Leem Lubany, who plays Nadia.

Gerson, meanwhile, says he'll be in Brazil working on another film titled "Super Pai" (Super Dad). He says other projects in the pipeline include the independently financed "The Mumbai King" in India, and the London-set journalism feature "The White on Red" for British filmmaker Rowan Athale, starring Gemma Arterton and Ben Kingsley.

"As you can tell my tastes run across many lands and continents," he says of his diverse credits.

"I just love exciting filmmakers and stories who want people to back them and help shepherd it through the paces."

In 2015, he hopes to collaborate with Toronto-based director Atom Egoyan on a movie set in Stalinist Russia. He promises "big themes, big times, big people, big moments."

"I think he's a great Canadian director and he hasn't gotten his day in the international marketplace," says Gerson.

"He should be on the list of the great directors in the world, which I know he is, but I think a big commercial worldwide movie that demonstrates that to everybody is always good and I'm very excited about getting to work with him."

He says they expect to shoot in Belgrade in the beginning of 2015.

As for "Omar"'s chances at Oscar glory, Gerson sees the film as an underdog.

"The foreign Oscars is a very difficult game and we have no money," says Gerson, who moved to Berlin three years ago and is married to a German citizen.

He notes this year will be the first in which the entire membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — some 6,000 strong — can vote on the winner, but it's a toss-up as to whether that helps "Omar"'s chances.

"Believe me, you can't get five people in Hollywood to agree on anything, so getting a voting body of that number — I don't think you're going to get one clear answer."

"Omar" opens in Toronto and Vancouver on Feb. 28.

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