Oscar-nominated feature shows honest take on the conflict from the weaker side
Like his previous film, the award-winning Paradise Now (2006), Hany Abu-Assad’s riveting new work Omar is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It takes place in the West Bank but, unlike most films dealing with this never-ending conflict, Omar is a powerful thriller, a tragic love story about a Palestinian militant caught by the Israelis and suspected by his own people of being a collaborator. Like Paradise Now, the tale of two childhood friends recruited for a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, Omar was also nominated for an Oscar in the Foreign Language category in 2013.
This time the story focuses on three friends who are militants affiliated with the Aksa Martyrs Brigades. Each of them comes across as an archetype of a different facet of war. There’s Tarek, (Eyad Hourani) the leader who starts the war, then there’s Omar, the soldier who fights the war, and finally there’s Amjad (Samer Bisharat), the opportunist who profits from the war. In a sense, you could say that these three characters represent the three factors in almost all types of war. And for many reasons, Omar, the film, is bigger than the conflict itself for it transcends its matter-of-fact aspects and instead goes for a more existential approach.
Omar and Amjad are both in love with Tarek’s sister Nadia (Leem Lubany), but neither of them will propose until the time is right, meaning after the proper courtship comes to an end. In the meantime, Omar and Nadia spend as much time together as possible.
One night, the three friends conduct a sniper attack on an Israeli military outpost and kill an Israeli soldier. Soon after, Omar is arrested and imprisoned, and Rami (Waleed Zuaiter), the Israeli officer handling his case, tricks him into an admission of guilt. So now Omar faces a very difficult choice: he can become a snitch and rat out his friends or otherwise he’ll spend the rest of his life in prison. Therefore, he tells Rami that he will collaborate, but deep down he knows he won’t. He will just pretend he is a traitor. Yet once he’s set free, and thanks to a series of Israeli interventions, all his friends and neighbours believe he really is a collaborator.
Omar is as much a terrific thriller as a doomed love story. It’s briskly edited and keeps a rapid pace when necessary — the foot chases across the narrow streets of the urban West Bank are superbly shot — and it goes for a more leisured, reflexive mood when it’s the love story that prevails. It’s a film than can be poetic in its depiction of love blossoming and at the same time quite crude in its portrayal of the brutalities of the Israeli occupation. Likewise, the maddening state of mind of the Palestinians takes it toll: in this vicious war, all parties see their dreams vanish and their lives cut off short.
And then there are the treasons, the mistrust, the paranoia. All deeply ingrained in the everyday life of Palestinians. Many viewers could be tempted to say that Omar is a biased take on the conflict, but I don’t think so. Instead, I’d say it’s an honest and daring take on how the conflict is lived and suffered on the other side, the less powerful one. It’s a matter of point of view, not of who the guilty party is.
Above all, you could say that Omar is a character study of an individual at the end of his rope, also a metaphor for an entire population that doesn’t have many choices to stay alive. And talking about metaphors, compare the way Omar climbs up quite a tall wall at the very beginning and how the same wall proves to be too tall at the very end, when he’s already running on empty.
Omar (Palestine, 2013). Written and directed by Hany Abu-Assad. With Adam Bakri, Leem Lubany, Mr. Zuaiter, Samer Bisharat, Eyad Hourani. Cinematography: Ehab Assal. Editing: Martin Brinkler, Eyas Salman. Running time: 98 minutes.