'Omar' Is Vibrant And Lived In - And Worthy Of Attention
The new film Omar, made in Palestine by Hany Abu-Assad, was one of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Oscars. It didn’t win, but it would have been a good choice.
When Israeli police chase Omar through his town in the Palestinian West Bank of Israel, it’s like being hurled into a maze. Omar (Adam Bakri) runs down narrow passageways, up and over walls, through buildings and over fences. He squeezes through a door, thinking he’s lost the men pursuing him, but another cop car careens into his path, and the chase resumes.
It’s a helter-skelter of rushing camera, sudden possibilities, then dead ends and panic, until finally Omar is caught, and then he’s in total stillness, hanging from the prison ceiling by his arms against a black background, waiting for something worse.
That’s Omar’s world, and the social landscape may be even more tortuous and more dangerous than the literal geography, for in this place where one people is dominated by another, it’s impossible to know who is truthful and honest and who is not. As writer and director Hany Abu-Assad sees it, the presence of Israelis in this place of Palestinians has perverted social relations entirely.
Omar can’t even be sure of his girlfriend Nadia (Leem Lubany), who in turn is never sure if Omar is the traitor everyone in her social group worries about.
In the story, Omar has two friends -- Tarek (Eyad Hourani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat). Tarek is the older brother of Nadia and he can decide if his sister may marry Omar, which gives Tarek power and gives the situation an added hit of volatility. After the police beat and humiliate Omar for a minor infraction, the three young Palestinians sneak up on an Israeli checkpoint and Amjad shoots and kills an Israeli soldier. Omar is captured, jailed and tortured, and then released when he agrees to find Tarek for the Israelis, although he never intends to betray his friend – and in fact tells Tarek about the deal with the Israelis.
That leads to another plot against the Israelis and then more retribution and on into a perpetual spiral of distrust and death.
Director Hany Abu-Assad has emerged as the most articulate film voice of the Palestinians. This is his third movie after Rana's Wedding in 2002 and Paradise Now in 2005, and while Omar may be an angry film, it’s not hateful.
What comes out most of all is the kind of frustration that drives people to fury and killing. It’s a film of rich textures. Abu-Assad shows the insides of homes, where people eat and drink tea, and sit on colorful overstuffed chairs and sofas. The characters are secular people – not the religious zealots that viewers might assume. Men and women mix freely; Nadia wears no headscarf. She could be French or Spanish or American, in her jean jacket, her long black hair parted in the middle like any beautiful and casually stylish young woman in many parts of the world. The film shows Nadia’s school with a tall chain link fence surrounding a yard where the young women talk during recess. Omar is a baker; he rolls out dough and puts flatbread in the oven where it puffs up and looks magnificent and delicious.
His world has life, beauty and warmth; real lives take place here, meaning real people try to make their way in the world. They fall in love; they feel protective of their families and friends, and like anyone else in the world, they have their hopes and desires, along with their resentments and jealousies. But all those things that make up human life get an extra, malicious, ghastly twist because they’re sucked into the vortex of the occupation and the unending repetitions of attack and counterattack, betrayal, misperceptions and deceptions.
And the one that really sneaks into your gut is the obvious, inexplicable emotional connection between Omar and the Israeli agent Rami. Omar can’t believe Rami is actually Israeli.
They look at each other like brothers, who can’t quite figure out why they hate each other.