Omar Review

The true tragedy of Omar lies in its continued political significance at the heart of an occupation that meanders its way in and out of the western consciousness, that of the Israelis in the Palestinian West Bank. It is a film that should represent a last lament for a lost time, resigned to a historical holocaust, removed from the daily impact of an occupation upon the lives of civilian and the constant fight for citizen right. The truth is that director Hany Abu-Assad’s film, his second Oscar nomination for Foreign Language Film, following his 2006 effort, Paradise Now, reveals little transformative change in the Palestinian narrative of their own trauma. The fact that the film is not a seismic shift in self-expression, but represents a continuation of a sustained portrait of Palestinian suffering, only serves to highlight the inadequacy of international response to the acute pains of the Palestinian people. At least we can vainly reconcile our tarnished collective conscience with the Academy Awards’ sensitive move to accredit Omar with Palestine as the country of origin within its foreign language film nominations. The Oscars are obviously the cutting edge of international relations and state recognition, and perhaps the popular lobbyist movement to replace the UN with the upper echelons of the Academy Awards think-tank should rightly gain the recognition and momentum it so palpably deserves. No observer state or the painstakingly pious General Assembly upgrade to non-member observer state; the Academy Awards do not deal in diplomatic tautologies: Omar, Made in Palestine. Recognise that.

The subject matter mirrors the political climate. The film follows young dissident Palestinian men in their only remaining rite of passage in the inverted unreality of the occupied West Bank, to subvert and undermine the plastic, but so enduring presence of the Israeli Defence Force. It does not merely follow the characters, but Abu-Assad’s absorbing screenplay stalks the protagonist through the streets of Nablus (and Nazareth), offering little respite to the displaced, constant movements of Omar. On the one hand, the quality of the script and plot lead the audience to sympathise with the conflicting tribulations of our main character. Yet, the camera’s perspective and the thrilling use of sets within snaking backstreets and rooftop chases leave the viewer complicit with the Israeli Defence Force, pursuing the elusive Omar from behind. It is like peering through an Orwellian telescreen upon our futile fugitive, with the foreknowledge of every single movement before he has even made it: we are the electronic tag tied tight to his left ankle by the Israeli authorities, permanent and unyielding, digging deeper into the skin as Omar’s story unravels before us.

The emotional arc of the plot rests with the beautifully, but ultimately doomed relationship between our eponymous hero, Omar (Adam Bakri) and the vibrantly naïve Nadia (Leem Lubany). The couple are elegantly credible in the stolen glances and heart-wrenchingly open gazes of a romance in its early stages: the soul at the edge of the iris. A misty silence gradually shrouds their love within the ensnaring nexus of guerrilla resistance movements. The triangle of male leads, namely martyr Omar, obdurate ideologue Tarek (Eyad Hourani) and the fatuously fickle, Amjad (Samer Bisharat) are intertwined within the character of Nadia as brother and suitors. However, the standout performance is that of Waleed F. Zuaiter, who plays Omar’s Israeli handler, turning Omar back on his childhood friends, Tarek and Amjad.

The exceptional scene is during Omar’s incarceration in which Agent Rami (Zuaiter) goes undercover as a fellow inmate to extract a confession from Omar in the guise of an Arab, despite his Israeli descent. He fools Omar to reveal the truth that whether a man is Palestinian or Israeli, the language Hebrew or Arabic: humanity is essentially one and the same, racial and religious differences are merely surface. It is a sympathetic portrayal of Agent Rami which does not taint the film with an anti-Israeli racism, but paints the film with a colouring of potential reconciliation in the almost platonic relationship between Rami and Omar. In a dramatic climax, our perception of this relationship alters in heart stopping fashion, but Rami remains more than a caricature of monstrous oppression. He is a genuine man, with a young family and trivial, everyday concerns beyond the horrors of the Occupied Territories.  

Though the character interaction offers a semblance of optimism, the architecture of the unyielding, concrete maze of barbed wire and concrete, is encapsulated in the powerful icon of oppression, the Israeli West Bank barrier. It is the primary prism and major symbolic filter through which the narrative focuses. What truly encapsulates the tragedy is the fact that this tale could have been written at any time since 2002, when Ariel Sharon first commissioned the barrier, and the poignant potency of the wall would retain its startling impact. The wall, which severs Nazareth and Omar from his beloved, Nadia, is effectively utilised as a prop within the film. Our first view is the rope up which Omar hoists himself and the scenes at the wall are a recurrent trope deployed throughout: the act of climbing parallels the fluctuating fortunes of his love. At the start, Omar is spritely and flies up with the efficiency of desire, by the end, he is broken, sluggish and ultimately has to be aided by a decrepit bystander to mount the wall and reach his love, Nadia.

Whether we move a decade backwards or forwards, it is hard to envisage a time when a Palestinian film will not feature the overbearing presence of the barrier, hinging its claustrophobic atmosphere on the encroaching shadow of stark, snow-white concrete. Brutality remains central to the Palestinian film industry as the oppressed are the only ones capable of portraying their own plight. Pray for the day when we do not have to respect the close, cold suffering of a Palestinian film, depicting a life of oppression we can only pretend to comprehend. One day we will be able to chastise a cringe-worthy, awful lover’s romp, liberated from the political exigencies which dictate current life in the Occupied Territories. Omar is certainly not this film; it is a compelling story of young lovers which captures a mood closer to the truth than we can ever understand in a five minute Netanyahu rant to which we are too often exposed and constitute the pervading media narrative of this open wound.

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