by Mitchell Abidor
In 2005, the Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad, in his brilliant Paradise Now, audaciously had us follow, get to know, and even sympathize (or at least empathize) with two young Palestinians sent to carry out a suicide attack. Their drives, their beliefs, and their hesitations all made Said and Khaled real to us, not mere bogeymen to be dismissed as lunatics. Abu-Assad’s new film, the Oscar-nominated Omar, does the same, but is in many ways far more complex. [For our interview with Hany Abu-Assad, click here.]
In Omar, we are presented with three young men engaged in the struggle with the Occupier, but they are doing so in a world in which duplicity and deceit reign. There is no way of knowing if the man alongside you is a real freedom fighter or a traitor in the pay of the Israelis. In the film, this serves as the basis for all actions and the background to every act.
The three young men, Omar, Amjad, and Tarek, live their lives behind the security wall, in what they describe as “a hole” from which all escape is blocked. Omar, in order to visit Nadia, the young woman he loves and the sister of his comrade-in-struggle Tarek, is forced to climb a rope to the top and then over the wall, risking being shot or caught by the Israelis every time he does so. When he is caught the Israelis demonstrate their absolute power by imposing ridiculous punishments on him: making him balance himself on a stone first on two feet and then, when he complains, on one. They do this because they can, and the Palestinians submit because they must. Omar lives in a looking-glass world in which saying that you’ll never confess is considered a confession that will get you sentenced to ninety years in jail.
But the three friends are resistance fighters, and they succeed in killing an Israeli soldier, as a result of which Omar is captured, at which point we enter the labyrinth of distrust and betrayal that is at the core of Omar. There is a traitor in their group, but who is it? Is it one of the three participants in the killing? Is it someone else in town? Is it Nadia? Was Omar’s release from prison the sign that he is the traitor? Was the man killed because he was suspected of collaboration truly a traitor, or did he just say he was because the fedayeen were torturing him?
This deceit enters every door, as the Occupation perverts every element of Palestinian life. The Israelis are seemingly omniscient only because there are enough Palestinians willing to betray their people. The Israelis and the Occupation that insinuate themselves into family relations, into friendships, into love, and make every evil act possible. Abu-Assad doesn’t excuse the cowardice of those who betray the Palestinian cause, but he shows the horrific choices they are forced to make, which at least explain it.
The director’s genius is that he makes these men, trapped in a world in which lying is necessary for survival, into sympathetic beings. They are decent people perverted by their enemy and his absolute power, an enemy who masterfully succeeds in sowing distrust in the world of resistance, in which trust is so essential.
The performances are remarkable, and Adam Bakri’s athleticism as he climbs walls, scales buildings, and runs through casbahs with Aby-Assad’s camera following close behind him, exhausting us at it doesn’t seem to exhaust Omar, demonstrates that both physical and moral gymnastics are needed to survive in the West Bank. When, near the end of the film, Omar can no longer muster the strength to scale the wall he’s climbed throughout the film, we know he is approaching the end of his rope.
The film’s end, like that of Paradise Now, is both riveting and devastating, both thrilling and perfectly consistent with the ethical tone of all that leads up to it.
In its portrayal of all-pervasive moral and ethical slipperiness, in its demonstration of how political mistrust can be used to personal ends, Omar also serves as an important corrective. The character is befriended by a Shin bet officer, and they appear to have developed a relationship — but have they? With such an uneven balance of power, is a decent relationship between Occupier and Occupied possible? We often hear that one crime of the Occupation is that it has perverted Israeli society, and this is certainly the case. That wound, though, is self-inflicted, and weighs far less on the scales of justice than the daily crime committed by the occupying force. In fact, it is of no concern when compared to what the Palestinians suffer.
Omar shows that the Israeli Occupation has eroded every element of Palestinian society, making love, friendship, and struggle all equally tainted. It is a brilliant film, an exciting film, and a hopeless film. It is, thus, utterly realistic.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the translator and editor of the forthcoming anthology of writings by Victor Serge, Anarchists Never Surrender, as well as the first English translation of Jean Jaurès’ Socialist History of the French Revolution, which will be published by Pluto Press in 2015.