Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad is no stranger to controversy. His 2008 film Paradise Now presented a sympathetic portrait of suicide bombers. His latest picture is called Omar, and like the previous one it was nominated for a foreign language film Oscar. While making clear the brutal realities of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, the film also explores issues of loyalty, commitment and betrayal in a story that, interestingly, works as a suspense thriller.
We first meet Omar, a young Palestinian played by Adam Bakri, using a rope to climb over an Israeli security wall to visit his friends Tarek and Amjad, and to woo Tarek’s sister Nadia, played by Leem Lubany. After Omar is humiliated at the hands of an Israeli army patrol, the three friends, who are militia fighters, decide to shoot a soldier. The blowback is swift and hard, of course, as Omar is swept up by security, tortured, and then tricked by the chief Israeli officer into what, in Israel, could legally be considered a confession. Omar is given a choice: work for them and turn in Tarek, who is considered the most dangerous, or never get out of prison. Omar agrees, but in fact plans to fool the police by setting them up with the help of his friends.
What follows is a complex cat-and-mouse game filled with twists and double-crosses. The film is particularly good at portraying tension through several chase scenes with Omar running through the narrow maze of streets and alleys in his West Bank town. Abu-Assad doesn’t try to soften the political implications of the story—the impossible situation of Palestinians living like prisoners in their own homes is taken for granted, but there are no blameless characters or wish-fulfilling outcomes. Bakri, a newcomer appearing in his first feature, turns in a remarkably self-assured performance as Omar. We can’t help but identify with him, especially in the romantic side he shows in his scenes wooing the young Nadia. Omar would like to just get away from all the hate, but his impulsive actions, and the reality on the ground, make his situation seem hopeless.
Once again, Hany Abu-Assad has allowed us to experience the humanity of people that are usually dismissed as not worthy of our attention. That, and not simplistic ideas of good and evil, is what a work of art is meant to do.