[Omar is nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and is playing at this year’s Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. Click here for showtimes and to purchase tickets.]
I refrain from opinionating on the Israel-Palestine Conflict. As a Jew, I know I’m supposed to have a strong opinion, but it’s an all-around ugly conflict with no easy answers. Sometimes we have to accept that there can be no good outcome with clear victors, and this can be the case in personal matters as well as geopolitics. Hany Abu-Assad‘s captivating Omar takes the grand-scale conflict and brings it down to a personal level where it mostly abstains from editorializing, and uses the complex dynamic between Israelis and Palestinians to reveal an affecting story of love, betrayal, and honor.
Omar (Adam Bakri) is a Palestinian freedom fighter along with friends Tarek (Eyad Hourani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat). Omar also has a romance with Tarek’s sister Nadja (Leem Lubany), but they must keep it a secret since Omar is hesitant about seeking Tarek’s approval. When the three men carry out their mission to shoot an Israeli soldier, Omar is soon captured by the military police and forced by Agent Rami (Waleed F. Zauiter) to choose between selling out Tarek or life imprisonment. Although Omar agrees to work with Rami, the young Palestinian struggles to protect his friends and his freedom.
Abu-Assad leaves the moral judgments to his audience. When Omar and his friends kill the soldier, it’s with a sniper rifle and at a random. When Omar is captured by Israeli forces, he’s tortured. No one gets away clean, and these moments are presented as matter-of-fact, and the facts are ugly. Rather than force a heavy-handed statement, the director lets the subtext ring loud and clear from the beginning of the picture as we see Omar scale the West Bank barrier and he’s nearly shot as he crosses the top of the wall. The divisions are clear, and the danger is real. Does Omar deserve to be killed for crossing the wall? Is the retaliation acceptable when the person scaling the wall is planning an attack (albeit one unbeknownst to the unseen soldier firing the shot)?
Viewers can passionately argue these questions, but the more compelling ones arise from the personal choices Omar has to make. He’s not a symbol. He’s a young man who, before he’s even thrown in prison, is in the midst of a betrayal as he hides his relationship with Nadja. His life is a miniscule part of a much larger struggle, but for Omar, it’s considering the horrible prospect of sacrificing his friend so he can be with his friend’s sister. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict doesn’t hinge on Omar’s decision, but Omar’s future does.
Omar is ordinary, and that’s part of what makes his struggle extend beyond the borders of a regional conflict. Aside from his slightly distracting abilities to borderline-parkour and heal quickly (his face goes from beaten and bloody to completely fine in less than a few weeks), he’s unremarkable. He’s not a mastermind, he’s not clever, and he’s not sly. There’s no reason to believe he’s going to get one over on Rami, and that inability lends the entire affair another level of tragedy. At best, he’s trapped between noble sacrifices and comforting lies.
The film could be conflated to a political allegory and/or commentary, but it’s less interesting on that level. People are having that debate regardless of this movie, and intractable opinions being what they are, I doubt Abu-Assad would change anyone’s mind even if that were the goal of his picture. Thankfully, he chooses to focus on the human drama that tends to get lost in the shuffle of the larger debate. Viewers are free to carry their deeply held opinions into the movie, but if they give themselves a chance to empathize with the characters, they’ll find Omar to be a far more affecting experience.