By: Bradley Lineker
Author’s note: The film, Omar, was released on 30 May 2014. Analysis herein contains spoilers.
Omar, as the latest film written and directed by Hany Abu-Assad, is a compelling political drama set in the West Bank that skilfully depicts the dangerous spider’s web of Israeli occupation around a young Palestinian dissident and his love, after he takes part in an act of rebellion with his two childhood friends.
The film begins with Omar (played by Adam Baktri) illegally climbing the 18-foot West Bank separation wall to visit his high-school sweetheart, Nadia (Leem Lubany). Soon after, Omar and his two friends, Anjam (Samer Bisharat), and Nadia’s brother, Tarek (Eyad Hourani), attack an Israeli checkpoint. Because of this, Omar is later captured and then coerced into working as a double agent by the Le Carré-esque Israeli Agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter). Rami releases Omar from prison, who, amid intense stigmatization, attempts to find out who betrayed him and his friends. Events escalate until Omar is left almost totally under the thrall of Agent Rami, whose influence erodes the trust that existed between him and those around him, and Omar is gradually pushed towards killing his two friends to save himself and Nadia.
The film’s artistry is seen in its subtle portrayal of the ways in which the occupation frames and shapes the characters. Visually superb, it moves from darkened, tight-angled shots of the Israeli prison where Omar was held, to the tiny interconnected Palestinian neighbourhoods, into wider, sun-drenched backdrops of wasteland where Omar and his friends try to get time and space away from the occupation forces. Much of these shots are centered around the tight frames of the two main characters, Omar and Nadia, which, while supposedly intimate, further contributes to the unrelenting sense of latent danger – especially when the viewer is led to believe that Nadia may be the Israeli snitch.
In some ways, the occupation itself is the core focus of the film that, while dramatised through a tight group of characters, nevertheless underplays much of what happens on the screen. This is because the film offers a fascinating portrait of the subtle ways that the occupation frames and then insidiously reshapes existence: it is depicted as an infection that seeps into the natural and unspoken gaps between friends and family, and in these dark edges, steadily festers, making the individual suspect everyone of betrayal.
The wider Israeli occupation is itself only abstractly introduced at the start through Omar climbing the imposing 18-foot separation wall, and is only then explained as the narrative unfolds. Interestingly, it is Agent Rami, the film’s tangible manifestation of the Israeli occupation regime, who offers the most cogent explanation. He describes how one petty-resistance leader is assassinated, another comes to take his place, and thus his job is a cyclical quest to gain leverage on whomever comes into power – a process that serves as a metaphor for the wider occupation. Moreover, the highly-visible technology of the occupation forces – from their stun grenades, high-tech assault rifles, helicopters and prison systems – is contrasted with the three friends, whose attempts at resistance rely on an old bolt-action rifle and meetings in wasteland areas. This minimalist-critique arguably comes to a head at the end of the film, as Agent Rami attempts to compare his pistol to the svelte-body of a woman. The viewer can’t help but compare his hollow and half-hearted metaphor to the reality of the sacrifices Omar has made throughout the film for Nadia, his own love. This restrained, often abstract, way of discussing the conflict is highly effective, as it sidesteps much of the politics that weighs-down the Israel-Palestine issue, and allows the viewer to reach their own conclusions about what they see on the screen.
This subtle and sympathetic approach to the characters is also afforded to the society in which they live. The formal social code that governs onscreen Palestinian interaction is so well built up during the course of the film that, without it being a distraction, it artfully weaves into the overall narrative, enabling the viewer to understand and sympathise with the constraints on Omar towards the end. For instance, the scene where Omar is talking to Nadia in Anjam’s house, a house and family that the viewer knows Omar was set-up to give away, was truly haunting in view of portraying how the social structures have essentially trapped them in their respective roles, despite Omar figuring out how Anjam has betrayed him. Within such scenes is the implicit statement of how the influence of the occupation regime itself warps such social formalities, so that they become constraining – this is certainly true of Agent Rami’s intimation of Nadia’s infidelity.
Despite the film’s great strengths, its highly compact plot felt unnecessarily convoluted at times, which, coupled with its relatively sparse use of dialogue, could prove to be confusing in patches. For instance, much of the ending depended upon one critical piece of dialogue between Omar and Nadia, which, if missed, would have left the viewer unsure about Omar’s actions at the end. While the betrayal was artfully constructed to complement the insidiousness of the occupation, it could have been depicted in clearer terms. Moreover, there were some plot-holes, such as the ambush scene, where the trio of friends each take up an AK-47, despite being depicted earlier in the film painstakingly learning how to use a bolt-action rifle. But on the whole, these issues are largely irrelevant for appreciating the film’s style and purpose.
The dark beauty of the film lies in the way it entombs the main character in a smothering claustrophobia – from having to daily climb an 18 foot wall to see his love, or facing the ultimate choice of killing either Agent Rami or Anjam – which powerfully portrays the nature of occupation to the viewer. In sum, Omar is a visually beautiful film with an exceptional way of introducing very large and emotional themes, but in subtle and sympathetic ways.