Love, freedom and destruction of choice in Palestine

By Jessica Pearce

Film review by Jessica Pearce

Omar | Hany Abu-Assad


Adam Bakri as Omar

At the heart of Omar is a kiss. About halfway through Hany Abu-Assad’s taut, Oscar-nominated study of a young Palestinian baker turned freedom fighter, the film pauses upon a revelatory moment of intimacy.

Omar (Adam Bakri) and Nadia (Leem Lubani) – sweethearts separated by the Israeli West Bank wall – share a still, closed-mouth kiss. It is simultaneously chaste and unbearably sensuous, the expression of forbidden love. In classic Hollywood cinema, open-mouthed kisses were deemed to explicit and replaced by clumsy, charming squeezing. Instead, the restraint of this kiss is loud and frustrating, the vulnerability of bodies and lips coming together signifying the fleeting nature of human connection in occupied Palestine. The embrace is physical but terribly brief, as are all experiences in Omar. The event evokes the most basic of human impulses, but in a way that charges affection with dread.

… this isn’t a film about war or religion or terrorism or corruption, but about the human right to choose.

Set in occupied Palestine, the film depicts quiet, handsome Omar’s transition from ordinary citizen to wanted criminal. He is tortured, imprisoned and forced to work as an informant after shooting an Israeli soldier with his two friends Amjad (Samer Bisharat) and Tarek (Iyad Hoorani), Nadia’s brother. His existence becomes desperately fraught as he is fully exposed to the oppressive impulses of the Israeli police. Routine humiliation on the streets for scaling the separation wall turns into a life sentence in prison, or even death, for refusing to cooperate with his handler, Agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter). On the one hand, Omar’s cooperation will secure him a safe future with Nadia. On the other, it requires betrayal of both his cause – the freedom of Palestine – and his friends. As Omar prepares to choose between freedom and love, he realises that he can have neither.

It quickly becomes clear that this isn’t a film about war or religion or terrorism or corruption, but about the human right to choose. The most unsettling aspect of Omar is the way in which it depicts the lack of protection for Palestinians as active, independent, decision-making citizens. If a choice means death and destruction (of yourself, of the ones that you love), it isn’t really a choice at all. A billboard looms large in once scene, depicting a child planting a tree with the slogan ‘Planting Hope – Social Responsibility’; this sterile vision of reconciliation is so far removed from the reality, the trauma, of life on the ground that it makes a mockery of traditional attempts to start a conversation about human rights.

Via a plot that turns increasingly futile, Omar not only interrogates the effect of occupation on everyday life, but also the incompatible, gendered roles forced upon men – the public and private personas, the activist and the family man. In the opening scenes, Omar, Amjad and Tarek’s friendship is cemented by coffee, guitar, jokes and the kind of warm braggadocio you find between adolescent boys. They have a natural trust of one another. As they step into the world as budding freedom fighters, they attempt another kind of masculinity, where ‘being a man’ means standing up for what you believe in. But the boys become increasingly duplicitous, their distrust and fear manifesting as a malignant streak that carves through their relationship.

The things people will do to each other for a sense of ‘freedom’ are abhorrent; at the same time, this seems to be the only thing worth living for, this attempt at ‘freedom’.

In addition to his desire for the freedom of Palestine, Omar wants a family, and sees it as integral to his role as a ‘man’, saving money to finance a home for Nadia. When Omar witnesses Agent Rami talk candidly on the phone to his wife and mother, the roles of activist and father/husband seem to converge in the Israeli agent; this is something that Omar clearly yearns for. But for Omar, these roles are incompatible. He does not have the ability, the luxury, to be both. Masculine values and desires are exposed as deeply conflicting. And, to return to the theme of choice – for Omar, it seems as if freedom isn’t worth fighting for if he can’t share his freedom with the person he loves, so the choice negates itself.

The unrelenting oppression and violence in Omar is punctuated by moments of tactile tenderness that intensify the very mortal, corporeal nature of life in the shadow of the wall. Like the kiss, these moments offer breaths of relief: Omar tossing his tiny white cat in his hands, kneading dough, receiving a knitted hat from Nadia, exchanging small paper love notes with her. There is an old man who picks Omar off the ground and helps him scale the wall when he is unable to do so by himself. This is how we learn about the character of Omar and his innate peacefulness, not through dialogue or backstory or motivations, but through his physical presence. Bakri’s performance is at once gentle and fierce, like the eye of a storm. You can see thoughts flickering behind his eyes like a fire in his calm visage. We are given such little access to Omar’s inner turmoil that he appears resigned to his position as pawn – this is why the ending of the film is so explosive.

In terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Omar doesn’t say anything particularly groundbreaking. The film exposes the effect of oppression on human lives – particularly, the hopes and dreams of young people. This is played out most poignantly in the tragic climax of the love story, the heartbreaking sentiment being that love does not conquer all. The effects of oppression are also apparent in the dichotomy inherent in the concept of freedom. The things people will do to each other for a sense of ‘freedom’ are abhorrent; at the same time, this seems to be the only thing worth living for, this attempt at ‘freedom’. The chain of increasingly dire circumstances does end in a kind of triumph over betrayal, of personal resilience in the face of loss, of final escape. Omar champions the value of a symbolic gesture when ‘playing the game’ is futile, but the film is all the more desolate for this.

Omar is showing at Cinema Nova.