Omar is the second film directed by Hani Abu-Assad to be a finalist among foreign language films nominated to receive an Oscar at the 2014 Academy Awards ceremony on 2 March. The earlier film, Paradise Now (2005), brought to life the preoccupation at the time with suicide bombing as the principal tactic of Palestinian resistance by exposing the deep inner conflicts of those who partake, the tragic effects of such terror on its Israeli targets, and the hardened manipulative mentality of the leaders who prepare the perpetrators. Abu-Assad born in 1961 in Nazareth, emigrated to the Netherlands in 1980, writes the screen plays for his movies as well as directs. He has a profound gift for story telling that keeps an audience engaged with the human drama affecting the principal Palestinian characters while illuminating broader issues of profound moral and political concern without stooping to didactic means of conveying ‘the message.’ So understood, Abuassad’s achievement is artistic in the primary sense, yet attunes us to the dilemmas of oppression and servitude.
In these respects Omar is superior even to Paradise Now, telling the story of what life under Israeli occupation means for the way Palestinian lives are lived, the normalcy’s of romantic attraction contrasting with the abnormalities of humiliating lives lived behind prison walls. The film opens with Omar climbing the high domineering security wall to overcome the separation of Arab families living on either side, being detected by the Israeli guards who sound sirens and fire a shot. Omar manages to clamor back down and leap to safety. Israeli police on foot and in cars pursue Omar through the alleyways and streets of an impoverished Palestinian neighborhood. The underlying poignancy of Omar’s situation is to be at once ‘a freedom fighter’ and a sensitive young man deeply in love with Nadia, the younger sister of Tarek, his militia commander. In an unspoken realism, Omar is unconditionally bound to both causes, jeopardizing his chance to live a shadow life of acquiescence to the realities of occupation by his choice to dedicate himself at great risk and little hope to the liberation of the Palestinian people and their land.
The wall reinforced by the Israeli security forces, portrayed as cunning and unscrupulous, with an occupiers’ fear and loathing for those who cower under the rigors of occupation, provides an unforgettable visual metaphor that captures the daily ordeal of the Palestinian people. In a subtle touch, the rope used by Omar throughout the film to avoid the checkpoints and overcome the separation of his home from that of Tarek and Nadia also conveys an understanding that the wall is much more about humiliation and land than it is about security. The rope remains untouched during the entirety of the film, although its presence and illegal use must have been obvious to the Israeli occupation forces that never bother to remove it.
What emerges most vividly as the story unfolds is the dehumanizing effects of prolonged occupation. Omar and Nadia have charm and humor to give their love for another an unforgettable credibility that is brought to life by their awareness of what it means to live without the right to travel beyond the wall. They talk in the language of fantasy about where to go on their honeymoon: he proposes Mozambique, she counters with Bangla Desh, and then more truly, admits that Paris is her dream, while they both fully realise that they will never get the opportunity to get beyond the dingy confines of the West Bank. Nadia’s biggest trip outside of her immediate neighborhood was a visit to Hebron, the tensest, most humiliated city in occupied Palestine, notorious for daily settler violence against the large resident Palestinian community.
The film conveys better than any book the interactive intimacies of occupier and occupied. The Israeli lead security agent, Rami, calls his mother to ask her to pick up his daughter from school, and when she asks why he can’t do it, he responds “I am stuck in the middle of the fucking West Bank.” Yet the most abiding realisation is the horrible dehumanizing effects of this mixture of fear and hatred in contexts of unspeakable inequality, with total control seemingly on one side, and complete vulnerability on the other side. The torture scenes, like the wall, are both horrible in their own enactment, but also metaphors of what it means to live your entire life within master/slave structures of relationship.
The reality of Palestinian violent resistance has two important consequences even though it seems currently futile from the perspective of challenging the occupation in any way that promises to liberation: it gives dignity to Palestinians who seem united in their will to live-unto-death despite their defenselessness and it makes Israelis vulnerable despite their seeming total control of the situation as a result of their weaponry, police, surveillance technology, and arrogant sense of racial superiority. In effect, the desperate slave when life is deprived of all personal meaning can sacrifice himself in a symbolic act of vengeance, and inflict pain and loss on the master. Seen from an Israeli perspective, there is no way to achieve total security (this side of total genocide) no matter how clever, sophisticated, and oppressive the systems of control put in place. Technology is incapable of doing the whole job, and for this reason, human fallibility always produces some sort of payback from the incompletely vanquished subjugated population.
For this reason, from the Palestinian side, nothing is worse that becoming a collaborator, and yet only a hero among heroes, would have the super-human capacity to avoid such a fate given the brutality used by Israelis to acquire the information they need to enforce their will on a hostile population. For the occupier recruiting collaborators is a vital part of improving security; for the occupied, it is the final humiliation, making the fate of the traitor far worse than that of the slave.
Omar is portrayed in a fascinating manner because he succumbs, and yet in the end he doesn’t succumb. Amjad, his friend collaborates with the Israelis to steal Omar away from Nadia, with the biopolitical insight that romantic longings may take lethal precedence over political loyalty and lifelong friendship. In this respect, the power of love is greater than the power of power. The film also is faithful to the traditional social norms that bind Palestinians to family relations in ways that also enslave, including the total disempowerment of women. Nadia is portrayed as strong in her dual attachments to love and resistance, and yet is deprived by Palestinian norms of freedom in relation to her body and choice of partner. In this sense, Nadia is doubly occupied.
Omar makes no effort to depict the larger issues of resistance tactics, to portray some vision of a realizable peace, or to bring into play the behavior of politicians, the UN, the international community. Such considerations are ignored, and seem irrelevant to the forces that impact daily on Palestinian lives. It takes the present as a seemingly permanent given, in effect, a society of prisoners sentenced for life with no hope for parole or escape. So understood, the actual Israeli prison that is depicted in the film is a prison within a prison, that is, a walled enclave that exists within a walled country.
The great achievement of Abu-Assad in this film is to make you feel and think, and maybe hopefully act. I left the theater with the overriding sense that the continuation of this occupation is intolerable for both sides, that it dehumanizes Israelis as much as it does Palestinians, two peoples caught in a vicious circle of subjugation and resistance. But not equally so caught as the masters live life in more satisfying ways than the slaves, at least for now, at least until the walls come tumbling down.
The writer is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies. He is also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.