The saddest thing about betrayal is that it never comes from your enemies. This is proven in Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar (2013), a thought-provoking yet distressing, depiction of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The film centers on what seems like a gentle love story between the assured and determined Omar (Adam Bakri), and the seemingly sweet Nadia (Leem Lubany). However, it is much more than a mere love story in the midst of troubling times. Born and raised in Nazareth, writer-director Hany Abu-Assad moved to the Netherlands in 1981 where he studied aerodynamics and worked as an airplane engineer for several years. After watching a film by the Palestinian Michel Khleifi, he was inspired to pursue career in the world of cinema. His filmmaking career began in the early 1990s, working as a TV producer for BBC. But it wasn’t until his 2002 film Rana’s Wedding, that he started to get noticed internationally.
His most recent film, Omar, tells the story of a Palestinian baker who must climb back and forth over the dizzying security wall simply to see his friends, but in particular his secret girlfriend, Nadia. Omar and Nadja exchange love notes with hopes of one day getting married and going to Paris for their honeymoon. Their secret encounters are bursting with sweetness and love—their affection almost too perfect, fake even. And it’s no accident. One day, after being consistently bullied by the Israeli police, Omar and his two buddies, Tarek (Iyad Hoorani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat), plan an attack to shoot a random Israeli soldier.
Abu-Assad never justifies this act, neither does he try to make it a confrontation between good guys vs bad guys. The incident is a consequence of their boredom and frustration. Omar gets arrested and is forced to betray his political convictions, in order to work as an informant with Agent Rami (Waleed F. Zuaiter). Thus, this creates a hurtful political cycle that triggers endless doubts—is he playing Agent Rami or will he betray his friends?
Adam Bakri delivers a compelling and confident performance. The cast is composed of first-time actors who bring realism to the heartbreaking story. Tarek is the leader, the one with the militant connections. Omar and Amjad have no connections; they’re not religious and have no interest in politics. All they really want to do is impress Tarek because they’re both in love with his sister. The most tragic realization of all is when viewers comprehend that the separation wall is not just a physical obstacle, but it is within the hearts and minds of the characters as well.
Omar is Abu-Assad’s second film to be nominated for an Oscar. The Palestinian filmmaker’s first Oscar nomination is Paradise Now, a suspenseful story about a pair of suicide bombers. The tense and skillfully calculated thriller begins shortly before best friends Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are chosen by an unnamed Palestinian organization to carry out a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. Both men pledge to complete their mission but have second thoughts after spending a final night with friends and family. When the operation does not go according to plan, Said and Khaled’s doubts about morality leave the audience questioning if they will eventually carry out the task, and even sympathizing with their lives. The most compelling parts of the film is how Abu-Assad portrays the distorted logic and deliberate planning that Palestinian terrorists put into each mission to kill Israelis.
Paradise Now challenges the commonly held Western notion of suicide bombers, the belief that they are bleak and robotic, and programmed to kill without remorse.
On the contrary, Said and Khaled are just like any other human being, cornered by emotions, guilt and doubts. The only difference is that they are confined to live in a world of religious extremism.
In both Paradise Now and Omar, Abu-Assad does a great job of keeping to the story of his main characters, and the daily struggles that surround them. He stays away from the big picture, which I applaud. Political questions may be irresistible in films like these, but they’re not really relevant. Even though this is brilliant political cinema, the films should be seen as a story first and foremost. Besides, Abu-Assad doesn’t want to be known as a political filmmaker.
The films are meant to shed some insight on the situation in the Middle East, through meaningful discussion and awareness. In other words, the political issues in these films remain contextual. And it works wonderfully. People may ask themselves, what is Abu-Assad’s view toward the Palestinian occupation? Or even terrorism? However, these are unwarranted remarks that do more to ban discussion than to enable it.
Overall, Abu-Assad respects the fundamental structure of all good stories, and simultaneously includes his own ingredients of creativity into the world of cinema, creating an utterly absorbing experience for viewers.