Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar begins with its eponymous Palestinian character (Adam Bakri) well on his way to carrying out a sniper attack on an Israeli army base with his two childhood friends, Tarek (Eyad Hourani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat). It’s a beginning that, in a sense, presumes familiarity with Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now, and even Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, a film that Omar evokes on more than one occasion. But while those films explored why people under occupation resort to terrorism, Omar turns its attention to the broader, more long-term consequences of living in oppressed conditions.
Which isn’t to say that Omar speaks only to the psychological violence faced by Palestinians. Beyond the attack on the Israeli soldier, the film features more than one scene of brutal interrogation, carried out by Israeli intelligence forces on Omar in hopes of eliciting a confession or information about his accomplices. Yet Abu-Assad portrays this as just one effect of Israeli oppression, and not necessarily the most debilitating one. Omar accrues many scars and bruises over the course of the film, but his face always reclaims its original, clean-cut youthfulness before long. What accumulates are more internal punishments, particularly a festering paranoia among Omar and his friends.
What Omar best portrays are the limitations that result from having an occupation, and how the fight to overthrow it dominates a person’s entire life. Omar is in love with Tarek’s sister, Nadja (Leem Lubany), and hopes to marry her and take her on a Parisian honeymoon, but their love seems impossible as his commitment to Palestine rebellion is meant to be his first priority; the threat of death constantly hangs over him, a danger Amjad ruefully points out when he remembers how his grandmother lived until 92 and only died then because of a doctor’s error. And Omar, Tarek, and Amjed don’t just face the prospect of a life sacrificed to the Palestinian cause; if they live, they must also contend with an Israeli army for whom their slightest misstep or commitment to family or loved ones opens up an opportunity for extortion. For Palestinians, Abu-Assad shows us, a consistent price of occupation is the way everyday relationships and decisions become weighed down by their potential to become the noose that turns you into a collaborator.
So it is that, after getting caught and interrogated by the Israelis, it’s Omar’s love for Nadja that causes him to accept a temporary release from jail in order to turn in Tarek, who the Israelis mistakenly believe was the shooter in the sniper attack (in fact, it was Amjed). Abu-Assad is slow to reveal whether or not Omar will betray his friends and the Palestinian cause, but as the film goes on, that suspense becomes less interesting than the realization that Omar is lost no matter what: if he double crosses the Israelis, death is a near-certainty; if he gives in, he remains forever susceptible to further Israeli demands.
In this respect, the film is a profound, if dispiriting, companion piece to Paradise Now. In that film, Abu-Assad’s characters, feeling bereft of any options, turn to terrorism, a trajectory that left the film open to accusations of being in support of such behavior. In Omar, though, the director is uninterested in the validity of terrorism; the film ultimately portrays Omar’s attack as insignificant in its consequences, whereas the Israelis are slowly shown to have an almost indomitable upper hand in their battle with Palestinians. What remain in such an uneven game are the lifelong costs of the struggle, and it’s these that point to a harsher truth: At this stage, for Palestinians, the prospects of any exit from hardship are only growing more faint.