For a period in Hany Abu Assad’s new film, Omar, the eponymous protagonist shares an Israeli dungeon with unidentifiable insects he can barely make out in the darkness. Determinedly, they carry out tasks whose purpose he, and possibly they, cannot fathom. Are they prisoners too? And is their continual laboring a distraction from their confinement or a transcendence of their plight?
There could hardly be a starker metaphor for the lives of Omar and his friends under occupation.
The film, which won the Certain Regard prize at Cannes in May, is a commanding return to form for Abu Assad after several years adrift in Hollywood, where he ended up directing an indifferent B-movie.
Omar is due to be released in Europe over the coming weeks, and will be shown at the New York Film Festival in October.
Paradise Now, the 2005 film that propelled Abu Assad on to the international stage, and became the first Palestinian film to be nominated for an Oscar, followed the final hours of two friends who choose with different degrees of commitment to become suicide bombers.
Like Paradise Now, Omar is an intimate, surprisingly humorous and often claustrophobic portrait of friendship, love, betrayal and sacrifice in the face of extreme pressures.
But unlike the earlier film, which examined conflicting ideas of liberation at a particular moment in Palestinian history, Omar widens out Abu Assad’s canvas to address questions about the nature of Israeli occupation and that of authentic resistance.
Omar includes a series of plot twists it would be unfair to reveal. These are not simply useful narrative devices; they contain profound implications for the characters at the heart of the story.
Omar, played by Adam Bakri, lives on one side of Israel’s wall; his two childhood friends, Tarek and Amjad, both in the armed resistance, on the other. Omar risks his life regularly, scaling eight meters of concrete to see them and, more secretly, Tarek’s sister Nadia (Leem Lubany), with whom he is infatuated.
In the film, the wall serves chiefly as an obstacle to friendship, love and solidarity rather than as a legal or territorial demarcation between Israelis and Palestinians. For those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the conflict, it may not even be clear which side of the wall is considered “Israel.” Omar faces humiliation from soldiers and police whichever side of the supposed border he is on.
Audiences uninterested in the politics of Israel and the Palestinians will still find plenty to relish in a simple love story that quickly turns into a complex political thriller. Even though it tackles a topic of enormous contemporary significance — the most enduring occupation in modern history — the film eschews polemics. Instead, the politics behind Omar’s suffering creeps up on viewers stealthily.
Two key themes reveal the deeper problems of the occupation for Palestinians, issues that no Palestinian film has tackled before with such sophistication and intensity.
The first concerns the construction by Israel of a series of cages for Palestinians, from the largest to the smallest — like Matryoshka dolls, nesting one inside the other until the tiniest is reached at the very center.
In the film, Omar moves through these cages: from the biggest, as a Palestinian living on the “Israeli” side of the wall, through to the more restrictive occupation on the other side of the wall, and on to various forms of more formal incarceration, culminating in the cell he shares with the insects.
Abu Assad does not hesitate to imply that, despite the changes of location, Omar’s freedom is never more than illusory. His fate is invariably in hands other than his own.
This layering of cages, the film suggests, is intended by the authors of the occupation — the security heads who featured in the recent Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers — to serve as a veiling system, concealing from most Palestinians the full extent of their imprisonment.
But the cages are also the basis of a system of punishment and reward that placates, divides and controls the Palestinian population. Omar is repeatedly required to make concessions to the occupier to be allowed “release” into less confined, but barely freer, spaces.
This carrot-and-stick approach is integral to the second theme: that of collaboration.
Collaboration is one of the great Palestinian taboos, a mark of sin on the society and therefore a topic no one wants discussed. The issue of collaboration is allowed out of the shadows usually only when Palestinian leaders try to crack down on the phenomenon through the execution of informers (and are harshly criticized by human rights groups for doing so).
The reality, however, is that collaboration is Israel’s chief tool for maintaining what is effectively an occupation for Palestinians inside Israel as well as in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. It makes organizing resistance, or even struggling for basic rights, all but impossible.
Over decades, Israel’s gatekeepers have devised a spider’s web of techniques for ensnaring ordinary Palestinians. Once caught, as a fellow prisoner warns Omar, escape is impossible. And sure enough, Omar soon finds himself trapped by a seemingly harmless remark.
The damage collaboration causes to organized resistance became especially clear during the second intifada. At that time Israel’s intelligence services boasted that, for every attack of the kind portrayed in Paradise Now, they foiled at least a dozen more. And they did so because the poison of collaboration courses through the veins of Palestinian society. In even a small group, someone is almost certainly not who or what they seem — as the characters in Omar either discover or suspect they will discover.
The film fearlessly dissects how this system of control works and why Palestinians, like Omar himself, are mostly powerless to evade or subvert it.
Abu Assad’s decision to put the problem of collaboration at the heart of his film is therefore a bold one indeed. It is also vitally important because, until Palestinians confront the issue openly and honestly, they have little power to break Israel’s stranglehold on their lives.
The film’s message is more hopeful than this synopsis may imply. Real awareness is possible, Abu Assad concludes in the final scenes, and with it comes the only hope for personal and social transformation.
Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilizations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). His website is jonathan-cook.net.