Friday, May 23, 2014

'Omar' (2013) directed by Hany Abu-Assad

Omar is an emotional experience.  You'll feel fear, exhilaration, pride, envy, hate, sadness and anger.  Especially that last one.  Like the characters in the film you'll both bristle at the injustice and feel utterly impotent, getting mad as hell and not being able to do a damn thing about it.  Set in occupied Palestine, Omar gives us a taste of how living under a military cosh mutates social structures, twisting friends into enemies, enemies into allies and love into hate.

Our hero Omar (Adam Bakri) becomes the metaphorical battlefield over which the wider conflict is fought over.  He's a preternaturally handsome, athletic young Palestinian with an easy smile and a boyish crush on Nadia (Leem Lubany) that contrasts nicely with his adult revolutionary ambitions.  After suffering humiliation at the hands of the IDF, he retaliates, concocting a plan with his best friends Amjad and Tarek to assassinate an Israeli soldier. But soon consequences come knocking and Omar is banged up in a nightmarish torture camp where he undergoes intense psychological pressure to try and get him to turn collaborator for the occupying forces. 

The most obvious point of comparison is Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 masterpiece The Battle of Algiers.  Pontecorvo's film (and if you haven't seen it drop everything right now and go watch it) is the go-to cinematic text on urban insurgency, asymmetric warfare and the morality of revolutionary acts, so highly regarded it was screened at the Pentagon in 2003 as an warning of problems that would be faced by Coalition Forces during the Iraq War (not they apparently paid much attention to it). Omar and Algiers share a lot of filmic DNA, a visually similar setting, willingness to emotionally engage with both sides and, most importantly, a ballsy commitment to exploring violence as a valid response to oppression.

Nadia and Omar
Over the course of Omar we realise  that these characters and their respective countries are caught in an inescapable cycle of violent activity.  The casual (and occasionally murderous) brutality of the IDF breeds resentment in the Palestinian people, which bubbles over into ambushes, assassinations and suicide bombings.  This in turn causes Israel to tighten the screw ever more on the beleaguered country, which results in further retaliation - and so forth.  

After a half century of this, both sides are ten kinds of screwed up. Israel has twisted itself into a monstrous oppressive force: able to argue in favour of bombing hospitals and schools, bulldozing people's homes and conducting programmes designed to starve the Palestinian people, who appear to be regarded as little more than subhumans by the extreme right-wing government.  Faced with this military might, many Palestinians feel justified in strapping explosives to themselves and suicidally taking out their frustrations on the Israeli population in general.  The two countries have become deformed by violence: Israel, founded as a safe haven, has become genocidal and Palestine simmers with antisemitism and religious extremism.

This situation is too big, controversial and unwieldy for cinema to tackle directly - so Omar pares everything down to the personal level.  At the core of the film is the relationship between Omar and Nadia, two performances shot through with fevered, unrequited passion.  In happier times they'd be starcrossed lovers, destined for a long and happy life together.  Here, we see their affection perverted by war, trust undermined with suspicion: in military eyes love becomes just another variety of bomb.  Omar is sprinkled with these perversions of affection, the conflict warping everything that's good and kind about humanity into something horrible.

Leem Lubany is particularly great: tragic and beautiful.
The darkest the film gets are the nightmarish torture sequences. Omar is suspended naked by his wrists in an infinite dark space that recalls Glazer's recent Under the Skin.  Here he's beaten to a pulp, sexually humiliated and mentally manipulated.  These sequences have a ring of 1984's Room 101 with Omar and Nadia playing Winston and Julia.  Abu-Assad goes to great lengths to show us a situation where there is no right decision. Whether you're innocent or guilty the end result is the destruction of the self, followed by being tossed into a dark box and forgotten.  In many ways it's a riposte to Zero Dark Thirty, here we identify with the man whose testicles are being burnt rather than the one doing the burning.

Make no mistake about it, Omar is a deeply partisan film, coming firmly down on the side of the Palestinian people - though its representation of events is so clear minded and grounded that it resists easy classification as propaganda.  Abu-Assad neatly sidesteps religion to the extent that I don't think the words 'Jew' and 'Muslim' are even spoken in the script; the involvement of individual political entities within Israel and Palestine are similarly minimised, with just a few scant mentions of Hamas and Al-Aqsa. Again, this all works reduces the conflict to the bare bones; the oppressors vs the oppressed.

Omar is an outstanding piece of cinema; beautiful, heartfelt, political and intelligent. It never sags over its 98 minute run time, none of the actors put a foot wrong and the core romance of Adam Bakri and Leem Lubany is devastatingly well-executed.  Testament to this is that, as the credits rolled, the audience sat still in stunned silence.   Omar presents no easy answers; the Israelis effortlessly dominate the Palestinians through technology, finances and firepower, the human consequences of their occupation  misery, distrust and death.  With the West squarely behind this oppression their only possible response is fragmented desperate acts of violence.  Omar will leave you angry and sad - angry that we live in world where oppression like this is tacitly accepted for diplomatic reasons, and sad that the end of this country's hardships isn't even a faint dot on the horizon.


Omar is released on May 30th.

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