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Conspiracy, romance and torture plays out in the shadow of the West Bank barrier in Hany Abu-Assad’s Oscar-nominated Palestinian drama, Omar
There are many prominent walls in Hany Abu-Assad’s Oscar-nominated Palestinian drama, Omar. Some are metaphorical: personal ones thrown up by characters to disguise their motives, or cultural ones prescribing the route of young love. Some are very real: they have sweet nothings whispered over them or play setting to conspiratorial meetings. Walls are deftly scaled during thrilling chases, others are there to imprison. Of course, looming above all of these is the eight metre tall graffitied, concrete blockade that is the Israeli West Bank barrier. It is here that we first meet the eponymous Omar, played by the brooding and charismatic Adam Bakri, as he scales it to meet with fellow resistance fighters.
The way Omar moves through his surroundings is like the flexing of a well-used muscle. He shimmies over the barrier and slides down the other side, avoiding military gunfire, high-tailing it to the home of friend and leader, Tarek (Iyad Hoorani). From the danger of politics and bullets to a gentle tranquility; Omar, Tarek, and the third amigo, Amjad (Samer Bisharat) lounge around in a small living room. They laugh and joke as Tarek’s captivating younger sister, Nadia (Leem Lubany) serves them all with tea – exchanges glances, and what is presumably a love letter, with Omar. No sooner have they gulped their chai than the three young men are out in the countryside, practicing their aim with a rifle. The dichotomy of Omar’s life – the martial with the domestic – are perfectly handled by Abu-Assad. A match-cut from a burning getaway car to the traditional bread-oven that Omar tends during his days proves a perfect illustration.
That car is the one used in the attack that proves the catalyst for the film’s twisting narrative. After a run-in with a barrier patrol, Omar urges that they speed up their planned attack and the trio put quickly their newfound aim to use, and shoot an Israeli soldier. The next day, the forces arrive and pursue them through a maze of narrow streets and back alleys before a gunshot wound stops Omar in his tracks. A black bag over his head becomes a pitch dark room in which he awakes to find himself hanging from the ceiling. The security forces are frustrated when a bloodied face and a flame to the genitals – also, coincidentally, seen in Amat Escalante’s Heli which arrives in UK cinemas recently – don’t convince him to talk. When he is tricked into implying that he has something to which he could, but will not, confess however, he finds himself at the mercy of his captors. They allow his freedom but for the price of delivering them Tarek.
Where the differing aspects of Omar’s life had been relatively mutually exclusive to this point, that ceases upon his release. Tension was inherent from the opening scene – furtive glances and paranoia are etched upon all of the characters’ faces – but it is ratcheted from this point onwards. Waleed Zuaiter’s Agent Rami turns the screw on the young would be crusader instilling further distrust in him; manipulating his love for Nadia and his devotion to Tarek. Nobody’s agenda is evident anymore and as Nadia begins to question Omar’s own loyalty – with rumours spreading of his collusion with the enemy – anxieties grow.
Where the sheltered walkways and narrow paths had seemed like home to our protagonist, they begin to close in on him as suspicions rise. The love story appeared to be playing out so idyllically begins to sour with mistrust whilst Omar’s position with the authorities and resistance becomes untenable. Bakri does a fantastic job of reigning in his character as the plot contorts in ever more melodramatic ways and the realities of survival in this game of cat and mouse emerge as ever more lethal. That Abu-Assad manages to imbue this scaled-down story with far reaching themes of national identity amidst perpetual bombardment and oppressive coercion is impressive. That he also manages to keep you guessing until the very last frame of this labyrinthine drama is even more so. There are rough edges, but Omar is arguably all the more compelling, heart-wrenching, and romantic because of them.