A Darkly Intimate Thriller

by Max Weiss | published March 20, 2014 - 9:03am

The first time I watched Omar, the latest Oscar-nominated work by Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, I nearly leapt out of my seat as it careened toward the climax, unable to recall the last time a film elicited such a visceral response from me.

At the most basic level, Omar is a political thriller that follows the inexorable unraveling of three Palestinian friends -- Omar, Tarek and Amjad -- who struggle to maintain their lives, humor and friendship against terrible odds. Omar and Amjad are both in love with Nadia, who happens to be Tarek’s younger sister, and this broken love triangle will ultimately lead to the downfall of all four. But Omar is first and foremost a searing meditation on the pressures and damage inflicted on Palestinian life by Israeli occupation. After the three friends conspire to, and Amjad actually does, kill an Israeli soldier inside his own barracks, their lives and those of their loved ones are sucked into a maelstrom in which friends and enemies are no longer so easy to distinguish.

The broader Palestinian condition of apparent impossibility and utter undecidability becomes a central theme. Family relationships are shattered, jilted love stories become the norm, and friendships are ripped apart by paranoia and the manipulation of Israeli spy networks. The ever-intensifying pressure cooker of everyday life under occupation ties Palestinian social and affective life into knots -- knots that can only be cut by self-effacing violence (think of the suicide bomber, for example, transmuted here into a collaborator who ultimately self-destructs). The wreckage left behind includes dead friends, paranoid relatives, women without husbands or with children of unknown parentage, and dashed hopes.

There is no exit from the brutality and insidious distortion of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, now approaching its forty-seventh year. What hope remains is to destroy the circuit of intrigue and counter-intrigue. Many commentators, both Israeli and Palestinian, view the issue of collaboration through a charged ideological, but largely impersonal, lens. Omar, by contrast, anatomizes the occupation regime’s dark intimacy, exploring how lifelong friendships, family relationships and even the love of your life can become monstrous, while the relationship between interrogator and prisoner in the Israeli torture chamber can morph into a shocking degree of closeness. The first time the protagonist is strung up by his wrists and beaten savagely in detention, his face has been smashed, his nose pulverized. And yet, through the blood, pus and vomit, Omar musters the whispered advice to his captor, “Wipe your nose.” Whether Omar is trying to humiliate his interrogator or to save him from humiliation, whether this is gratuitous defiance or a cynical tactic of avoidance seems irrelevant. To maintain such poise under these circumstances is a pointed and compelling assertion of their common humanity. In response, Omar is subjected to a cigarette lighter to his genitals.

But the relationship between resistance and Palestinian politics is complicated. How can the Palestinian people most effectively combat Israel’s overwhelming military strength? Through speech, as when Omar talks back to three Israeli soldiers who are harassing and humiliating him? Through stone throwing, to which the children of the refugee camp resort as the undercover forces chase him through the alleyways? Through guerrilla warfare, as when the three old friends train for and then engage in armed struggle? As this nightmarish noir descends into deeper levels of uncertainty, the web of deception turns ever more opaque. The personal relationship that Omar develops with the secret agent, Rami, a fluent Arabic-speaking Israeli handler, becomes the key to his escape.

Both favorable and critical reviews of the film have stressed the political agenda that the filmmaker brings to his craft; some have approved, grudgingly or otherwise, of the “humanization” of the avatars of occupation, Rami in particular. But such a move to reduce the Palestinian condition to “politics,” or to the need for “dialogue” and “empathy,” obliterates the incessant violence of the bureaucratic and military machinery of occupation. This system has produced the contradictory social and affective effects that Lori Allen so evocatively terms, “the multiple powers of cynicism in politics and the possibilities of solidarity and, yes, the resistance to oppressive forces that are contained therein.” I cannot think of a more profound representation of the politics of cynicism in Palestine, and its potential overcoming, as that found in Omar.

Editors’ Note: For more MERIP coverage of Israel’s use of collaborators, see Salim Tamari’s classic, “Eyeless in Judea,” Middle East Report 164 (May-June 1990) and Yoav Di-Capua, “The Intimate History of Collaboration,” Middle East Report Online (May 2007). On Abu Assad’s first Oscar-nominated feature, see Lori Allen, “Paradise Now’s Understated Power,” (January 2006).

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