The Oscars are over, but we’ve still got things to say! This series is comprised of five essays on Academy Award nominated films — some of them honored, some of them snubbed, all worthy of a second look. Find the rest of our After the Oscars essays here.
Sometimes you watch something so relentlessly vital that it sticks with you for days or even weeks after. This seems to happen to me most often with television shows; I’m prone to binges. Once it’s over and there’s nothing left to watch, your life feels a little flat — a screen waiting to be shattered. Omar is this kind of movie. It tells the story of a young Palestinian baker, Omar (a dashing Adam Bakri), living in Palestine. Part of the dissonance I’ve experienced since watching it may owe to the fact that the reality I saw in Omar is playing out a few miles away from my writing desk.
Omar was one of the foreign film nominees for the Oscars this year. It’s the second nomination for Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad whose 2005 Paradise Now also received the nod. It’s tightly constructed in every sense: the confident camerawork shifts deftly between the intimate and the claustrophobic; the plot machinations close in on the title character in a way that extracts a deep and lasting empathy. It requires no score.
Omar is in love. In order to visit his beloved he must jump the 8-foot wall built by Israel in the West Bank. (I could never quite grasp if Omar was traveling to or from the Israeli side of the wall.) In the movie’s initial scene, we see Omar grappling up the wall — he looks strong and capable. He also looks very small in comparison to the bulwark he breaches. As Omar straddles the wall, a police siren sounds in the distance and a bullet ricochets off the wall next to him. He slides down the rope quickly, and races through back alleys to evade pursuers imminent or potential.
Several times, as Omar tries to avoid capture, the camera follows him anxiously through Palestinian backways, twisting small lanes and alleys. One senses a maze without exit — cat and mouse. And so too the movie’s plot itself seems to close in on Omar, who tries to maintain some control of his life after he and his two childhood friends — Tarek (Eyad Hourani), and Amjad (Samer Bisharat) — kill an Israeli soldier. Like many great thrillers, Omar is a desperate love story. Both Omar and Amjad are in love with Tarek’s sister Nadia (Leem Lubany), and betrayal is inevitable. It is one of the film’s great aches that all the Palestinians in the movie become increasingly divided by mutual distrust as Omar becomes more and more closely bound to Rami (Waleed Zuaiter), the Israeli Shin Bet agent who attempts to recruit Omar as an informant.
In reading reviews of Omar, I have noted some consistent difficulty in figuring out how to talk about the movie, how to describe its events. The problems start right away, with the wall that Omar must jump to visit Tarek and Nadia. The wall is an 8-meter high barrier built primarily in the West Bank. You can see it from all over Jerusalem, where I live. It’s this huge ugly scar running through the country. There is no way to describe its function neutrally. Those in favor of the wall will say it was built to keep out terrorists, and point out that the number of suicide bombings fell dramatically thanks to the wall. They prefer to call it the Security Fence. On the other side of the spectrum is the argument that the wall has been used to annex Palestinian land, to control Palestinian movement, and to devastate local communities by cruelly separating them. Those who feel this way call it the Apartheid Wall or the Racial Segregation Fence.
The reason there is such a shortage of neutral language in Israel is that the conflict isn’t something that language here has to respond to. Rather, it’s the framework that shapes language here. The conflict is like the wooden poles you use to guide climbers in your garden. And so too are human lives given shape by what we vaguely call the conflict. The characters in Omar are aware that there is a bleak hilarity in the possibility that a warzone could ever come to feel normal. After he jumps the fence in the movie’s initial scene, Omar sits with Tarek and Amjad, deadpanning about what could have very nearly killed him. Tarek asks him how he came, meaning, over which part of the wall (Qualandi north of Jerusalem). Omar answers that he took the noon flight, the morning one was full. “Business or coach?” asks Amjad. “Coach, it was brutal!” The men’s immobility is a recurring element of the film. After target practice in the woods, they sit on gutted car seats in the dirt.
There are occasions when Omar, attractive and winning, seems in some ways to symbolize the resistance to the occupation. At one point, covered in his own blood after being brutally tortured in a Shin Bet prison, Omar is asked once again to give a name. He is hanging from his wrists; his shoulders look to be dislocating; his face is a mask of blood. “Your nose,” he says. The beefy interrogator leans in. “Wipe your nose.” And, close up to the camera, the interrogator rather self-consciously wipes his nose. It’s possible, however, that these scenes serve primarily to endear Omar to us, because Omar strives not to be a political allegory but a film about love and betrayal — just one that takes place within the framework of life in Palestine. If this is true, then the murder of the Israeli soldier early on in the movie serves as the kind of pointless but inevitable act which intensifies the plot, the way robbing a liquor store and shooting the clerk might in an American tragi-thriller love story. But while this may be true for the movie, it can’t be true for me. I have my own life in Israel, my own love story too.
Love is why, when Amjad looks through the scope of his gun, deciding which soldier to kill, I felt such grief in me. You could barely tell the difference between them, the soldiers — certainly not see faces. But there was so much I knew. I recognized the ugly green camo netting they hang all around the bases the way I do fairy lights in my room. I recognized their vests, their helmets. I recognized the boots of the soldier Amjad did decide to kill, which were the boots of someone who does not serve in a combat unit. I can guess, based on the location of his base, that his home schedule was probably 11–3: that’s 11 days on base, 3 days at home. Unless he was lucky enough to get a 10–4. I recognized most of this because my boyfriend is in the Israeli army. In fact, as I am writing this I compulsively check my phone for news from him. He is stationed up north, near Israel’s border with Lebanon. Through the scope of their old rifle, Amjad pulls the trigger, and the soldier — he seems so thin without his vest and helmet — crumples. I kept thinking, with such sadness, why couldn’t you just decide not to kill someone’s boyfriend? To some extent, the nature of my response reveals how much I have been shaped by living in Israel, what violence is normalized and what is not. Here, I have often heard the casual othering of Arabs (never called Palestinians in this context), and the death of the film’s soldier is a rare exposure to the dehumanizing of a Jewish Israeli. Surely this accounts for some of the shock.
But my response to this scene is not only a matter of ideology; it’s also a mater of intimacy. I feel increasingly that theories of war, which posit responses to war imagery as overdetermined by political rhetoric, are most useful to people for whom war is purely theoretical. Yes it’s possible that in my reaction to this murder scene my intimacy blinds me to the larger issues at play. But it’s also possible that the inability to account for love and intimacy in so many theoretical approaches to violence is what renders them so useless.
Perhaps I have been overtaken by the beguiling simplicity of the warzone, where all moral nuance is drowned out by a single all-consuming concern for the safety of the people you love. If this is the case, however, it’s something Omar and I share, and a theme the film’s director must have intended to explore. Again and again in interviews, Abu-Assad insists his movie is a love story. I was skeptical of this genre designation at first, but I see it now. What is a love story but the struggle to come together, to withstand separation, even in the face of dangerous political circumstances? Omar’s love story cannot be separated from the conflict precisely because the film depicts lives whose normalcy isn’t disrupted but rather patterned by the conflict. For Omar, as for me, separation and violence are the strange and lamentable landscape of our intimacy.
Rebecca Sacks is currently writing from Israel, where she studies religion and literature at the graduate level. Her Twitter is @bsnacks.