Omar – Hany Abu-Assad and contemporary psychological warfare. (SFF Film Review)
Omar is now showing at the Sydney Film Festival.
“As long as you don’t talk, they can’t sentence you.
But listen closely, if you do confess, they will break your will, make you dependent, and turn you into a collaborator, so watch it.
Never become a collaborator.
There’s no turning back, no way out… and no end to it.”
These are the words that will seal Omar’s fate, but as we have already seen from Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now, there are ancient wars in this world that change battlegrounds and tactics with each new generation. Omar’s fate was sealed at birth – like all of us defined by culture and environment. Omar opens on the youthful, handsome face of Adam Bakri as he waits for a break in the traffic to leap over the “Isolation Wall” that divides modern-day Palestine, originally built to protect Israelis from Palestinian terrorists, but is now a symbol of oppression for Palestinians. He dodges bullets as he flings himself with great agility over the top, and races through the narrow Palestinian streets to meet with his childhood friends Tarek (Eyad Horuani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat) and Tarek’s younger sister Nadia (Leem Lubany). Omar is in love with Nadia and together they are planning to find the best way for Omar to ask Nadia’s older brother and father for her hand. The pair exchange notes and steal moments where their unconsummated intimacy is expressed in brief, chaste moments of accidental touching. Omar owns a bakery and is working hard to make enough money to buy Nadia a house and take her on a proper honeymoon.
Along side this story of love is the tale of the three friends preparation to enter into the age-old struggle of their people, immediately brought home by the divide down the middle of Palestine and the dominance of occupying Israel. The young men “train”in the woods, join in street brawls and use their agility and familiarity with the streets to make trouble and easily disappear into the maze of housing, always outrunning the Israeli forces. But Omar and his friends are young Palestinian males and therefore a part of something whether they fight or not, so they are regularly hauled up by the side of the road and forced to succumb to meaningless humiliations by the Israeli forces who, as we will find out in the course of the film, are masters of psychological warfare. When an attack by the three friends ends up being a success, they become the target of a greater force than foot soldiers and before he knows it, Omar is playing games of trust and loyalty where he can no longer tell friend from foe.
When I worked in development, we learned that the problems of malnutrition in the worlds hungry are three to five generations long, expanding with each year. That is, it will take three to five generations of properly feeding the worlds hungry until a generation will be born that can expect to develop physically in the same way we in well fed nations take for granted. It is this kind of multi-generational impact that Abu-Assad so clearly depicts in Omar. The problem for the Palestinian’s is that the occupying force understands them better than they understand themselves. Omar expresses astonishment at his captors command of Arabic; his listening couldn’t even detect an accent. When asked about his own Hebrew, he admits he can’t speak it nor understand it. It is this fundamental vulnerability that makes Omar and his rebel friends appear like kittens at the end of a dangling string – an image used regularly by Abu-Assad in the film. Omar realises far too late what he has been a victim of all along, how his enemy have been so far ahead of him they have led him to every place they want him to go, all the while convincing him he is out playing everyone else. But this tactical brilliance in his enemy is not because of their superiority, but simply because this war has been going on for so long the intricacies of its internal machinations are born of an intuitive connection available to either side, and it is this realisation Omar comes to, even as he starts to clearly see his place in that age-old war. Under occupation he is impotent, even his feelings have been planted specifically to meet the aim of his captors. This is the true cost of life under occupation, where even rebellion is managed from the other side of the wall that separates him from his freedom.
Abu-Assad uses Omar’s face as a map of sorts as the film moves through its twisting and turning narrative, starting with his youthful good looks, his sly seductions as he speaks to the woman he loves, and then bruises, contusions and scars across his face that heal on the surface but start to disfigure the look in his eye over time, although it is not necessarily the repeatedly broken nose that cuts the deepest at his psyche. He doesn’t have the mental dexterity to understand what is happening to him, so when the ways in which he is been duped come to the surface over and over again, they transform him with deeper resonance. Death is the Palestinian youths friend, he has learnt to live with the sting of its perpetual threat, and he understands not all of his childhood friends will grow old together. However, it’s life he has to master now as he slowly becomes aware of how deep this occupation goes. When his enemy tell him they can make a whore of his woman with the click of their fingers, it is not till the last moments of the film that Omar will properly understand.
Omar is a companion piece to Paradise Now in this way, one depicting the life of a Palestinian who will die for his cause and the other one who is abandoned to the humiliation of having to live for a cause in a virtual jail. The message of both exceptional films is one of the long-term damage being performed with tactical menace by an occupying force on an enemy they have grown with over hundreds and hundreds of years and it is a chilling spectacle to those of us who can feel the full force of Abu-Assad’s point.