Film

Divide and Conquer

Omar: The Political Is Personal

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ALMOST DAILY, Omar (Adam Bakri) climbs a rope over a 25-foot-tall separation wall, sometimes dodging bullets. What he does on the other side at first seems uncontroversial: He has coffee with his friends and girlfriend. Back on his side, he works as a baker, and plays with the family kitten when he goes to his mom's house for dinner. In other words, he's a normal, decent guy. But sometimes after coffee, he and childhood friends Tarek (Eyad Hourani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat) practice shooting and other combat maneuvers, training themselves to join the Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation.

Omar, by Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, addresses the ongoing West Bank conflict by way of the titular protagonist's perspective—despite its politically charged material, the film is almost completely free of rhetoric, allowing Omar's motives to play out as the simple, relatable, cumulative function of everyday frustrations. On one unlucky day after coming back over the wall, for instance, a small contingent of soldiers stops Omar and makes him balance on an unsteady rock with his hands over his head while they chat and smoke cigarettes, inciting him to rage. At the same time, his desire to marry Nadja (Leem Lubany) is no doubt intertwined with his inclination to participate in the violence. Tarek, the most radicalized and well connected among the three young men, is, after all, Nadja's older brother.

Perhaps Omar's best strength is this seamless, equal concentration between the personal and political: both are immediate to the story, and both are complicated. Once Omar is arrested following the trio's first real action—the highly questionable assassination of a random Israeli soldier—he's at the mercy of the occupying forces. Like so many before him, he's confronted with having to choose between an imprisoned life of torture, interrogations, and solitary confinement, or trading information that betrays his people, his cause, and his friends. His handler, Agent Rami (a brilliant Waleed Zuaiter), seems to have information on all of them, even alluding that he knows secrets about Nadja, and he could and would use them to destroy her.

With its protagonist back on the streets, Omar becomes a tense, paranoid thriller in which everything and everyone is suspect. Omar knows he's being watched by both the secret police and the Palestinian fighters who are now suspicious of his release from jail, and he's forced to go to great lengths to keep in balance the delicate trusts he has with Tarek, Nadja, and now Rami. When the suspicions bleed into the personal, tragedy, betrayal, and misunderstanding reach Shakespearean proportions, a comparison underscored by the dramatic and ever-looming separation wall.

Abu-Assad has said that his films take place in Palestine simply because that's the context in which he lives; that he ultimately wants the human experiences within them to outlast and transcend the conflict that defines their settings. But it's easy to imagine that without the wall and its soldiers, Omar and Nadja would have contented, unremarkable lives. Omar is sympathetic, and on a personal level, his fate elicits audience investment—it does transcend the political—but however modest Abu-Assad may be in his intentions as an activist, his film's increasing reach brings to life the impact of West Bank policy and the destabilizing power of simple separation.

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