Toward the end of Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s powerful new film, Omar, nominated for the Oscar in the best foreign-language film category, the eponymous Palestinian hero (played by Adam Bakri) says to Nadia (Leem Lubany), the woman he has loved and lost: “We have all believed the unbelievable.” The impossible backdrop to their love is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank; and indeed there is much that is unbelievable about this occupation and the reality it has created and maintained for nearly half a century.
It is hard to fathom how the Israelis themselves can stand to live with the ongoing misery and cruelty they have inflicted, and it’s not so easy to understand how the rest of the world has let them get away with it. Then there is the shadowy space of infinite suspicion and distrust that the occupation naturally breeds among those who live under or in it. Is it possible to believe that your closest friend has sold out, has betrayed you to your common enemy, has bartered your life for his (perhaps to escape an arbitrary sentence of life in prison from a military court, as in Omar’s case)? Is it possible to believe that he hasn’t?
Omar is an ordinary young man, hardly more than an adolescent. He works in a bakery making fresh pita. Scenes of excruciating torment are interspersed regularly, ironically, with images of hot bread coming out of the oven. The separation barrier, which mostly separates Palestinians from Palestinians, not Palestinians from Israelis, stands between him and Nadia; from time to time he climbs over it, risking his life, in order to see her. Shooting those scenes, by the way, required the permission of the Israeli authorities; typically, they issued a permit that was good for climbing only part of the way up the barrier, so the producer had to improvise, and an alternative top-of-the-wall was put up in Nazareth, inside Israel.
Like any young Palestinian, Omar is subject to routine harassment and humiliation by Israeli soldiers. Those who have not seen such practices with their own eyes will find the relevant scene, early on in the film, instructive. Omar is stopped by soldiers while walking down the street, then forced to balance himself on a rock while they chat and laugh at him; when he protests, they break his nose. I’ve myself seen much worse incidents in the South Hebron hills, including violent arrest of innocent civilians simply trying to reach their fields or homes.
So far, everything is, one might say, normal for life in Palestine. But Omar becomes involved in the shooting of an Israeli soldier, an incident organized by Nadia’s brother and Omar’s childhood friend, Tarek. Omar didn’t kill the soldier, but he is soon arrested by the General Security Service, the Shin Bet or …
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