North Africa, West Asia

Film review: 'Omar' and the nature of colonialism

A review of Omar (2014), the most recent offering from the Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, which portrays the reality of life under occupation.

William Eichler
6 August 2014

Palestinian film director Hany Abu Assad. Demotix/ Cesare Dagliana. All rights reserved.

Hany Abu Assad’s 2006 film, Paradise Now, a thoughtful meditation on the journey of two Palestinian men preparing to become suicide bombers, won best foreign film at the Golden Globes despite the predictable controversy it garnered. The Oscar-nominated Omar looks set to do equally well. As Israel's most recent bombardment of Gaza rages on, Omar provides us with a clear window into the reality of life under occupation and the nature of colonialism.

Omar is a young Palestinian baker in the West Bank who spends his days hanging out with his two childhood friends, Tarek and Amjad, and secretly courting Tarek's younger sister, Nadia. Tired of the constant humiliation of living under occupation, the three men attack an Israeli military base, killing one soldier. It is not long before the Israeli authorities track them down and, after one of many chases through the labyrinthine streets of the unidentified Palestinian town, Omar is taken into custody where he is beaten and threatened with 90 years in jail.

An Israeli agent, Rami, offers him a way out. If he betrays his friends, he can go free. Omar is released on the condition that he brings in Tarek and from this point onwards the viewer is left with the impression that everyone is a potential spy and nobody can be trusted.

Abu-Assad told The Guardian that the idea for the film came during the shooting of Paradise Now. While filming under difficult conditions in the West Bank (a member of his crew was kidnapped by a Palestinian group, before being released again), he became convinced that there was a spy on his team. “I was so paranoid that I registered myself in one room and slept in another,” he says. But he also emphasises that this is typical of life under occupation: “In general the Palestinian environment is very paranoid. It's logic, you know. My parents raised me to be careful; anyone might work with a secret agent.”

In Omar, we see how this paranoia and secrecy affects every aspect of life, straining even the most apparently solid relationships. The cynical figure of Agent Rami captures well how an occupier can capitalise on this. He uses Omar's love for Nadia, and the threat that she might marry Amjad, as leverage to turn Omar against his compatriots. His exploitation of such human failings as jealousy and distrust is allowed by his privileged position as occupier.

Thanks to a network of spies and informers he is able to gather intimate details about people's lives in order to manipulate them and perpetuate his control. In Agent Rami, we have the personification of the principle of 'divide and rule', and he joins a long line of filmic colonial overlords, such as Colonel Mathieu in The Battle of Algiers (1966) or Russell Crowe's Ed Hoffman in Body of Lies (2008).

Israel's colonial presence in the West Bank also manifests itself in other ways. In order to meet with his friends, Omar has to scale Israel's 'separation barrier'. The first time we see him doing this he is shot at and then chased by an Israeli patrol. This wall, which in urban areas reaches a height of eight metres, goes deep into the West Bank beyond the 1967 borders, dividing communities up and cutting villagers off from their land. In addition to this, an intricate web of barriers and checkpoints divides the West Bank and East Jerusalem up into smaller cantons, providing the illusion of security for the estimated 650,000 residents of the ever expanding, illegal Israeli settlements and making daily life for Palestinians a constant trial.

This matrix of colonial control also serves the political end of undermining any future prospect of a contiguous, independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and ensures Israel maintains military control, in some form or other, between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Times of Israel recently reported, made this perfectly clear during a press conference held amidst the most recent bombardment of besieged Gaza: “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”

From Netanyahu's perspective, in order to secure Israel, the Palestinians must be denied any kind of genuine sovereignty within their historical homeland. Palestinians, such as Omar, must spend their lives subjugated and humiliated, forced to climb walls and queue at checkpoints manned by armed teenagers, just to visit friends and family.

In any context of political oppression the question of violence inevitably emerges. In Paradise Now, a film about the personal and ethical struggles of two men who wish to become suicide bombers, this issue took centre stage and was dealt with in a philosophical manner. In Omar the question is not directly addressed but it is – perhaps inevitably – present.

This time, however, it deals with the violence of the oppressor. In one scene, Omar descends the wall and is stopped by an Israeli patrol. In a familiar motif from the conflict young Israeli soldiers make Omar balance on a rock with his hands on his head. Humiliated and angry, he tells the soldiers to put down their weapons and fight him on equal terms. They knock him out with the butt of a rifle.

The asymmetrical nature of the conflict crystallises powerfully in this scene. The imbalance of forces that sees a nuclear-armed, US-backed state with the world's eleventh most powerful military persecuting an occupied people and claiming it as self-defence is underscored in this confrontation. This lack of parity is once again clear to us in the present round of fighting. Having failed to neutralise Hamas as a political actor in the conflict through its siege of Gaza (with the full support and cooperation of Egypt's new dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi), Israel has once again resorted to massive military force.

In the film, Omar is relatively lucky and is just left a bit bloodied and humiliated. In the real world, the casualty figures (more than 1800 Palestinians, most of whom are civilians, and 67 Israelis, 63 of whom are soldiers, at the time of writing) speak to the asymmetry that is at the heart of this conflict.

While on the ground there is very little to be optimistic about, in the world of cinema Omar marks an important turning point. In 2002, the Academy Awards committee refused Elia Suleiman's film Divine Intervention because Palestine is not a recognised country. Then in 2006, Paradise Now was filed under “Palestinian territories”. Omar, however, was accepted immediately by the committee, under “Palestine.”

Perhaps this is because Palestine has been upgraded from an “Observer Entity” to an “Observer State” in the UN or maybe it reflects a shift in global opinion. Either way, while it might not seem much, especially in light of this most recent bout of violence, such re-classification by the Academy Awards committee is a small but important step forward towards a just resolution to the conflict.

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