Hany Abu Assad’s new film Omar won the best film award at the Dubai International Film Festival last week, cementing his reputation as one of the foremost Arab directors of the moment. His Paradise Now (2006) won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign language film, and it received an Oscar nomination in the same category. Omar won a jury prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes this year. So Abu Assad’s work comes with a lot of expectations.
In Omar a group of friends – freelance warriors against the occupation – plan their own operation to kill an Israeli soldier. One of them, Omar, is caught and his interrogators claim to know everything about him, including his love for the sister of one of his colleagues. They want to make Omar their informer. The tense, tight storyline effectively expresses the sense of Palestinians living in an even more sinister version of Jim Carrey’s The Truman Show, trapped by borders, an omniscient and ruthless Big Brother, and a set of limited, predictable set of options for life.
Abu Assad says the film, in its shock conclusion, was an effort to show Palestinians as agents of their own destiny who can escape the choices of death (through choosing violence), betrayal (the option Israeli intelligence services give them to escape jail), or prison (where abuse and suffering are commonplace) that the military occupation places before those who choose to fight back. “The message is that the occupation has to end, regardless of what follows that. Omar succeeded in breaking the cycle,” Abu Assad says.
The film’s championing of resistance is likely to present more barriers to its popularity in North America that Paradise Now’s story of two men preparing to carry out a suicide bomb attack. The suicide bomb is a spectacular act, a set-piece scene in the tragedy of the conflict. Shooting Israeli soldiers dead is far more banal, and Abu-Assad presents it as commonplace in life under occupation. Omar and his friends are unsung local heroes for taking part in this form of resistance. It’s something they are expected to do.
What’s interesting, however, is the geography of Abu Assad’s events. They have no clear location. We cannot tell in what Palestinian neighbourhood different scenes take place. Indeed the movie was shot variously in Nazareth (his hometown), Nablus and Jerusalem. The only physical clue we have is the wall that Israel has built, mainly inside the West Bank, following roughly the line of the 1967 border.
The wall comes to form a central role in the film’s narrative structure as Omar returns to it at various points to get to the other side. He does this by scaling it via rope, moving from one side to the other with little difficulty (though in one scene when he has lost his spirits he needs the help of a passing old man to give him a push). The wall in other words is failing to do its job of separation. Further, he doesn’t go to the other side to attack Israeli towns or settlements – which may go through the viewer’s mind in the film’s opening scenes: he does it primarily to mix with Palestinians on the other side.
This geographical vagueness and rendering of the wall as ineffective might appear to sit oddly with the concept of occupation. Occupation we usually think of as meaning the West Bank, East Jerusalem or Gaza. But occupation in Omar more specifically constitutes restriction of movement and a very direct and immediate sense of oppression by the military apparatus of a state; it is not about about throwing off an occupier in order to enjoy a liberated space in a particular political entity. Palestine is Palestine. As a captured informer tells Omar and his friends at one point, he collaborated because of the promise of being able to see the sea – the sea that is hardly more than a few kilometres away from some parts of the West Bank.
That those in the West Bank no more have the freedom of mobility to visit the sea, or that those in Gaza no more have the freedom to escape it, is a cruel irony of the two Intifadas. Abu Assad doesn’t touch that issue (I’m not aware of any Palestinian cinema that has), but Omar is nevertheless a subtly subversive film, subversive of the two-state paradigm at a time when panic among liberal Zionists and their Western allies over the fate of the entire Israeli project is more and more being felt in the conflict’s political agenda.
Here’s what Abu Assad had to say about the film when I caught up with him:
Q: There have been films made about the occupation before but this one was different in the way it gave that sense of entrapment in every aspect of one’s life.
A: Sure, but this is the trick. In good movies the main character is trapped and whatever he does, he’s condemned. This is how you start building your dramatic structure. The trap in Omar is you either betray your friends or you will stay in jail forever.
Q: There was one scene when a collaborator said he had done what he did because he wanted to see the sea.
A: And he wants to get a visa. We know in any occupation you are trapped, but how do you want to visualize this, how do you make it a story? The sea’s not far away, but he can’t go there – it’s all building this sense of being trapped. As you said, there are many movies about occupation but you don’t feel people being trapped.
Q: With your structure, it’s interesting how the wall that Omar returns to is a central theme all the way through. The wall is intended to separate but in the film it completely fails to separate.
A: In Palestine the wall wasn’t separating Israel from the West Bank, the wall is really meant to separate Palestinians from Palestinians. But in every structure of a love story – whether it’s Romeo and Juliet, or Antar and Abla – there must be two obstacles, one internal and one external. Nothing can better visualize external separation than the wall, it immediately visualizes the obstacle.
Q: In one scene an old man has to help Omar up and get over the wall. It seemed symbolic in a way, that the new generation has to draw on the faith and determination of the previous one to keep having the faith to overcome this situation now.
Q: The wall is ineffective and we don’t know where any of the events are taking place, so that we don’t know which is the occupied West Bank, where Palestinians are meant to get a state, and which is the state that already exists, Israel. The lines are blurred – is this deliberate?
A: Very deliberate. Because I wanted to make a virtual city, a city that resembles the whole of Palestine that has been divided. We’ve been divided by the people who stayed inside the 1948 borders, the West Bank divided between refugees and non-refugees, divided by refugees outside and those inside – it’s all division. our story is the dividing of the nation. This is why my setting in Omar is a virtual city and not an actual city. Nazareth old city has been divided, the refugee camps are divided, the villages have been divided, the countryside has been divided. so it’s a virtual city not an actual city, that is representing all Palestine.
Q: The film tells us that the division is failing.
A: For sure, it’s failing. What I’m saying is yes, even if they are building walls, even if they are dividing us, still we love each other, still we want to be with each other. Omar is risking his life to go and see Nadia. Whatever you build, whatever you do, we will continue to be one nation. This is what I’m saying, which in a way people can see it’s not realistic climbing over a wall, but it’s not about this. It’s about saying that even if you create so many divisions, still we can find individuals finding a way to marry each other. My brother’s wife is a Palestinian born in Syria; he succeeded to bring her in, back.
Q: The message is subversive of the whole two-state paradigm.
A: Who’s talking about two states? They are employees, the official politicians. It’s a luxury social service programme and they just go and talk (the Palestinian Authority). But it’s dead already, ten years ago (Oslo).
Q: Who funded the film?
A: Mostly Palestinian businessmen and five per cent from Dubai International Film Festival. But again the movie is not really political, it’s not a movie saying a two-state solution is dead. That’s just my personal opinion.
Q: But you’ve done well to avoid the funding trap, where there are expectations that come from funders.
A: They all loved it. You know what, one thing I’m proud about really is that we succeeded to fund the movie from Palestinians, in spite of their political ideas. Some of them we don’t agree with, but still we succeeded to unite them in funding the movie. Secondly the movie is really a Palestinian product. The dolly man who fixed the lights was not Palestinian but the decision-makers in this movie, the director, producer, line producer, the production manager, director of photography, cameraman, production designer, location manager, editor, all of these are Palestinian. This is the first time that you succeed to get all of the money from Palestinians and all the decision-makers in the film to be Palestinian. I’m very proud of that. The third thing is that when I show the movie to all Palestinians with completely different ideas about politics, from super-left to super-right, they like the movie, it united them. We smuggled the movie to people in jail and showed it to people from the Palestinian Authority – they all loved it.
Q: Well the film has a very positive message. It shows division not working and you don’t hear that so often. Normally the conflict is discussed in such pessimistic terms, but it depends from where you’re looking, and what comes across from this is actually something very different.
A: It’s funny, Palestinians find a very positive message but Westerners find a very negative message. They come out saying there is no way out, but the people who live under occupation know exactly what the situation is. For them it’s a positive message. The people who don’t know, they feel very bad.
Q: I think it’s because there is an obsession with creating a Palestinian state, which isn’t going to render justice. People won’t be able to live with much freedom in this state and that’s the problem, people are stuck in this framework of thinking.
A: Exactly. They are stuck in their ideas about how they want to solve this. And there are those in the West who want to think that there is a way Palestinians can live with occupation. Israel’s job is to occupy and it’s impossible that it will accept people under occupation as neighbours, you can’t… I don’t believe in solving 100 per cent but you can move forward to a better situation; the only step forward to a better situation rationally is when you say the state can’t be exclusive for any religion, race or colour. Then you can go forward.
Q: There is an irony that the two Intifadas have created division where there wasn’t before. People often complain that they used to be able to drive to Yafa or Akka, but can’t now, and that’s because of having tried to fight back during the Intifadas. Or are these stages that are inevitable in such a conflict?
A: Sure. There is a sentence in Omar that says if you decide to fight for freedom you have to pay a price, and it’s your own choice, don’t try and complain, this is the choice you make… If you want to fight for your freedom the price will be high and it will be 10, or 20 years and it will be a lot of suffering. Getting it is not like one attempt… Especially with the state of Israel, it’s not like you try twice or fail, and that’s it. You try a second or third time, you learn from your mistakes and you continue.