Omar, which some call the first Palestinian-made feature film, is a rich film that offers plenty of room for interpretation. The interpretation I’ve heard most recently is that it’s about a Palestinian spy working for an Israeli handler. That interpretation seems to always be paired with the description of an Israeli film called Bethlehem that was said to have the same premise.
But Omar doesn’t fit that description very well. Yes, the title character is a Palestinian, and after being arrested on suspicion of being an accessory to murder, he is offered a deal to spy for Israeli security. But it’s never clear where Omar ‘s loyalties lie — whether he is actually a spy or just a young man buying some time. Actually, we have a strong idea that his loyalties lie with his Palestinian friends. But the Israelis have put him in a position where instead of choosing political sides, he must choose a personal side — between his love and his best friend.
Far from being a film about a spy and his handler, Omar — at least for much of its running time — looks like (yet) another Israeli/Palestinian variation on Romeo and Juliet. Adam Bakri makes a handsome Romeo/Omar. We first meet him as he nimbly scales the 30-foot concrete wall surrounding the West Bank. Omar and his friends talk of taking the Galandia Wall or the El Ram Wall as though they were discussing which freeway had less traffic. He hops the wall to visit his Juliet (Leem Lubany as Nadia). Actually he’s there to see her brother Tarek (an intense Iyad Hoorani) and their friend Amjad (Samer Bisharat), the least imposing of the three. But if he catches a smile from Nadia while visiting, all the better.
There is an early scene where Omar is humiliated by Israeli security forces, stopped for Walking While Arab. Granted, he had just illegally scaled the insulting wall, but we sympathize nevertheless. Later, Omar and his friends Tarek and Amjad go out at night to kill Israeli soldiers. Using their high-powered rifle, they choose a target without body armor and kill him from afar. Amjad pulls the trigger, but they are all in it together. After that, Omar is arrested, tortured, and questioned, eventually by Agent Rami (Waleed F. Zuaiter) who is closer to “good cop” than “bad cop,” and who offers him the choice between immediate jail or turning in his friend Tarek.
There is plenty of room for personal paranoia among Omar and his friends. Why was Omar picked up? Did Amjad or Tarek turn him in? Why was he released so quickly? Did he talk? Can he still be trusted? Much of the film has to do with Omar’s internal tension as he tries to please the Israeli handler without betraying any of his friends.
Omar’s love for Nadia is little more than a plot device. I wish there had been more chemistry, not only to make the Romeo-and-Juliet angle stronger, but because so much of Omar’s dilemma hinges on us believing that his sense of romantic love is as strong as his sense of political justice. I found the political message to be much stronger, and so the dilemma seemed less painful and more superficial to me.
But the biggest problem for me is that Omar changes everything not only in its last scene, but even in its last shot — even in the soundtrack that resonates after the film has cut to black. The finale is thought-provoking. I wanted to sit in my seat through the credits to ponder the meaning of the last revelation, but it was difficult to do amid the chaos of a full audience getting up to go. Also, the final scene fixes everything that had gone before into a certain perspective. It takes away the subtlety multpile views that were suggested before, and frames everything in a certain light. Frankly it made me think less of the film because it seemed to call attention to its own cleverness. I’d rather have left the theater with an emotional mess than an intellectually tidy punctuation mark.
That’s not to say that Omar is a bad film. On the contrary, it’s a tense, eye-opening, and thought-provoking film. But I think I’d have liked it even better if it had worried less about plot and more about the ambiguity and strained relationships of life in an occupied land.