Directed by Hany Abu-Assad
The chronic, seemingly unsolvable Israeli/Palestinian conflict provides the perfect backdrop for narrative storytelling, as all the pieces are in place for a tense, personalized historical rendering. In fact, two other films this year have already addressed the issue: The Attack, from Lebanese director Ziad Douerir, and Zaytoun, from Israeli director Eran Riklis; each look at the personal toll caused by war. Inherently polemical discourse rarely makes much of an impact on the opposing side, and while bridge-gapping is sometime present in films dealing with this Middle Eastern crisis, it’s understandable when a more hardened approach is taken. Such is the case with Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar, a well-made Palestinian film that presents the experience with little interest in broaching peaceful dialogue.
A concrete Separation Wall divides the occupied West Bank town where Omar (Adam Bakri) lives. This barrier, both physical and metaphorical, keeps him from seeing his childhood friends Amjad (Samer Bisharat) and Tarek (Eyad Hourani), and his love interest Nadia (Leem Lubany), Tarek’s sister. Familial customs and respect for Tarek keep Nadia and Omar’s relationship under wraps, even though the two plan to eventually marry and have a family. After narrowly avoiding bullets and capture multiple times as he scales the wall, Omar and his two friends decide that the occupation has done enough damage and that the time has come to take things into their own hands. Omar and Tarek plan a late night trip to kill one of the local Israeli military officers, with Amjad joining and eventually carrying out the fatalistic plan. Undercover cops eventually capture Omar as his friends safely flee, with the real tension just beginning.
Abu-Assad employs various genre maneuvers in his attempt to tell the story thrillingly, and it works to an extent, until it seems he’s invested in copying the styles he loves in sacrifice of succinctly weave the tale. In prison, Omar is cajoled into becoming a double-agent for a powerful Israeli agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter). This sets off an impossibly clunky exchange of secret identities, mixed motives, and ambiguous reasoning from all parties involved. In the film’s second half, the noir/thriller tone goes from being an exciting injection of energy into a bit of a drudge. The pace is fast and the action is snappy, but the focus on the story feels somewhat ancillary.
That fleetness, however well done, is also what makes the film a bit too slick in the end. Omar’s story is emotionally resonant, but the film plays out more like a Bourne-style espionage thriller rather than a gripping wartime drama. His relationship with Nadia has its ups and downs, some predicted and others surprising, but you never get the feeling like these are lived-in characters. Ultimately, Abu-Assad’s interest in showing the Palestinian plight seems to work to his disadvantage because there isn’t enough emphasis placed on the most interesting aspects of the story.
– John Oursler
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5th to 15th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official site.