Review By: Bill Graham
OMAR may not change your mind on the Palestine/Israeli conflict that continues to endure, but it will likely give you something interesting to ponder none the less. Writer/director Hany Abu-Assad crafts the film around one young boy, Omar (Adam Bakri), and how he and two friends become the center of both the struggle and why it continues to this day. Omar is a young baker in modern day Palestine that continually climbs up and over the 25 foot separation wall between the Jewish West Bank and various towns. He apparently has no right to climb the wall, but can be on either side legally. The wall becomes a border to cross and yet it is also simply a shortcut, saving the time and hassle of going through the checkpoints which would likely double his time to walk. During the opening scene, we see him shot at arbitrarily before he drops down to the other side. Apparently they mean business. Yet a rope with climbing knots is constantly available from either side. It’s as if the Israelis are daring people to climb it, which Omar does often throughout the film and with particular ease.
But things start to change when Omar and his two childhood friends, Tarek (Iyad Hoorani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat), decide to fight for the freedom of their land and rights. You can see them as freedom fighters or terrorists, but either way the oppression can be felt. But there’s also lightheartedness at the center of Omar that keeps the film from falling too far down the “message film” hole. Romance, and even a love triangle, is part of the pull. Tarek, as often happens with childhood friends, happens to have a younger sister that has bloomed into an attractive woman named Nadia (Leem Lubany) that has caught the eye of Omar. Yet nothing in Omar’s life can be so easy. In order to visit her, he scales the wall. But he also has to compete for her heart with Amjad. On the surface it seems a shoe-in. Nadia and Omar have been passing love notes and stories back and forth for a while, and she flirts with her eyes continually. However, in the chivalrous world of Palestinian courting, not much moves beyond this. At one point they kiss, a close-mouthed, lingering act that feels against all of their upbringing. All of this is to say, Amjad isn’t without his own charms even if Omar is the better looking of the two. One has to remind oneself that the film takes place mainly from Omar’s perspective. If he is not aware of things, neither is the audience.
Beyond the love story, though, is the rebellion that Omar and his friends so desperately want to take part in. Together they decide that in order to help they must take action. They don’t work for a larger group. Instead they train in the woods, shooting an old microwave as target practice. One night, they enact their plan and shoot an Israeli guard in the middle of a military compound. Somehow, some way, the group thinks this helps. Then the chase becomes real. A relative newcomer, Bakri is called upon to do quite a bit in the role. We see him sprinting down corridors, scaling walls, and tight-rope walking along narrow ledges in constant evasion of the Israeli troops that either want to pester him and his friends or question them about serious crimes. These moments are intense and incredibly fun to observe. He has been doing this evasion thing for quite a while and the camera work here is exceptional, managing to give chase without making us dizzy or lose focus.
But all of this is for not shortly after the shooting of the guard. The trio makes a break for it when undercover agents show up to their meeting place/café and Omar is caught. Put between a rock and a hard place by Agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter), he is tasked with giving up the leader of his group, Tarek, within a month in exchange for freedom. As has been established, though, life isn’t so easy. Giving up his childhood friend isn’t going to work, but he doesn’t have a lot of options either. As the narrative unfolds we come to see the complexities of Omar’s world. Juggling the desire for freedom, starting a family, and making a living all within the confines of his world becomes an arduous task. Indeed, this world on the screen isn’t far from reality. Ultimately, it’s the ingredients that make such a fine film. Omar is part romance, part lighthearted observation of reality, and part dramatic terrorist/freedom fighter narrative and is all the better for it.