Right now, maybe even more than usual, there’s a horrible tragedy going on in the world. It’s painful to dwell on, but I can’t ignore it. I feel with every cell in my body that what Israeli soldiers and American weapons are doing to human beings in Gaza right now is unjustifiable in any context, with any history. But I also know that nothing I do or write can change anything about it. And I’m not trying to start a debate. That doesn’t help anybody. So I can only try to keep doing what I do in a way I feel is constructive.

What I do is write about movies, and one thing I love about movies is the way they can connect us to other people, other places, show us the world through the eyes of others, make us feel things maybe we wouldn’t have otherwise, to understand the world in a different way. So I thought I should see a movie from Palestine. I didn’t know anybody to ask about the subject, so I just looked at the small Palestine section at Scarecrow Video and OMAR (2013) was the one I found that looked most interesting. I don’t remember ever hearing of it, but I had to have when it was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. (Italy’s THE GREAT BEAUTY won that year. I didn’t see that either.)

Omar (Adam Bakri, OFFICIAL SECRETS) is a young man who lives in Palestine, working at a small bakery. I couldn’t tell you exactly which part he lives in, because I think the movie kind of assumes you’re more familiar with the region than I am, and doesn’t try to overexplain everything. But that’s fine, that’s how I prefer movies to be.

Part of Omar’s daily life involves waiting until the coast is clear and climbing a rope over the West Bank barrier. Usually he gets shot at. If it was me I’m not sure if I could even make it over, regardless of snipers. But that’s what he has to do to go see his friends and the girl he likes. That’s just life. Somebody built a fuckin wall there.

So he climbs over, he knows how to do it, usually he doesn’t have much trouble. We do see one time when some soldiers stop him later, taunt him and humiliate him until he gets mad and charges at them so they can bash his nose in. The same type of shit you see from cops sometimes, or any type of bullies. A universal archetype of assholes that bridges all cultures.

Omar visits his childhood buddies Tarek (Eyad Hourani, THE IDOL) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat, Flight 422). Tarek is very serious and intimidating, they’re both a little afraid of him, and they have to pressure him just to get him to tell a joke. Amjad is shorter than the other two, more self-deprecating, seems like their little brother. But he’s funny and he plays guitar.

Tarek has a younger sister named Nadia (Leem Lubany, ROCK THE KASBAH, The Old Man), who the other two are totally smitten with. She and Omar actually plan to get married, but they haven’t told anyone they’re even together, and have to sneak around, passing notes. I try not to judge religious stuff but I just can’t get with this bullshit, especially Tarek’s possessiveness of his sister. Everyone seems to just accept that Omar will have to get Tarek’s permission to marry his sister, and he’s terrified to ask. So stupid.

There’s another thing the characters do here that I don’t agree with. The three guys have been practicing with guns, and have a plan to shoot a soldier. They stake out this checkpoint, and Tarek makes Amjad pick someone through the scope and shoot. That’s it, a success, they run off.

But somehow somebody must’ve snitched. One day some cops chase them, and they catch Omar. In prison he minds his own business, ignores people who try to befriend him, only talks to the ant crawling around in his cell. (He tells him they’ll get out soon.) A guy we’ll later learn is named Rami (Waleed Zuaiter, THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS, SEX AND THE CITY 2, LONDON HAS FALLEN) sits down with him at lunch, says he’s from such-and-such brigade, tries to ask him about himself, compliments him for not answering. He warns not to talk to people, says they’ll tell him their secrets, try to get him to tell his, and record them. Then they’ll force him to be a collaborator for life. Never be a collaborator, he says. And don’t confess anything.

All Omar says to the guy is “I’ll never confess.” But this is a problem because Rami is actually an undercover agent, recorded that and considers it a confession. They let Omar see a lawyer, who tells him since they follow military law here that’s enough to put him away for 90 years, and nothing can be done about it until the occupation ends. So, good luck.

No, this movie doesn’t justify what they did, but it does try to show where it comes from. To me at times it feels like an American gangster movie – watching how the organization meets in secret, trying not to be followed, the pressure and guilt of turning on each other, the search for a rat, all that. But gangs are different, they’re just going against the system because it’s a way to make money. And yeah, because of macho brotherhood shit. There’s some of that here too. But there’s no money to be made, they really consider themselves freedom fighters.

You can also see why Rami would see himself as the good guy. You eventually get to see him in a candid moment, just talking to his wife on the phone, dealing with normal stuff. Omar really was an accessory to a murder, and Rami is using him to get to the guy who did it. That makes sense.

But it’s the same as my country’s fucking War On Terror. If you’re the good guys, then why did you put a fuckin bag over his head when you arrested him? Why do you keep stringing him up naked and beating him? Why do you lock him in a dirty concrete room with no lights or windows? Why do you change the rules so you can get away with anything and nobody else ever has any recourse? Why did you build a fucking wall!? You really believe that you are in the right, but also have no choice but to use dirty tricks all the time, and overwhelming violence against people who have no power, no resources, but still won’t give up their homes to you, after years of this, after generations of this? That’s what you tell yourself, and yourself actually buys it?

Anyway, Omar did what he did, now he’s stuck. Rami’s telling him the opposite of what he said when he was undercover. Do be a collaborator. It’s your only choice. He threatens Omar’s family, implies he knows about Nadia, that he could do something to her. Says if we let you out and you go find Tarek for us, then you can see her. Otherwise, never again. You’ll rot here forever.

So it’s about Omar taking that deal, trying to weigh what these people want out of him against what he’s willing to do. I don’t personally like Tarek, but it does seem scummy to betray him. Instead Omar immediately tells him what’s up and they make plans from there. But there are no good ways out of this one.

It strikes me how hopeless their plan is. They have all this preparation and secrecy to do this thing. They train, they steal a car, which they burn afterwards. And after Omar is caught Tarek has to go into hiding, they have to have clandestine meetings, find out who betrayed them. All this work for shooting one single guy. As soon as they do it, many more soldiers with many more guns fire at them, alarms go off, spotlights start to twirl. It’s like throwing a rock at the side of a battleship. Obviously they’re not delusional enough to think they’re going to defeat an army. They’re just trying to strick back at their oppressor. And after they’re dead or locked up, other people will try the same thing, some of them maybe even inspired by seeing them dead or locked up. You simply can’t stop that by oppressing them more. But oppressors don’t like to hear that.

This is a really good movie. A very involving look into this guy stuck in a situation with no answers. A tense thriller, as he’s freed from the prison but put into an unwinnable situation, in danger from the police, but also from his friends, when all he wants is to marry Nadia and get a little house. There are some really well done foot chases, almost like parkour as he weaves his way through the nooks and crannies of this complex space, over fences, through narrow alleys, over roofs, sometimes through houses and buildings where everybody gets what’s going on and guides him to the exit. The neighborhood is infused with the spirit of that guy that gave Reacher his hat in JACK REACHER. Stunt coordinator Hanna Jiryis later did stunts in ANGEL HAS FALLEN.

It also really works as a tragic romance, these two attractive and charming actors – both in their first movie – seeming so excited to be in each other’s company, the family and cultural pressures making the scene where they sneak one chaste kiss come across as steamy. They seem meant for each other, until various realities and betrayals get in the way.

OMAR also fulfilled my purposes of showing how much we have in common around the world. The way movies and the news work, we westerners mostly see Arabs boiled down to certain stereotypes. Even when they’re not shown as terrorists, or the crying victims of war atrocities, they almost always seem like others. They’re in landscapes so different from ours, they dress different, speak different languages. At best we see them selling kebabs or something in an outdoor market. We don’t tend to see the parts of their lives that overlap most directly with ours.

But OMAR makes time for its characters to joke around, to smile, to laugh. Nadia makes Amjad do his Marlon Brando impression, and jokes about having a crush on Brad Pitt. Omar’s little sister at the dinner table complains about the decisions of some pro sports team she follows. Omar sometimes dresses cool, too. He tries on a suit, and it looks good on him. He has a blue leather jacket a Tom Cruise character could wear, but unfortunately he has to ditch that while being chased by cops.

There’s one scene where Omar and Rami seem kind of friendly for a moment. You could even say they bond for a second, unless you think it’s a scheme on the part of one or the other. Omar is in Rami’s office and hears him talk to his wife and then his mother on the phone. His wife asks him to run some errand and he says “How do you expect me to handle it? I’m not Spider-Man.” After realizing he speaks Hebrew, Omar compliments Rami’s Arabic, admitting he believed he was an Arab.

“How is your Hebrew?” Rami asks.

“I understood two words: ‘Mom’ and ‘Spider-Man’,” he says. It’s kinda beautiful. We all had moms and we all know Spider-Man. We’re not that different from each other.

Lead actor Bakri is the son of Mohammad Bakri, an Israeli-born Palestinian actor (he was in DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR and AMERICAN ASSASSIN!) and director of the documentary JENIN, JENIN (2002), which interviews survivors of an attack on a Palestinian refugee camp. It was called a lie by Israeli media and banned for “not showing both sides” until the Israeli Supreme Court overturned that ban. But then in 2016 an Israeli army reserve officer sued for defamation and got it banned again.

Zuaiter (the guy who plays Rami) is of Palestinian descent also, but he’s American. He also produced OMAR. Recently he was in the second season of Gangs of London.

Director Hany Abu-Assad was born in Nazareth, and immigrated to the Netherlands when he was 20, but has since returned to Nazareth and made most of his movies about life under occupation. I think his most famous one is PARADISE NOW (2005), which was also nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, and won the Golden Globe. It sounds related, but more upsetting than this, because it’s about two Palestinian men preparing to do a suicide attack.

Here’s a real we’re-all-the-same fact that surprised me, though: the movie Abu-Assad directed between PARADISE NOW and OMAR, these two heavy-duty award-winning dramas about the Israel-Palestine conflict, was the DTV action movie THE COURIER (2012) starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan. So I have no choice but to review that next. He also did THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US, that 2017 movie where Idris Elba and Kate Winslet are stranded on a mountain after a plane crash. I remember the trailers for that. I’m gonna have to see that too. Let’s do this. Let’s bring the world together through movies.



This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 14th, 2024 at 10:49 am and is filed under Reviews, Drama, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

8 Responses to “Omar”

  1. Two Palestinian films I cannot recommend highly enough, both documentaries… GHOST HUNTING (Raed Andoni) follows a group of former prisoners who rebuild their cells from memory in a warehouse, and play out scenes based on their experiences as a way of working through their trauma and owning it. A tough watch at times but also has some very funny moments. And A WORLD NOT OURS (Mahdi Fleifel) is a CITY OF GOD-type chronicle of a refugee camp in Lebanon, shot over decades by the director who grew up there, left and went back to visit and check in with his pals.

  2. Also, apologies if this isn’t the place, but if anyone does want to make a difference but isn’t sure how, here are some things most people can do which will have a real impact:

    1. Buy an eSIM and send it to the team at gazaesims dot com. eSIMs allow people to communicate within Gaza and with the outside world even when the telecoms are shut down. Journalists use them to get stories out. People use them to call friends and family, and to call for help. eSIMs have literally saved lives. It’s easy, quick and relatively cheap to send one, and that website has a guide to walk you through it.

    2. Check out the BDS movement. They have a website with certain products/services to avoid. It might seem like nothing to stop going to Starbucks or McDonalds, but all these small actions add up – remember BDS played a big part in ending apartheid in South Africa.

    3. And instead of giving those companies your money, give it to folks like wearthepeace dot com instead and get yourself a cool watermelon sweater or beanie. Or donate directly to UNWRA or Care for Gaza.

    4. Join local direct action groups – or at the very least, if you have no time or can’t risk arrest, share and amplify their voices on social media. If you are able to take direct action though, this is cards-on-the-table time. If you work in an arms or tech company who’s sending weapons over there, now’s the time to leak documents and down tools. If you don’t, but there’s an arms company in your area, shut it down. It only takes two people to blockade one of these places for a day. With a group of sixty, you can keep it going for a month and put them out of business.

    5. Follow Palestinian journalists, commentators and artists on social media, and amplify their voices. It’s not an accident that 120+ journalists and many academics have been murdered since October, and every university in Gaza destroyed. An entire cultural history is under immediate existential threat. Sharing stories, films, music, poetry, art and points of view is cultural preservation.

    6. I know it’s like screaming into the abyss, but do write to or call your elected representatives and tell them how angry you are. Ask them to call for a ceasefire, release a statement, fly a Palestinian flag, speak at a demo, whatever. Make it clear that it’s a voting issue for you. They’ll ignore a letter, they’ll ignore a pile of letters, but eventually when the pile gets big enough they will have to take notice.

    What we can do as individuals is limited. But collective action works. Join the choir.

  3. Beautiful writing, Mr. Vern. This is the sort of writing that brings people together.

    My mood is admittedly darkened by the discussion of the underhanded methods of “law enforcement” that America uses. As much as we have protested and shined a light on that, I still think the mainstream attitude towards American force is sickeningly celebratory.

    There used to be a shared misconception of “winning” in America, built on defeating negative ideals and bringing “bad guys” to justice. A dumb idea, sure, but an illusion we could all share. Now, I do think the dominant narrative is the brutality and shadiness you described as normal, as “awesome” – the concept of winning is not about triumph, but about the utter deprivation and degradation of our perceived enemies. “Cheating” (violating law and morals) in order to reduce opposition to nothing is something celebrated, valorized. I hate this.

  4. Thank you deepfriednoir – I did not know about the esim programme; it’s really easy to do (I’ve just done it from the UK)

  5. Wow, didn’ t realizee this site had become home to terrorist recruitment. I’ ll move along then…

  6. Excellent piece, Vern, I’ll definitely check this and THE COURIER out. Palestinian movies are definitely a blind spot for me – all I’ve really ever seen are a bunch of documentaries, most of which are great but obviously not always much fun. The only other guy I know about is Elia Suleiman, who was a darling of the Film Comment crowd back in the ‘00s. I was living out in the woods at the time, so I’ve never gotten around to him.

    And thanks for the tips, Deepfriednoir. All I’ve been able to do since this all got going is attend a few demos, which can be invigorating but generally don’t have much practical impact. I’ll definitely be kicking some bucks to the eSIM thing.

  7. I HIGHLY recommend Elia Suleiman’s work, he’s fond of surrealistic comedic tableaus. Sort of Roy Andersson mixed with Jacques Tati.

    @Shoot McKay, I kinda think that comment was out of line. There were no terrorist activities mentioned on this page at all. It’s pretty apolitical to advocate that everyone should have a voice. I contributed to that esims thing because I think everyone deserves a voice, particularly in the midst of violence. A more complex reading of that is irrelevant to the idea that everyone’s voice should be amplified when bloodshed occurs, particularly those lacking resources. Maybe just temper the rhetoric next time.

  8. Thank you for speaking out on Gaza, Vern. It takes a lot of courage, I imagine. The silence in US media is deafening. Jon Stewart did a small piece on his return to the Daily Show, I saw a clip of it embedded on Twitter, but I couldn’t find it in the clips on YouTube. It seems like the fabric keeping some semblance of humanity together in ‘Western’ culture is disintegrating before our eyes, and it is still so easy to be in denial or look away.

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