Omar, film review: Hany Abu-Assad's Oscar-nominated thriller is shot from the heart


(15) Hany Abu-Assad, 96 mins. Starring: Adam Bakri, Leem Lubany, Iyad Hoorani, Samer Bisharat

Hany Abu-Assad's Oscar-nominated Omar has an intensity that many Cold War spy films lack. It is an embroiled story of spy craft and betrayal but this time, the setting isn't Berlin or George Smiley's London.

The film unfolds in the present day, in the heart of occupied Palestine. Abu-Assad's screenplay expertly interweaves personal and political elements. This is at once a coming-of-age drama, a romance and a thriller that combines multiple reversals and plot twists with chases and action sequences. There is also a documentary-like aspect to its portrayal of a divided and occupied Palestine in which the lines between everyday family life and political struggle have long since become blurred.

Abu-Assad doesn't skimp on showing the brutality of the Israeli military but many of the most shocking acts of violence here are perpetrated by the Palestinians.

Omar (Adam Bakri) is first seen scaling the "isolation wall" that was ostensibly built to protect Israelis from Palestinian "terrorists". He is young and athletic. The reason he is climbing the wall as surveillance bullets whistle round him is simply to visit his friend Tarek (Eyad Horuani), whose beautiful younger sister Nadia (Leem Lubany) he is courting.

It is typical of Abu-Assad's approach that Omar's acrobatics, which we suspect will be the prelude to a bombing or an assassination, end up with nothing more sinister than the protagonist meeting his friends. Amjad (Samer Bisharat), his rival for Nadia's affections, does his best Marlon Brando impersonation. He, Tarek and Omar sit around and shoot the breeze as if they're Palestinian equivalents to the carefree young bucks on the verge of adulthood in Barry Levinson's Diner.

Secret tryst: Omar (Adam Bakri) scales the Secret tryst: Omar (Adam Bakri) scales the "isolation wall" to visit his friend's younger sister Nadia (Leem Lubany)
Of course, there is nothing ordinary about their lives. We see Omar, a baker by trade, harassed and humiliated by Israeli soldiers. He and his friends have no freedom of movement. Bristling against the restrictions placed on them, they have become "freedom fighters." When they are involved in an act of violence against the Israelis, the retribution is swift. "No way we will let a soldier-killer go free" is the message from the Israelis. They are faced with torture and imprisonment. The only chance to save themselves is to turn informer.

Abu-Assad, who was also Oscar nominated for his 2005 film Paradise Now, a tragicomic account of a suicide bombing, has a flair for action. The chase sequences here are reminiscent of those in Julien Duvivier's Pépé Le Moko (1937), in which Jean Gabin's criminal on the run flees through the labyrinthine alleyways of the casbah with the cops behind him. We see Omar leaping across buildings, hurtling down stairways and trying to blend into crowds as the Israeli security forces come after him.

Such rip-roaring moments sit a little uncomfortably next to the scenes in which prisoners are being tortured and blackmailed. Abu-Assad, though, is always ready to confound audience expectations. One of the most sympathetic characters is Agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter), the Israeli security agent who tries to manipulate the Palestinians and turn them against one another. There is one telling and very poignant scene in which this seemingly shadowy and sinister figure calls his mother to ask her to pick up his child. He is at work "and stuck in the middle of the fucking West Bank", which makes school pick-up a challenge. A more conventional film would simply show Rami as the villain. Instead, Abu-Assad portrays him as a cultured and decent man. He has an obvious rapport with Omar who, in theory, is his fiercest antagonist.

Carefree: Amjad, Tarek and Omar sit around and shoot the breeze Carefree: Amjad, Tarek and Omar sit around and shoot the breeze
This is a film in which everyone turns out to be deceiving everyone else. "Never confess" is one of the sacred principles of the freedom fighters but, we soon discover, there are degrees of treachery. Subterfuge and stealth are a necessary part of everyday existence. The deception extends into the most intimate parts of the characters' privates lives. When Omar wants to see Nadia, he often has to hide in the shadows. Lovers aren't honest. Childhood friends keep secrets from one another or spy on each other. The paranoia mounts. Everyone knows there is an informer in their midst but it is well-nigh impossible to identify where the leaks are coming from. Inevitably, there is even a degree of self-deception as characters try to justify their own actions.

Between Paradise Now and Omar, Abu-Assad made a very badly received American thriller called The Courier (2012) starring Mickey Rourke. As he himself later acknowledged, everything about it, from its characters to its settings, was artificial. One reason that Omar is so effective is that it feels real. The director is portraying a world he knows from the inside. He shot the film partly in Palestine with a predominantly Palestinian crew and cast. They may not be experienced but they bring an obvious energy and commitment to the project. Adam Bakri, in particular, is impressive as the mercurial, conscience-torn hero.

Another of the film's strengths is the way it tones down the polemics. The situation its characters face is self-evident. The Palestinians are living under occupation. The Israeli soldiers are subject to the constant threat of violence. There is no need for speechifying to point out either side's predicament. A simple shot of Omar clambering over the huge isolation wall visit his girlfriend is more eloquent than any monologue in expressing the character's yearning and desperation.

Some of the sudden lurches in tone in Omar are disconcerting. The film combines gentle comedy and moments of lyricism with scenes of torture and violence. Such shifts are intentional. Abu-Assad is simply reflecting the ever-changing nature of his characters' daily lives in a fraught and strange environment in which betrayal has become endemic.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test